Moments of Choice: When do we speak up and when do we embrace silence?

Co-authored with Agata Antonow

It is a balmy spring day when halfway through my run, I feel as though wings spring from my feet. With each exhale my feet feel lighter and the world around me comes into sharper focus. I seem to be burning away the concerns that crowd my thinking and separate me from fully experiencing pleasure in my life.

In the near distance I see a couple standing across the street from what I assume is their home. The woman’s hands are alive with expression as she talks, gesturing to the front yard. The man nods his head, listening intently. As I close the distance between us, I feel a smile curl on my face and as I remove an earphone from my ear, I sing out with great confidence, “She’s got the best ideas!” For a microsecond they seem surprised but I linger just long enough to see them laugh and smile. I am awash in good vibrations. In different circumstances, I would have thought before I spoke, but here and now, I am glad I trusted the impulse. From my view, things ended well.

But they don’t always, do they? Sometimes we don’t think before we speak and things end badly. We’re left feeling warm-faced because we blurt out the wrong thing. Or, someone’s feelings get hurt. Other times, we don’t speak up at all and we kick ourselves because we know something great would have happened. Something would have shifted or maybe a brighter idea, a better approach would have been born.

We face these choices every day and whether we ultimately decide to speak or clam up depends on an alchemy of things: the reactions we’ve gotten in the past, our own personality, the situation, even our physical state.

Sometimes we are informed by the soft ping of intuition, when the body is relaxed; you’re feeling connected and grounded and maybe just not thinking much at all. You trust yourself and you go for it. Other times, lack of confidence traps our words before they ever meet air.

Your unique voice, shared with others, can generate laughter, inspiration, and change.

There’s no wrong way or right way to approach how we speak, but if you find yourself berating your tendency not to speak up or find yourself blushing when you blurt out something you didn’t mean to, maybe it’s time to take a second look.

I challenge you to consider a few questions. If you’re brave enough, feel free to speak them out loud:

  • When have I spoken my mind recently? How did it feel?
  • When have I stopped myself from speaking up? What happened?
  • What is the story I tell myself about speaking up? Do I tell myself “silence is golden” or do I tell myself “don’t hide your light under a bushel?” Where did I first hear these statements?
  • If I had to tell one tale about myself and speaking up, what tale would I tell?

Digging deep, you may find your words–or your lack of them–spring from a deeper source. We all have inner narratives locked deep inside about our abilities. Whether they’re true or not, they can certainly feel like the truth and we may act on them without even realizing why we’re acting the way we are.

For example, we may tell ourselves we’re “shy” without realizing that we were berated for being chatterboxes as children. Or, we may speak up because we’ve been told by a beloved mentor that we’ll never get ahead without voicing our opinions. There’s nothing wrong with these inner narratives, but if they’re not producing the results we desire maybe it’s time to take a look at whether those stories still serve us.

I speak up routinely and it’s in my blood. I love interacting with people and have always been a performer at heart, wanting to connect with and support an audience. I love saying that one ironic remark that somehow shifts the mood; people let their guard down and experience connection through laughter.

I think reaching out through others in words and in person is a higher calling. It seems like we’re losing this capability and that makes me sad. Our habit of retreating into our technology keeps us from just these kinds of glorious interactions.

Many of us seem to err on the side of caution when it comes to speaking up. We’d rather say nothing than let our voice ring out. Sometimes, it’s because we are telling ourselves we shouldn’t share this part of ourselves. Other times, our physical world keeps us silent. When we’re tired or upset or not feeling physically well, it’s easier to not draw attention to ourselves.

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Sometimes, we lack the confidence or we stumble over the exact words to say and that second-guessing emerges. If I had let that second-guessing rear up while I was jogging, it would have stilled my words. I would have pictured what the couple might have said to me and what they would have thought. Once I made the decision, I chose to act right away, before that snarky inner critic stepped in with his own silencing story.

Ultimately, I believe it comes down to trusting ourselves. In the scene I painted above, I was relaxed and in my body. My mood had everything to do with my ease in speaking up to strangers on the street. Plus, it’s natural for me to want to “cut up.”

What about you? Right now, you are reading words on a screen or a page. What are your inner words about speaking up? Do you need to speak up about something? What will the next words you voice be? I invite you to share a part of voice with someone today in some way. Your unique voice, shared with others, can generate laughter, inspiration, and change. Once in a while, let it soar.

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