1. If it feels risky to say, it's important.
If it wasn't important, it wouldn't feel risky. And that sense of risk is a critical piece of data, a sign that the conversation is a meaningful one with larger implications.
2. If it feels risky to say, there are good reasons why it feels risky.
It feels risky because we sense that what we say will have an impact, although we can't be certain just what that impact will be. The content, the timing, our tone of voice, or even the fact that we're speaking at all--on this topic, at this moment, to this person--any one of these factors could be the source of the risk.
3. If it feels risky to say, saying it will upset a defense routine.
Chris Argyris defines defense routines as "actions or policies that prevent individuals or segments of the organization from experiencing embarrassment or threat... [W]henever human beings are faced with any issue that contains significant embarrassment or threat, they act in ways that bypass, as best they can, the embarrassment or threat. In order for the bypass to work, it must be covered up." [p 25]. By speaking up and saying something risky, we will inevitably run up against and highlight a defense routine, thereby compounding the embarrassment or threat. Note that our own defense routines will also be implicated, not merely those of other people.
4. If it feels risky to say, saying it will carry a short-term cost.
Just as we can't know the precise impact of speaking up in advance, we can't know the precise short-term cost that we will have to pay for doing so. We do know that being perceived as a source of embarrassment or threat always carries a cost; we also know that calling attention to any efforts to avoid embarrassment or threat also carries a cost. We can estimate these costs after speaking up by measuring the length of the silence that follows our comments, although this is a rough calculation at best.
5. If it feels risky to say, NOT saying it will carry a long-term cost.
Nor can we know the precise long-term cost that we will have to pay for NOT speaking up. We do know that censoring ourselves is stressful and generates negative feelings. We also know that we will inevitably blame those negative feelings on those who "made us" censor ourselves. Finally, we know that censoring leads to distant and superficial relationships, that we crave intimacy and meaning, and if we can't find those qualities here we'll go elsewhere to find them. We tend to have a high tolerance for these long-term costs until we cross some undefined threshold, beyond which our capacity to bear them is rapidly exhausted.
6. Minimizing the short-term costs will increase the long-term costs.
7. Minimizing the long-term costs will increase the short-term costs.
The short-term and long-term costs are inextricably intertwined. However, we typically act as if this is not the case and prefer to assume that A) all costs can be avoided, B) any unavoidable costs can be indefinitely deferred, and C) any unavoidable, non-deferrable costs will be paid by someone else. This is magical thinking.
8. Our success depends on balancing these costs by speaking up skillfully.
This defense of speaking up shouldn't be read as a simplistic manifesto to just "speak our minds." (See point #4.) We do need to speak up. (See point #5.) And yet if we want to achieve our goals, influence others, and affect the outcome of the discussion, we must speak up skillfully.
9. Speaking up skillfully is itself a skill that must be practiced in low-risk settings.
And it's a skill comprised of many complex sub-skills, such as the ability to...
- Sense and listen to our intuitive feeling of risk.
- Keep pushing ahead in the face of that risk without shutting down.
- Manage and make use of the emotions evoked by the discussion.
- Insert ourselves gracefully but assertively into the flow of the discussion.
- Speak with sufficient passion to be influential.
- Regulate that passion so as not to trigger distress in others.
- Monitor and respond to others' verbal, non-verbal and visual cues in the moment.
- Know when it's time to let go and move on.
Given this complexity, the only way to develop these skills is to jump in and practice them. This is a fundamental purpose of the courses I'm involved in at Stanford, such as the Leadership Labs or Interpersonal Dynamics (aka Touchy Feely): they provide a setting in which the (variable) level of risk adjusts with the group's (variable) level of skill and interest in having a risky dicussion. This is also a good reason to work with a coach--one of the most useful functions I fulfill for my clients is simply listening and responding as they talk through things that feel risky to say, and in many cases we actively role-play a situation to allow them to prepare for the real thing. In the absence of resources like a graduate program in management or a personal coach, it's critical to seek out settings and develop relationships in which we can practice the art (and it is an art) of speaking up. The key is feeling safe enough to step outside our comfort zone, because we only learn when we're willing to risk making a mistake.
10. It begins by recognizing when we're censoring ourselves because something feels risky to say.
This is always the starting point: An awareness that we have something to say, and yet we're not saying it. In some settings or in some relationships we self-censor so habitually that we don't even notice it anymore, and our task is to rouse ourselves from this slumber, recognize ourselves and our responses, and return to the top of this list.
Inspired by Chris Argyris' brilliant Overcoming Organizational Defenses:
All organizational defense routines are based on a logic that is powerful and that has profound impact on individuals and organizations. The logic is to:
1. Craft messages that contain inconsistencies.
2. Act as if the messages are not inconsistent...
3. Make the ambiguity and inconsistency in the message undiscussable...
4. Make the undiscussability of the undiscussable also undiscussable. [p 27]
Photo by Jônatas Cunha. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.