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.
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.’
“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.
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