Last week I wrote about the art of knowing when to speak up and when to keep quiet in the context of our work lives, or our personal lives, or even online. To me, discerning how to use your voice in a way that’s powerful, compassionate and kind is part of acquiring wisdom.
I love the word “wisdom,” by the way, even though it sounds lofty. I’ve learned to embrace it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s also room to be silly or lazy or street smart, but the world could use a heavy dose of wisdom, too.
You know the weight lifters at the gym who over-train their upper body but clearly skip out on leg day? They’re top heavy and walking around on little sticks. They’ve built certain muscles and ignored others. That’s how I feel we are operating as a society. We could stand to train the muscles of clarity and wisdom in our pursuit of using our individual and collective voice.
The prevailing attitude is this: If I don’t speak out, I am part of the problem, not the solution. Speaking up is the courageous thing, the bold thing, the right thing.
But is it the only thing?
I know many people who fear holding back so deeply that they are always flexing the muscle of speaking out online. Many of these same individuals have less skill when it comes to wrestling with the tough interpersonal conversations of life.
I get it. It’s part of the human experience to be in negotiation with ourselves about using our voice. And it’s part of my mission to hone my own voice, and to help others find theirs, too.
Here’s what I see as I reflect on the landscape of speaking out today. I see a greater need to build the muscle of holding deeper, not just broader, conversations. And we need training and practical skill building around how to do this with honesty and compassion.
I haven’t always been this clear about my vision, by the way. I’ve built this muscle over the past decade because my instinct was to be a little more confrontational, and about stuff that isn’t necessarily my business.
I’ll give you an example. Way back when, I worked at a nonprofit as a director of marketing. We were going through a lot of transition at the time (what organization isn’t) and there was stress, anxiety, and low morale.
I felt compelled to tell the CEO exactly what I thought was wrong and what needed to change in his leadership in particular. It was a bold move, a “using my voice” kind of moment, and especially since much of the feedback I had to offer was directed at him. But I convinced myself that speaking up was what I had to do.
I scheduled a meeting, sat down in his office, and delivered my speech. It was heartfelt and impassioned, and he looked at me in a bit of shock. Whether my opinions were correct or not isn’t really the point. The point is, were his leadership decisions my business?
Flash forward to when I was leaving the organization for a new opportunity. This same CEO acknowledged my work at a board meeting and said wonderful things about my contributions. Then he said, “Stephanie is the kind of person who will tell the emperor they aren’t wearing any clothes.”
You could argue that is a compliment, too. Some people would hear that story and say, “What?? Yessss! That’s awesome!”
But it hurt because I recognized that I didn’t know how to walk the line between engaging and confronting someone on a personal level. I didn’t know how to speak up while managing myself in the process.
How do we know when to speak up and when to hold back? In an age when everything feels like a true emergency, and everyone is shouting, how does any voice break through?
I know at least one person who I deeply respect, and who has led a transformational life, who believes this: If the issue is beyond your own nose, then it’s none of your business. Meaning the way to change the world is by minding your own business and keeping your side of the street clean. What I like about that is it’s a clear boundary and truly a humble relationship to the self and others.
That approach hinges on the perspective that growth is vertical, or each individual in communication with their small, chosen community, rather than a horizontal, or growth in context of a broader community of strangers. I see the value in both.
Each of us will likely find our personal equilibrium and comfort level with using our voice and speaking out. Lots of the anxiety we express about whether others are doing it correctly likely is caused by the anxiety we feel about our own style and approach.
Honing our path toward speaking out is part of how we attain wisdom. And the best leaders can demonstrate flexibility and have a wide-ranging portfolio of approaches.
We need truthtellers. There is a time and place for speaking up. But using your voice in a two-dimensional way is not the only way to elicit change, and it raises at least one question for me: If everyone is talking, who is doing the listening?
I am going for strength and flexibility, agility and speed. I want deep, transformational, and motivational dialogue. I want true engagement, risk, energy, and compassion.
I’m Stephanie. I’m a writer, coach, and facilitator. I work with individuals, teams and leaders in creative, entrepreneurial, and nonprofit fields to improve communication, find a true purpose, and deepen connection and meaning. If you enjoyed this post, share it with a friend! And I’d love it if you would subscribe to my email list, below.