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The Fear to Speak Up

The fear to speak up
The fear to speak up

In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like to discuss the fear to speak up and reveal what drives it and how to overcome it.

First a quick update:

“Protecting your children from you!”
Parents often warn their children to be wary of the danger of strangers and yet the majority of emotional and psychological harm done to children is caused by the parents. Watch this interview where I reveal the three things that parents do that truly harm their children emotionally and psychologically. Click here.

Now, let’s talk about the fear to speak up – what drives it and how to overcome it.

Recently, protests have been staged in a number of US cities against Wall St and major corporations as people are beginning to stand up to corporations accusing them of a lack of responsibility and accountability. Interestingly, though, studies reveal that fear is a common element in modern working life; people are afraid to speak up in their job, particularly in large corporations.

In 2006, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and assistant professor at Smeal College of Business at Penn State University James Detert researched the reasons that employees are afraid to speak up. (“Everyday failures in organizational learning: Explaining the high threshold for speaking up at work.”)

Professor Edmondson said that an organization approached them “to better understand why some employees would speak up and others would instead withhold potentially valuable information.”

After extensive research, Professors Edmondson and Detert came to conclusions that are easily extracted from everyday relationships:

  1. Personality – people are afraid to speak up because of personality and individual traits
  2. Context – the fear is also driven or worsened by the job setting and the boss’ behavior

“…employees aren’t failing to provide ideas or input because they’ve “checked out” and just don’t care, but because of fear” says Professor Edmondson.

The term “speak up” implies that in our perception, we are speaking to someone higher than us, to a superior or to someone who wields some type of power over us.

Noel is married with two young children and is successful in his business but he complained to me of a sense of disillusionment, apathy and depression. When asking him what he truly wants, Noel said that amongst other things, he longs to move out of New York City and live in a quiet rural or less populated area. But he hasn’t spoken with his wife. Why?

“She can be very sensitive at times” he said.

‘So you have a fear of conflict, confrontation or rejection’ I replied.

When we feel that we don’t have a voice and when we hold back that voice, we become victims of fear. And as with Noel’s case, the fear is heightened by the wife – the fear of her response or reaction.

Joshua has a similar story.

Joshua had been married to Rose for five years before separating because of her infidelity. They are now trying to heal the relationship and get back together. But his wife’s job and her behavior are seriously affecting their marriage. Although, they don’t have children, Rose’s work takes her away from him at short notice and for long periods of time and involves giving her attention to other men. Any time that Joshua brings up the topic, Rose is quick to criticize him, pointing out to him that it is just a job, it pays well and he should stop complaining. (Joshua is also working.)

The challenge for Joshua is that he has refused to speak up, ask for what he wants and form an agreement that is mutually acceptable. Why?

Fear of conflict, confrontation or rejection.

Afraid that she might reject him, Joshua continues to feel weak, depressed, frustrated and angry. Joshua’s response here is avoidance and will ultimately destroy the love and relationship as it leads to resentment and bitterness.

‘When divorce comes around, you will, like everyone else who divorces, speak out your truth – not up but out!’ I said. ‘Don’t wait for that to happen. Stop seeking approval. Be respectful, make a plan and see if you are both willing to work towards the same goals. You might also have to accept that she is not willing to give you what you want and that the relationship might not be able to work.’

In both cases, Joshua and Noel, the men are afraid to speak because they do not have an open form of communication in their marriage, there is not an atmosphere where both partners feel safe to speak from their hearts and express their feelings and desires, and, they are afraid of the potential negative outcome – hearing something they don’t want.

We often overestimate or focus purely on the potential negative outcomes and not the positive possibilities. But we do also need to be practical and face the possibility that we may not be able to get what we want. And in that case, we need to consider which is more important – saying nothing and remaining angry, stuck and resentful or, speaking up and responding in a positive way to the bad news – even if that implies making new decisions about our life?

Joshua also has an introverted personality and this for him results in a fear to speak or to become the center of attention. Extroverted personalities, though, often speak up and out more openly than the introverts. If you grew up in a household where you were not encouraged to state your opinion or you felt your opinion didn’t matter, then you will have a fear to speak up.

Some people fear challenging authority, and feel that they are answering back or being disrespectful because that is what they were taught as children. Accordingly, communication styles also impact your ability to speak up.

Have you been taught effective ways to communicate; ways that don’t evoke defensiveness or harsh reactions in the other person?

Is your boss or partner open to hearing your opinion and feelings? Do they create an atmosphere where you feel safe and comfortable to speak about what you feel? Do they ask you “What do you want? How do you feel? What do you feel?”

Do you encourage your partner to be open with you? Do you celebrate or punish one’s voice? Do you teach your children to openly but respectfully express themselves?

Many years ago, an ex-girlfriend of mine called me to tell me how grateful she was for our former relationship because I had taught her to put herself first, speak up and communicate her desires and feelings. I simply would ask her and encourage her to speak up and to articulate what she wants and what she feels. No one before me had done that with her.

Fear is dissolved and replaced with supreme confidence when we are willing to give it all up and to lose everything knowing that we will be okay no matter what happens; then we are able to speak up and out.

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I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”

Patrick Wanis Ph.D.
Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & SRTT Therapist

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