Silence-Busting Strategies for Introverts
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Silence-Busting Strategies for Introverts

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Silence-Busting Strategies for Introverts

Elaine Lin Hering is a leadership development facilitator and former lecturer at Harvard Law School. She has trained mental health professionals, political officials, religious communities, and leaders at companies including American Express, Google, Nike, and Pixar. Her specialization is in dispute resolution, mediation, and negotiation.

Below, Elaine shares five key insights from her new book, Unlearning Silence: How to Speak Your Mind, Unleash Talent, and Live More Fully. Listen to the audio version—read by Elaine herself—in the Next Big Idea App.

Unlearning Silence Elaine Lin Hering Next Big Idea Club

1. Telling someone to speak up doesn’t work.

Well-intentioned leaders often tell people on their teams to speak up: You’ve got to share what you really think or tell me what’s going on before things get bad. Yet only half of people report habitually speaking their minds at work. Despite invitations to speak up, urging workers to voice their thoughts, and even specifically targeted coaching and performance reviews, people still stay silent.

I’m one of those people. If I had a dime for every time someone told me to speak up or speak louder, I’d be retired by now. Having taught negotiation and communication at a firm founded out of the Harvard Negotiation Project, I used to give out the same advice: speak more clearly, speak more directly, use this phrase or that phrase—but that advice always felt unsatisfying and, at times, irresponsible.

Telling someone to just speak up ignores the real and perceived costs of them sharing their real thoughts because we can’t control whether listeners will get defensive, decide to retaliate, or simply start excluding us from meetings. It often seems safer not to say anything at all.

Instead of telling people to speak up, we need to take an honest look at how we silence ourselves, silence the people around us, and how the broader system supports some people while silencing others. If you’re a leader, start by asking yourself, in what ways might I be silencing them?

2. We all silence people.

Some of you might be thinking that you don’t silence people, but you do. I’m an inclusive, thoughtful leader. I tell people that my door is always open. I’ve worked hard to open the lines of communication, but despite that, most of us have been rewarded for staying silent. It’s easier when people don’t rock the boat. It makes things more efficient (at least in the short term) if they don’t disagree. Oftentimes, we reward people for being easy to work with, which translates to not pushing back or offering dissenting opinions.

So, if you’re human, you silence people. But don’t get stuck in guilt over how you might have impacted people negatively when you didn’t mean to. Instead, look carefully at how we might incline other people towards silence. Being aware of how silence happens (even when unintentional) allows us to make different choices going forward.

“Most of us have been rewarded for staying silent.”

In the book, I talk about nine different ways we silence others, but let’s start with the lowest-hanging fruit: the dynamic that’s easiest to change. We incline people towards silence when we default to our own communication preferences. Rather than considering what might support their voice, if we have the power to design our communication flows, we usually pick the communication mediums and times of day that play to our strengths. The time a meeting is scheduled and how it is typically run tends to support the preferences of those with the most power—usually the most senior leader. If you’re asking someone to join a meeting at 4:00 AM local time or 11:30 PM in their time zone, we can’t possibly expect them to be firing on all cylinders.

Working globally across time zones means that there’s no perfect time, but when and how we choose to hold meetings or engage makes it either easier or harder for people to show up. Do you know whether the people you work with process information best by talking it out in real-time or do they prefer to step away and think about it? Is their preference a phone call, video messaging, email, or in-person? What makes it easiest for them to share? What makes it easiest for them to share what they really think and bring forth their best insights? It’s not to say that you must conform to what works best for them, but intentionally designing communication flows can optimize for specific voices. This barrier to sharing can be easily reduced.

3. Silence breeds silence.

Social and organizational psychologists have long identified employee silence as an issue. Employee silence is an academic term for when employees don’t share insights that could benefit the organization. People tend to observe how do things work around here? If we look around and see that no one is pushing back or speaking up about certain issues, then we conclude that we don’t talk about those things here. This is how a culture of silence takes over.

Organizational silence is defined as the collective phenomenon of saying nothing in response to problems that an organization faces, resulting in a worsening of that problem. Consider this client. They brought me in to train their staff on difficult conversation skills. The client was struggling to get a sense of what was going on with their people, with the teams, and with the whole organization.

I kept hearing workers say, “We just don’t talk about things here.” It wasn’t that there was an organizational value or a communicated policy of ignoring difficult issues. It was that over time people had observed that no one on the executive team pushed back against the executive director. From that behavior, the conclusion was that if senior leadership can’t even push back on the highest-ranking person in this organization, then how can someone lower on the org chart push back at all?

“The more we see people using their voices, talking about things that really matter, the more voice becomes the norm.”

Upper management decided that they needed to upskill people in how to have difficult conversations. But while that skill set is useful, the bigger skill set that unlocks an ability to give and receive feedback is learning how to identify and alter the role of silence on our teams. The behaviors of senior leadership either influence a culture of silence or voice, but as easy as it is to put the onus at the top, every choice by every member in an organization is an opportunity to disrupt or perpetuate a culture of silence.

While silence breeds silence, the converse is also true. Voice inspires voice. The more we see people using their voices, talking about things that really matter, the more voice becomes the norm. If you doubt it, Google Derek Sivers’ Ted Talk, How to Start a Movement, and dive into the theory of the first follower. Essentially, the behavior of the first follower motivates what becomes the norm. Are your choices and behaviors perpetuating silence or voice?

4. Speaking up is not linear, and there’s no perfect formula.

People often turn to me in hopes of a script for speaking up. Unfortunately, I can’t offer one. A script means a person isn’t prepared to engage the unknown. The unknown inevitably comes up in the process of using our voices. So, instead of a script, I offer four anchors. These anchors are touch points for understanding why we’d speak up in the first place and how to be most effective in the ensuing conversation.

Anchor number one: start with why. Why would you take the risk to say something? What issue, what relationship, what idea makes it worth it to raise your voice and work through the potential discomfort of figuring out what to say? The why connects to our emotional brain, not just our logical brain. Research from Harvard professors Kegan and Lahey shows that having an important reason to change means you’re more likely to change, even when it’s tough.

Anchor number two: connect the dots. As much as we would love for everyone to think about things the way that we do, it’s just not possible. Instead of assuming that others see things your way, spell out your observations and interpretations, then ask them how they might see it differently.

Anchor number three: make your ask clear. When we speak up, others usually want to be supportive, but depending on how you ask, they may not know what you want. You’ll find a good demonstration of this in the hilarious YouTube video It’s Not About the Nail, by Jason Headley. Do you want the other person just to listen? Do you want them to partner with you in problem-solving? Do you want them to empathize? Do you want them to be a thought partner? If you can make clear what you’re looking for, they’re more likely to respond in a helpful way.

Anchor number four: embrace resistance. Many of us become discouraged and demotivated and conclude that speaking up doesn’t work when the other person shows resistance, gets defensive, or asks questions. In other words, when the person we approach doesn’t agree immediately. But resistance is a natural part of using your voice. Expect resistance so that when resistance shows up, you’re less likely to be rocked or triggered by it. Recognize that resistance is a form of engagement. They haven’t said no, so unpack the resistance to understand their concerns and how you might secure a yes.

5. Your voice will be different than anyone else’s, and that’s a good thing.

Too often, we make the mistake of believing that our voices are just the words we say in a meeting. That if you miss the moment in a meeting because the conversation moved on, then you’ve missed your shot at making an impact. But voice is more than words. Your voice is how you move through the world.

“These external influences can be part of your data set rather than definitive rules for how you show up.”

From robocalls to family members to well-intentioned colleagues and mentors, other people are going to try to influence how you move through the world. Their feedback, advice, and desires for your life are just input. These external influences can be part of your data set rather than definitive rules for how you show up.

We’re all different, so it only makes sense that we move through the world in different ways. Our families of origin, gender, race, ethnicity, education, class, abilities, and experiences all shape our unique self-expression. Figure out how you want to show up and who you want to be. Ask yourself, what do you care about? If you have one life to live, how do you want to live it? What does that look like in your day-to-day?

To listen to the audio version read by author Elaine Lin Hering, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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