There are people who come to me for help because they love speaking and want to get better at it.
There are people who come to me for help because they are terrified of speaking, because they are desperately uncomfortable being heard and raising their voice, or because their shyness has started to get in the way of their work.
Invariably at some point, the fearful or reluctant to-be speakers express the same reservation: “But I’m just not an outspoken person!” (Or, as often as not, “but I’m not outspoken like you!”*)
Here’s the flaw in that statement: they’ve equated being outspoken with speaking out.
Take a moment and bring to mind someone you consider outspoken. The most likely image is someone bubbly, boisterous, and probably a bit larger-than-life. You may love them or hate them, but they are impossible to ignore. They usually have bags of energy and say what’s on their mind, damn the consequences – and for some bizarre reason they can get away with it.
Now think of someone you’ve seen speak out. They are absolutely impassioned about their message and what they have to say,** but that’s where the similarities end. Some people think of a person with a soft voice and demeanour. Others conjure up an image of someone with fire blazing in their eyes who simply couldn’t keep quiet any longer. Others still think of a person who stood up with a carefully prepared message, notes in hand; maybe the paper trembled. Sometimes the speaker has a raised voice, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes their words are strong and powerful, sometimes they are hesitant and tremulous. In all cases, though, their message is heard. Their message is important.
Speaking out is about delivering an important message.
It requires you to open your heart. It requires you to open your mouth.
But it does not require you to be outspoken.
*I find the “I’m not outspoken like you” comment hilarious, probably because I have to muster up a pretty considerable amount of courage to don an ‘outspoken’ mantle. It is exhausting work.
**That’s what makes speaking out so courageous; the message is so important that it becomes bigger than the speaker’s fear. But this is a topic for another day.
“Sorry” is quite possibly one of the most pernicious words I hear in regular conversation. When used in its truest sense, a sincere sorry is lovely – both strong and vulnerable in the way in admits and accepts responsibility, or empathetic in the way it expresses understanding. These uses, however, are heard with woeful infrequency.
More often than not I hear sorry used as reduction term, as a form of pre-emptive verbal submission. We say sorry when we give an opinion, say sorry for asking for help, say sorry before speaking up in meetings, say sorry as a way to fill silences between sentences. On one hand, this compulsion can be seen as a throw-away word. We have lots of those, little words we use to fill in sound space when our brains are working. The danger of using sorry as a filler or an opener is that is has the same effect on our thinking as standing with our shoulders hunched and gaze low. It diminishes us in our own mind.
Whenever I have heard sorry used as someone’s go-to opener when they begin to speak, it has never resulted in them giving the impression of confidence or competence. This is unfortunate; one of the worst offenders in my circle of acquaintances is a remarkably competent man who gives good ideas and input. Yet instead of presenting his thoughts and ideas fearlessly or with pride, he physically and verbally shrinks, peppering his phrases with sorry.
Don’t be sorry for what you have to say. Don’t even think sorry for what you are going to say. Don’t think or feel sorry for giving your thoughts voice or for “taking up” your listeners time. Putting your ideas forward is an act of generosity, and conversation is an act of sharing. So share without restraint. You can be polite without being sorry, so for everyone’s sake, do so!
Many people have a funny habit of apologizing and downplaying their thoughts and opinions the moment they begin to voice them. I first noticed this trend a few years ago while sitting in a meeting, and I have become acutely aware of it ever since. It is highly likely that you do this without even realizing it; I know I certainly have.
What do pre-emptive apologies and downplays sound like? Here are a few examples:
Okay, that last one was a little ridiculous, but I have heard phrases like it so often that I wonder how anyone is capable of taking anyone else seriously. What’s more, we exacerbate the deference with non-verbal signals. These types of phrases are generally accompanies by supplicating or defensive gestures such as placing a hand on one’s heart, shrugging, holding hands in supine (palms up), or in a staving-off position (hands raised, palms facing out towards the other person like the speaker is keeping that person away)
The frequency with which we pre-emptively water down the potential impact of our words is astounding. What’s more, we do this not only in social situations where we are trying to be friendly, but in all areas – including business situations. Watching this practice is business is particularly worrying to me, as it can negatively impact the impression we give of our own confidence, competence, and decisiveness.
I think we need to stop this self-deprecating verbal nonsense.
“But Lauren,” I hear someone cry, “we’re only being polite when we use openers like that! We don’t want to seem bossy or pushy – we’re just softening our words.”
I’m willing to give a little bit of credence to that explanation. Sometimes we do need to soften our openers, particularly when we are dealing with high-strung people who will either bite your head off or burst into tears at the slightest hint of opposition. Generally, however, what we are really doing is protecting ourselves from risk.
Voicing our thoughts and opinions exposes us to a considerable amount of risk. We risk being wrong, possibly losing credibility with our group. We risk being right, which may result in us having to take on the responsibility of acting on or supporting our idea. We risk being objectionable, which may result in members of the group rejecting us as well as our opinion. We risk experiencing emotional pain or discomfort of some variety or another. Most people tend to avoid that like the plague.
Unfortunately, the downside of speaking your mind can be very evident in every day exchanges. People who may be ruffled by that opinion will insert snide comments: “Tell us what you really think!” People who feel insecure around people who express themselves confidently will deride the confident person behind their backs: “Well, they certainly have opinions.” You have probably both heard and said these things; I certainly have. Next time you hear or say these, watch what happens to the conversation. Pre-emptive apologies will abound as people avoid giving their risky opinion.
But as with most things in life, no risk usually equals no reward. The meek don’t get hired into positions of authority, the uncertain don’t make the sale, and the apologetic become doormats. If you want to be polite, you can do so without resorting to diminishing your opinions. Politeness tends to come across more in tone of voice and body language than it does through actual words. Ever wonder why there are some people who can get away with saying outrageous things yet still manage to stay at the top of our “people we really like” list? Watch them closely next time you are around them; you might start to notice key differences in their vocal tone and body language that ensures their audience remains comfortable despite what is being said. It’s a masterful social skill and often occurs quite subconsciously.
So how do we stop using diminishing expressions when we’re giving our ideas or opinions? In terms of vocabulary, it’s pretty straightforward: stop attaching words like “just” and “only” to words like “my opinion” or “my thoughts” or “idea.” Get to your point, don’t beat around the bush, and for heaven’s sake don’t apologize for being a thinking human being. Keep your voice polite and your body non-aggressive. The apologizing is a hard habit to break, but it is worthwhile to be able to leave it behind in most situations and pull it out when circumstance warrants its use.