Impact & Playing Bigger

Speaking Up

By March 2, 2011 13 Comments

Several years ago, I was attending a conference for professionals in philanthropy. I attended one session focused on one of the big challenges in the industry. I knew I held a very controversial view: that the older generation of professionals and institutions was preventing the very kind of change they were calling for, because of their attachment to realities that no longer existed. Normally, I would have kept quiet about that. After all, lots of those older generation folks were in the room — and they were powerful. Plus, no one else was mentioning it. And what would it do to my professional reputation to say something so confrontational?
But for some reason, that day, I raised my hand and spit out my view to all fifty folks in the room. Quite honestly, the main reason was fatigue — I was too tired from a 5am flight to operate with my filter on. I said plainly what I thought was wrong with the situation, and how the older institutions and professionals weren’t dealing with changing realities. I spoke about one particularly hot button issue that people tended to avoid talking about. I was blunt and passionate.
What happened next shocked me. People in the session became energized, and starting talking about the issue I had raised. People kept referring to me and my comment, talking about me like I was an important person: “The issue that Tara raised” … “As Tara noted in her comment…” “I want to respond to what Tara said…” When the session closed, many of them came over to me. They wanted to get coffee later in the conference, invite me to sit on this committee, hand me their card. That group included many of the more established professionals and institutions I’d criticized in my comment.
As I wandered back to my hotel room, I realized: Everything I had believed about the costs of making that comment was wrong. In fact, in making my controversial comment, I found visibility, connection and belonging with the group.
I realized: I was making this kind of mis-estimation every day, keeping my most radical views to myself, not sharing ideas or critiques of the status quo. I thought I was “being appropriate,” maintaining relationships, and doing the professionally wise thing, but actually I was preventing myself being known, from standing out — and from being seen as a real leader in my (then) field.
For me, this experience was about—yes—authenticity and professional success. But more deeply, it was about participating and belonging. Sometimes I fall into the illusion that if I show up in the room (if I attend the conference, the dinner party, the meeting — whatever it is ) and be friendly and nice — then I’m participating and as a result I’ll feel a sense of belonging. Not so. Belonging depends on authenticity, vulnerability — because it’s only in being ourselves do we get to feel we truly have been seen, that we truly belong. For me, that always feels scary, but it also makes life exciting. The most mundane-feeling experiences become exciting when we challenging ourselves to really show up authentically and share our point of view. The conference experience was so illuminating for me because it said to me so clearly: in ways beyond what you think, you can be you and belong.
When I’ve decided that my view is so far from what is mainstream I can’t even share it; when I’ve decided that the changes I’d like to see are just never going to happen, when I’ve decided that they are idiots, or that they just don’t get it — and then out of that judgment I don’t even share my point of view (except when ranting to friends on the phone after the fact, of course)— it only ends up isolating me, and reinforcing the idea that I have to somehow hide myself in the world. It robs me from that incredible experience of being seen and welcomed.
Maybe, at some earlier points along the way, I just didn’t have what I needed, internally, to speak up. I didn’t have the skills or the inner strength or the insensitivity to praise and criticism. Maybe you didn’t either. But now we are grown up. And we want to play big and change the world. We aren’t powerless kids or teens fighting for social survival any more. We’ve recovered from earlier experiences when we shared our ideas and got hurt or rejected. We are educated, wise, and diplomatic. We can start really bringing our voices — big, bold, bright – to the table.
Where in your life have you been shrinking or covering up your voice?
Are there areas in your life in which you are assuming that conforming is the path to belonging and connection – when in fact maybe sharing your real ideas/voice/feelings might be the path?
Where in your life are you willing to experiment with sharing your voice more fully?


Join the discussion 13 Comments

  • Meg says:

    What an inspiring story! And what a wonderful feeling that is – when you do take the risk and speak up, and suddenly you realize you’re being heard. I think that’s one of the deepest human needs, and it’s worth the risk!

    You’ve inspired me to write something that’s been in the back of my mind for weeks now, but I’ve been hesitant to voice. Thanks!

  • Talia says:

    I am so glad you spoke up and even happier that you had a receptive audience! I’ve tried to express my feelings to my husband about how very difficult it is being a stepmother, but it falls on deaf ears. He simply won’t/can’t understand the level of frustration, hurt and yes, anger I feel. I find, at times it is best if I keep quiet. Not an easy task for me – I am used to expressing my feelings, but one I find is what works best for him.

  • Clare says:

    Excellent post Tara, and so true. Thank you for speaking up- we are all the better for it..

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  • ann says:

    Our team shared this article today – thanks for the nudge to speak up. It was timely for us.

  • Brigitte says:

    This is simply brilliant.

  • I feel like I’m doing this with my whole life! And certainly my blog/business. Well said and thank you for this. Going to reflect on the questions for sure.

  • Kerstin says:

    The concept of speaking up has woven itself like a red thread through my life. While this post mostly addresses it within a professional context my breakthrough moments with speaking up for myself have mostly happened within my relationships with men. I have never been a wallflower but nonetheless way too happy to go along with the agenda of my often strong-willed partners (a typical trait, apparently, for Enneagram Type Nines). And not speaking up for fear of conflict or, ultimately, abandonment. When I finally learned to risk the latter it was such an eye opener. It was ok to voice my own opinion and to stand up for myself. Speaking up was the best thing I ever did for myself and for my relationships. And I am thinking that perhaps the time has come to cast the net wider … that’s why I am very interested in your upcoming workshop 🙂

  • Tara,
    Well said. As a child, I was taught to be the ‘good girl’ and not speak up. In my professional life, I’ve spoken up and been right and been recognized for it and not. Why, I wonder as I get older, I hesitate to speak my mind except to close family and friends? I second guess myself and do the diplomatic side step, I think to avoid hurting others but maybe I’m just avoiding more conflict.

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  • […] it being dangerous or inappropriate to state our ideas definitively, and we can’t see how sharing our perspective boldly and directly could actually hugely benefit our careers. Time to let the old stories […]

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