According to the World Economic Forum (2020), leadership and social influence are among the top 15 skills needed for 2025. It is necessary that job seekers, employees pursuing a promotion, and growing leaders find their voice, speak up, and tell their stories to build skills and differentiate themselves in the workplace. Learning to speak up can be pivotal for clients to move up in their careers, but it can be challenging when they feel stifled or stuck.
Clients who have difficulty speaking up and asserting themselves in the workplace may be overlooked by their managers and company leadership. They may feel invisible or experience a loss of their power and voice. They may in fact be experiencing “quiet firing.” In quiet firing, an employer “takes actions that make an employee’s job unpleasant or unrewarding to get them to leave on their own terms” (Robinson, 2022, para. 2). It may start with small actions such as being left out of a meeting or passed over for desirable assignments that are offered to others, and it can expand to being denied raises and promotions.
Identifying Barriers to Speaking Up
The first step to helping clients improve their ability to speak up is to identify the barriers that stand in their way, some of which may be self-limiting beliefs. There are numerous reasons why a client may be hesitant or fearful to speak up, including:
Career practitioners can increase clients’ self-awareness around those barriers by encouraging them to identify and describe their fear and concerns. Practitioners can help clients visualize, personify, and desensitize their fear by having them answer these questions:
Practitioners can also encourage clients to practice emotional regulation. For instance, they can help clients identify when their fears are spinning ANTs – Automatic Negative Thoughts – and then suggest that they mindfully replace each ANT with a pre-planned PAT – Positive Alternative Thought. For example, the ANT “I can’t speak up in meetings. I suck at it,” can be transformed into the PAT, “I can’t speak up as confidently as I would like, but I am still learning.”
Determining When and How to Speak Up
Clients can practice or refine their speaking up skills in a variety of scenarios, including when they notice others’ behaviors, actions, or words cause concern, or when they experience frustration that gets in the way of collaboration or teamwork.
Clients can use the following script (Healy, 2019), adapted from Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships (Rosenberg, 2015) to practice speaking up and communicating their feelings and needs in the workplace.
1. When (or I notice) _______ (describe action without using the word “you” in order to avoid blaming),
2. I feel _______ (share feeling),
3. because I have a need for _______ (state need).
4. Would you consider or would you be willing to _______? (Make a request, not a demand.)
An essential element of speaking up includes intentionality, which the Bates Executive Presence Index defines as “clarifying direction and keeping actions aligned and on track, without stifling dissent or neglecting need to adjust course” (Bates Communications, n.d., p. 2). Equally important is assertiveness, which Bates defines as “speaking up, valuing constructive conflict, and raising issues directly without shutting others down” (Bates Communications, n.d., p. 2). Incorporating these elements along with the script can help clients increase their ability and confidence in using their voice.
Career practitioners can help clients prepare, rehearse, and plan to use their voice so they will be ready when situations arise. Opportunities to practice speaking up can happen at work and at home. They can be private and personal or pivotal and public – from one-on-one meetings and presentations to senior leaders, to asserting themselves with friends and family. .
Challenge clients to find ways to assert their voice in everyday situations and ask them to notice the smallest wins and tiniest calibrations. Each small step will take them in the direction they want to go. Clients who usually play it safe in their career by staying less visible may need encouragement to take risks, make decisive actions, and speak up in order to get to the next level. This includes bringing their voice forward during meetings, being willing to share ideas even when they are not fully vetted or formulated, and being less deferential when they have a difference of opinion.
Career practitioners can coach clients to observe how their company’s leaders use their voices, present opposing opinions, and handle conflict. Considerations may include:
For clients to move ahead in their careers, be viewed as someone who contributes to their team and company, and avoid possible quiet firing, speaking up is a necessary skill. To quote from French fashion designer and businesswoman Coco Chanel (1883-1971), “The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”
Bates Communications. (n.d.). Bates ExPI Executive Presence Index. https://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/25382/Bates%20ExPI%20Assessment%20and%20Process%20Overview.pdf?__hstc=50424118.6b24c77b66c2f4961f2555bb876fd007.1675721786962.1675721786962.1675721786962.1&__hssc=50424118.9.1675721786962
Healy, L. (2019). Enjoy improved relationships by using nonviolent communication, Part VIII. Syncopated Mama blog. Retrieved February 6, 2023.
Robinson, B. (2022, October). 6 signs that “quiet firing” could be trending in your workplace. Forbes.com. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bryanrobinson/2022/10/01/6-signs-that-quiet-firing-could-be-trending-in-your-workplace/?sh=1ac327dd4063
Rosenberg, M. (2015). Nonviolent communication: A language of life: Life-changing tools for healthy relationships. PuddleDancer Press.
World Economic Forum. (2020, October). The future of jobs report 2020. https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Future_of_Jobs_2020.pdf
Barb Girson, PCC, RCC™, is CEO/president of Beyond Sales Tactics, LLC, a professional skill development company that helps “companies, teams, and entrepreneurs gain confidence, get into action, and grow™" through custom training, workshops, and executive coaching. She is a Registered Corporate Coach™ and is certified in Conversational Intelligence® and in NeuroZone, which develops and advances high-performing leaders and teams. Barb coaches and speaks on communication skills, including speaking up and gaining influence, as well as executive/leadership skills and career development. She has been featured in national media outlets including USA Today and CBS This Morning. Barb can be reached at BarbGirson@gmail.com, linkedin.com/in/barbgirson, or https://beyondsalestactics.com.
Lanie Damon on Friday 03/03/2023 at 09:31 AM
Thank you, Barb Girson. I would love to hear what else you include in managing up. Speaking up is a great step and helps build a platform for clients. What other suggestions and behaviors have you coached?
Barb Girson, author on Saturday 03/04/2023 at 03:31 PM
Thanks to Lanie and Larry for your comments. It is nice to hear from readers.
Karol I. Taylor on Monday 03/20/2023 at 02:46 PM
I've found that boundary setting is essential in the workplace and can be done without the angst of conversation. Research shows that it takes 20 minutes to get back to the same level of concentration as when interrupted by a telephone call. Unless that call is YOUR emergency, there is no need to answer it right away. Returning the call in an hour or two, after your task is complete, is perfectly fine. When asked a question during a meeting and if you are not confident in your response, it is also perfectly fine to say I'll research that and get back to you. You don't have to have all the answers all the time. We need to learn to give ourselves grace to be human, and we need to give that gift to others as well.
Larry Robbin on Thursday 03/02/2023 at 12:00 AM
Thanks for the good article. I would add to the reasons people do not speak up is when someone is a trauma survivor. As a multiple trauma survivor myself I can testify to the fact about how that experience makes it difficult to speak up. I would also add cultural factors to the list. Speaking up is not considered appropriate in some cultures. As someone who has been a private sector consultant for over 50 years, I also think that people have to be prepared for retaliation and the possibility of being fired over speaking up. Unfortunately speaking up is often seen as an act of insubordination and people have to be prepared to think about the consequences of doing it.