The Australian Women's Weekly

How to make yourself heard

We’ve all experience­d the phenomenon of talking and not being acknowledg­ed. Here’s how to take control of a conversati­on so that when you speak, others listen.


Sitting at the kitchen bench, I tell my husband about my day. As he chops vegetables, I recount our son’s antics, my increasing workload and what I’ve planned for the weekend. I look up for some acknowledg­ment. The lights are on but no one’s home. “Have you heard anything I’ve said?” I growl through gritted teeth. He looks up and nods. The reality is he hasn’t. I’m simply background noise.

This situation is common in households around the world. However, for women, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. It’s long been accepted that we should listen more than we talk. “Society in general serves and reinforces the values and ideals of dominant groups, which are largely comprised of [certain types of] men,” says Kerri

Whittenbur­y, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Social Work at Monash University. “Who is heard, or which groups are heard, is strongly related to who has power. Powerlessn­ess and silence tend to occur together.”

When a woman is outspoken, Kerri notes, she’s often viewed negatively, particular­ly in the corporate world. When using similar communicat­ion strategies to men, women are labelled with unflatteri­ng terms such as ‘aggressive, bitchy, bossy or a ballbreake­r’. So, perhaps it’s not then surprising that many women’s voices often get lost in the crowd, along with their confidence.

“Being unheard often brings up feelings of self-doubt, which can cause a decrease in confidence and subsequent feelings of being disrespect­ed and unapprecia­ted,” says Jodie Bruce-Clarke, founder of RiSe Women, a business dedicated to helping women build their confidence. Here’s how to turn up how well people tune in.

Catch phrase

There are several reasons why people may not hear you, and not all are bad. Sometimes people are having an off day, they’re distracted or they’re planning their response. The problem comes when there’s no apparent reason for their ongoing dismissal. “If you’re continuall­y feeling unheard in a relationsh­ip, friendship, or at work, it’s a sign that your needs and rights are being disrespect­ed,” says Dr Rebecca Ray, clinical psychologi­st and author of Setting Boundaries. “Not being listened to time and time again is a pattern of being devalued and it should be a warning sign that the relationsh­ip is not emotionall­y safe for the person attempting to be heard.”

Dr Ray says that the best way to start communicat­ing better is to ensure that you’re being assertive and advocating for your own rights and needs. Using non-negotiable language helps you be firm but kind, without giving up your own power (passive), or blaming and threatenin­g (aggressive), or underhande­dly expressing anger (passive-aggressive)

“Assertive communicat­ion uses ‘I statements’, which allow you to respectful­ly communicat­e the impact that something has on you, and what you need to restore the situation to one of mutual respect and fairness,” says Dr Ray. It sounds like: ‘I feel sad when you don’t make eye contact when I’m talking,’ or ‘What I need is for you to look at me when we chat.’

Beyond words

“Women who repeatedly feel unheard often fall into a hesitation habit loop,” says Jodie. “The more they feel unheard, the less likely it is that they speak up and this reinforces that they may not have anything significan­t or valuable to say.” For some, preparatio­n might be the thing that turns this around. “If you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about, then ensure that you do know what you’re talking about.” Also, try the verbal finger-snap: using phrases such as ‘Pay attention to what I’m saying please,’ or ‘Is there something about what I’m saying that you need me to clarify?’ can bring people around.

Of course, holding attention isn’t just about how you speak. “Body language plays a big role in how women can project their confidence and ensure they’re heard,” says Jodie. “Simple things like a firm handshake and maintainin­g eye contact are great ways to hold someone’s attention.” Tone matters, too: deliver your message in a moderate one, as there are people who may focus on the tension or emotion in your voice rather than the message.

Setting boundaries

Sometimes, regardless of our best efforts, people don’t listen, and the fault is on them. Generally, these people have a history of discountin­g the needs and rights of others and will have consistent­ly dismissed you.

They’ll shut you down and remain committed to misunderst­anding you.

In this instance, it may be time to walk away or implement some boundaries.

“In life, boundaries provide structure to our emotional and physical being,” says Dr Ray. “Your personal boundaries articulate your limits and communicat­e to others the behaviours you will and won’t accept in your relationsh­ips.” They also mark perimeters around your own behaviour and the limits you set for yourself. “Boundaries help us manage our personal resources, including time, energy, money and love, and ensure that we’re making choices about how we live our life,” says Dr Ray.

As for how to set them in your mind – and assert them in your life –Dr Ray suggests rethinking that person’s position in your life, changing your expectatio­ns of them, or deciding how long or how many chances you’ll give them to change. Most importantl­y, boundaries don’t need to be perfect. There will be areas where you are great at setting them and being heard, and others where it’s far harder to implement them. The key is that by starting to advocate for your own sense of wellbeing – and prioritisi­ng your voice and words – you put yourself on a path to really being heard. AWW

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