Today I wanted to shine a spotlight on ‘How to speak up for yourself’ something which I and many others find hard to do. How many times has someone made a passing comment about your height and you’ve wanted to respond but ended up just lowering your head and walking on by, muttering under your breath. I know I’ve been guilty of this many times in the past.
I’d spent years worrying about what other people might think, not wanting to make a bad first impression and not speaking up when I should have. Of course, there are times we speak up when we shouldn’t so I did a bit of research and found that social psychologist, Adam Galinsky, knows a lot about this.
He firmly believes that it’s possible to ask for what you want without coming across as a jerk! In his work, he’s asked people all over the world how they handle the dilemma of speaking up: when do they feel they can assert themselves, when can they push their interests, when can they express an opinion, when can they make an ambitious ask.
Through their anecdotes, he’s seen that each of us has what’s called a range of acceptable behaviour and when we step outside our range, we usually get punished in a variety of ways. We get dismissed, demeaned, even ostracized. Or we lose that raise, promotion or deal we were asking for. Let’s look at the things that Adam suggests we can do to turn this around.
You can start by asking yourself: “What is my range?”
The key thing is, our range isn’t fixed. It’s dynamic, expanding or narrowing based on the context you’re in. However, one thing determines your range more than anything else: your power. Power comes in many forms and when we have lots of power, our range is very wide and we have a lot of leeway in how to behave. But when we lack power, our range narrows and we have little leeway. Adam says that the problem is when our range narrows, it produces something called the low-power double bind: if we don’t speak up, we go unnoticed, but if we do speak up, we get punished.
In order to feel comfortable speaking up and to get what we want; we need ways to expand our range of power.
Adam and his colleagues have found two things that really matter: 1) You feel powerful in your own eyes; 2) You feel powerful in the eyes of others. When you feel powerful, you feel confident and not fearful, and you can expand your own range. When other people see you as powerful, they grant you a wider range. So we should find and use tools that help expand our range of acceptable behaviour.
The first tool — which is sometimes called “the mama bear effect” — was discovered in negotiations through an important finding.
On average, at the bargaining table women make less ambitious offers and get worse outcomes than men. However, negotiation researchers Hannah Riley Bowles and Emily Amanatullah both discovered there is one situation where women receive the same outcomes as men and are just as ambitious — when they advocate for others. When they do, they expand their range in their own minds and become more assertive.
Like a mama bear defending her cubs, when we advocate for others, we can discover our own voice.
Often, though, we need to be able to advocate for ourselves. In that case, one of the most important tools we have is called perspective-taking. It’s really simple — just look at the world through the eyes of another person — and it’s one of the most important tools we have to expand our range. When I take your perspective and think about what you really want, you are more likely to give me what I want.
Here’s a true story that exemplifies this approach. A man walked into a bank in Watsonville, California. He said, “Give me $2,000, or I’m blowing the whole bank up with a bomb.” The bank manager didn’t just hand him the money. Instead, she took his perspective and noticed something really important — he’d asked for a specific amount of money. She said, “Why did you ask for $2,000?” He answered, “My friend is going to be evicted unless I get him $2,000.” She replied, “Oh! You don’t want to rob the bank. You want to take out a loan. Why don’t you come back to my office, and we can have you fill out the paperwork?” Her quick perspective-taking defused a volatile situation. Taking someone’s perspective allows us to be ambitious and assertive, but still be likable.
Adam has asked people around the world “When do you feel comfortable speaking up?” The number one answer has been “when I have social support.” So it helps us to get allies on our side. One way to do that is to be a mama bear. Another way to earn strong allies, especially in high places, is to ask for advice. When we ask for input, people like us because we’re flattering them and expressing humility. What’s more, it solves another double bind. Known as the self-promotion double bind, it’s where if we don’t advertise our accomplishments, no one notices; and if we do, we’re not likable.
Another time we feel more confident to speak up is when we have expertise.
Expertise gives us credibility. When we have high power, we already have credibility — we only need good evidence. But when we lack power, we don’t have credibility — and we need excellent evidence. We can come across as an expert by tapping into a passion. When we tap into our passion, we give ourselves the courage in our own eyes to speak up, and we get permission from others to speak up, too. Tapping into our passion works when we come across as too weak.
While all of us have been assigned ranges and roles in this world, these roles and ranges are constantly expanding and evolving. So depending on the scenario, be a ferocious mama bear or a humble advice seeker. Have excellent evidence and strong allies. Be a passionate perspective taker. When you use these tools — and anyone can use them — you’ll expand your range of acceptable behaviour, and you’ll always be able to speak up.