Often women will say to me ‘I don’t want to speak up because I’m worried about someone disagreeing with me, or of causing an argument, or about upsetting people’. I completely understand that. I was reminded recently of just how much courage you need to speak up and share your truth, especially when you know the person listening might not want to hear what you have to say.
As a 1:1 coach for many years, I had to get comfortable with gently holding a mirror to clients so they could see things about themselves they didn’t want to see.
I’m a pretty upfront sort of person. I like to know where I stand with people and I really dislike the feeling that someone is manipulating me to get the outcome they want (especially when they’re manipulating me in the nicest possible way. I REALLY hate that. Give me a straight shooter every day of the week).
So that’s my coaching and teaching style. I speak plainly. Not unkindly and not without compassion, but as cleanly as possible so people don’t have to guess at my meaning.
And still, there have been times when I’ve felt anxious about saying things I know must be said because I’ve seen what people do when they’re put in a position to see an uncomfortable truth about themselves. Some people have the courage to sit and face it. Many do not. Those people do one of two things; they either withdraw or attack.
Withdrawal is a difficult one for a coach because you have to really focus on getting them to feel safe with you after they’ve been scared off, and then you have to hold the mirror up. Again.
Attack is just plain awful. Whilst they might be verbal, physical, or energetic, in a coaching session attacks are usually verbal or energetic. Verbal attacks will generally be muted, because you’re in a setting that encourages that, and so they come across in a passive aggressive manner (while they’re energetically knocking you off your feet at the same time). In either situation, if they continue to refuse to look, the ego will inevitably encourage them to create all sorts of crazy stories about you. Blaming you, because it’s easier than facing themselves.
So there’s a delicate balance you walk as a coach, teacher, healer, or mentor. It takes courage and delicacy and it’s all about shining a mirror without pushing the person away.
If you work 1:1 with people for long enough, you start to develop a sixth sense about when to push and when to hang back. Sometimes it can take an hour or more to really hold a person’s hand to the point where they’re willing to look. Sometimes it takes many sessions. Sometimes you know your job is to put their head right in the midst of really uncomfortable emotions and just wait.
The great thing about coaching though, is you have a contract with someone to do exactly that. That’s what you’re being paid for. So in theory, someone has already consented to you speaking up and reflecting back observations which might be uncomfortable, by virtue of scheduling a session with you in the first place.
The same goes for teaching programs. If I don’t articulate an insight or prompt a student to go deeper or reflect something back to them (albeit gently) that they seem reticent to see, then I’m not doing my job.
Even with this contractual agreement in place, in coaching settings it helps to hold a very clear intention for each session, each class, each live call. That becomes your guiding light. The boundaries within which decisions are made about speaking up or not.
For me, I’m here to support women to rise. To become more vocal, to be more visible. That’s both my obligation and my agenda and so if it serves a woman to rise, I speak up. If it doesn’t, I don’t.
In friendships though, things are less clear cut. You can never be too certain about whether a friend appreciates you speaking up or not. You’re not her coach and your agenda is likely first and foremost maintenance of the friendship. This will often mean swallowing your words rather than speaking up.
The problem with this, is that sometimes resentment builds from swallowing words. Greater levels of intimacy are not possible because we’re holding back. We’re not sharing our full selves. Agreeing when we really disagree. Not trusting the other person or the relationship with our deeper truths.
And so we exist in a space of being ‘somewhat connected’. Pleasantly engaged but nothing more. On the way to being mere fair-weather friends.
For a lot of relationships that’s probably fine. We don’t need to be deeply connected to everyone we know. We don’t need to share the fullness of ourselves with them. But with the people we value most, we do. We need the courage to speak up. To share our truths. To disagree even when you know the other person won’t appreciate the disagreement.
For myself, when I know I’m about to disagree with someone, I check in first; is this clean? Is my expression clean?
Because nothing feels worse than lashing out at someone and feeling ashamed later about your poor behaviour. There’s invariably some level of shame or embarrassment – two emotions we’ll do almost anything to avoid – and it leads to further confusion because the point you were trying to make is lost amongst the other person’s response to your poor behaviour.
Often, the other person ends up feeling falsely superior because they managed to keep their emotions under control when you didn’t. They don’t end up examining the issue you had hoped they would and some level of distancing occurs between you and the other person. It’s the kind of situation which, if it drags on for long enough, can end up destroying a relationship.
So first and foremost I check in with my body; do I feel angry and just want to lash out? Or do I feel clear about why I need to say something?
If I feel clear, I’ll go ahead and speak even if I feel nervous. I know that the nerves arise from my concern about upsetting the other person (my inner good girl hates doing that) and I know that nervousness is not the same as spite or rage or resentment. So despite my nerves, I speak up. I speak because I must. I speak so that playing small and disregarding my thoughts doesn’t become a habit. I speak so that I become more and more comfortable with sharing my opinions.
After checking in my with body, I also check my intention. I ask; why am I speaking up here?
If it’s because I want to prove the other person wrong or teach them a lesson or I’m spoiling for a fight or I want to show them that they’re wrong and I’m right, then I stop. (Or I try to stop. This doesn’t always work. Sometimes I act anyway and it always ends up badly. I try to remember that before I act.)
I stop and I create a pause. If it’s an online or digital communication, often I can give it 24 hours before responding. If it’s in person, I take some deep breaths or go to the toilet or get myself a drink of water or go for a walk if that’s possible.
As an introvert, I need space. Space to think and to consult my inner world. To understand what’s going on and how best to respond.
If, after I’ve had time to reflect, I realise that I’m speaking up because I simply must, then I do speak.
I speak up for me.
If the other person hears it, great. If the other person rejects it, that’s OK too. Their response is not something I can control, nor would I seek to.
I speak up because I know the kind of person I want to be in my relationships and I know the kind of relationships I want to have.
I speak up out of respect for myself and out of respect for the other person (acting on the assumption that they’re an emotionally mature adult whose ego doesn’t need constant pandering).
I speak up because I’ve been gifted a voice and I don’t intend on wasting that gift.
I speak up because I matter.
And ultimately that’s why we must all speak up. Because we all matter. Because we’re here to explore the gift of self expression. Because we have opinions that must be shared with the world.
Sometimes those opinions will be very unpopular for a long time before humanity benefits from a person’s choice to speak up. Sometimes the choice to speak will be exactly the spark that was needed, at a specific point in time, to start a social movement.
Sometimes our choice to speak up breaks through a barrier that was keeping two people separate from one another, and is exactly the thing they needed to develop a far more precious relationship. And sometimes, just sometimes, it encourages someone to view things differently – to be open to another viewpoint – and very subtly the world expands.
We never know the power of our words. All we can know is what our intention is in speaking and whether we’re choosing, at any point in time, to be visible or not.