The benefits of speaking up
SPEAKING UP DOESN’T COME EASILY TO MOST OF US. TAMMY COHEN ASKS SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGIST DR SUSAN NEWMAN WHY IT PAYS TO BE UPFRONT
Iwas thinking about my mother and regretting all the times I wasn’t as generous or as warm to her as I should have been. Over the years there were several major incidents that now make me cringe, but what seems to bother me most is actually relatively trivial. When I had young children, my mother had a habit of ringing at precisely the worst time of day – dinner time. Instead of telling her from the start that this was my tear-my-hair-out moment and could she call back later, I took her calls. A pattern formed of her ringing at this set time of day and whenever I remember those conversations, I wish I could turn back the clock and pick up the phone that first or second time and say, “Mum, I’d love to talk, but can we arrange a time when I’m not so frantic?” How hard would that have been? But instead of speaking up, I resented her for calling and set a negative tone that coloured our relationship for a disproportionately long time.
Saying exactly what we mean isn’t something most of us are trained to do. From childhood, we’re taught the art of people-pleasing – of saying yes even if we mean no, holding back from saying anything that might offend and toning down forthrightness in case it comes across as being inconsiderate or arrogant.
But there are some very good reasons for trying to unlearn those early lessons now and not holding off from speaking your mind. Here, Dr Susan Newman shares seven of the best that will work for you.
1 You’ll avoid regrets
It’s your birthday and your sister’s given you yet another bottle of the same perfume – the one you detest. “Don’t be silly, I know how much you like it,” she says when you try to protest about her spending so much. You kick yourself for not telling her five birthdays ago that although you’re touched by the thought, it’s not quite your taste and could you change it for one you really like? Not speaking out can sometimes lead to a lifetime of regrets. For example, if only you’d told your boss you wanted to contribute more, you’d have been more fulfilled in your career. Words can be taken back, silences can’t.
2 You’ll get what you want
Most of us still feel it’s too demanding to articulate what we crave. Instead we come out with half-requests in the hope that others might fill in the gaps. So you say, “It would be great if you could give me a hand for five minutes,” when what you mean is, “If you stayed behind for an hour to help me, I might be able to leave work before midnight.” Similarly, you must say what you don’t want. When your boss dumps an assignment on you, don’t automatically say, “That’s fine.” Instead, try, “I’d like to help, but I’ve got a lot on at the moment. Can we see how best to get it done in the light of this other work I’ve got to do?” That way, you’re not saying no, but you are emphasising your value, as well as negotiating a more realistic workload.
3 You won’t end up resenting others
How many times have you clattered around the house seething with anger because you’re doing everything and no one else is helping you? How often have you directed bad karma thoughts at colleagues who seem blissfully oblivious to the fact you’re taking on more than your fair share of work? We’re so unused to spelling out our needs that we expect those around us to guess them instead. By speaking up, you’re giving those closest to you a chance to meet your needs rather than becoming victims of your unexpressed resentment.
4 You’ll be truly understood by others
We all want to be understood by other people, yet without saying what you mean, you risk being misinterpreted. How many times have you looked at someone you know well and thought, “If you really knew me, you wouldn’t have said that.” But how are they expected to know you if you never say what’s in your head? You may not always be as nice, but you’ll be more real – and that’s surprisingly rewarding.
5 You’ll feel great about yourself
Think about the phrase ‘getting something off your chest’. Speaking out, particularly on important subjects, can feel like a weight is being lifted off you. Being assertive is good for you, it increases your self-confidence and makes you feel you’re taking control of your life. What’s the worst that could happen if you tell everyone that, while you love the usual family get-together over summer, this year you’d like to go away? Yes, some relatives will have to make other plans. But they might enjoy the break from routine. At the very least you’ll be free from the weight of unexpressed dreams, which are the heaviest of all.
6 You won’t feel disappointed in yourself
Ever walked away from an encounter angry with yourself for not saying what you meant? The fact is that biting back what you really want to say can be tantamount to hitting the self-destruct button. Racing against time to pick your friend up from the airport? Your fault for not saying you had too much on. One of the worst things about failing to say what’s on your mind is you’ve absolutely no one to blame but yourself.
7 Your relationships will improve
People prefer honesty, even if you’re not telling them what they want to hear. For example, you tell your best friend that you and your husband are going away for the weekend to celebrate your anniversary and she says, “That sounds wonderful, we might join you.” You could say nothing, then stew for days about how she’s hijacked your romantic weekend and should have known not to tag along. Or you could tell the truth: “Actually, we’d like to be on our own.” She might be disappointed, but she’ll get over it and it’s better than spending the foreseeable future wondering what she has done to upset you.