Last week I got into an argument with my husband and, although I was speaking loudly, he was not hearing me. When the argument was over, I had to laugh because I’ve heard similar grievances from clients. In reality, we both were at fault. My husband falls a little short when it comes to active listening. As for me? I project some stereotypes of my own. I expect my husband to know exactly what I am thinking. When he doesn’t, I convince myself I am sparing his feelings by not speaking up.
So how do you speak your mind without encountering defensiveness or producing conflict? In some instances it is not possible. But here are 7 tips to help you communicate freely while encouraging others to listen actively…judgment-free.
1. Think about what you want to say. Some people don’t express themselves while others speak without thinking. Always enter difficult conversations with a game plan in order to spur a productive conversation. Speaking your mind in the heat of the moment may result in tearing the other person down. The key is to remain empathetic in order to gain respect, thereby maintaining relationships.
2. Be honest. Not only to whoever you are speaking with, but to yourself. What do you really want from this conversation? I hear “you can say what you think, or you can have people like you” far too often in D.C. It is a terrible mantra. I say what I think A LOT and it is the reason my company likes me! Turns out people appreciate honesty – especially in moments of organizational development.
3. Stay calm. My mother never fails to remind me of a saying frequent in the South: “It is easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar.” Speaking calmly, assertively, but kindly will yield fruitful results. Always remain in control of the conversation and your emotions. No matter how passionate the discussion, do not yell. If you do, the listener will tune you out.
4. Be concise. I loathe when individuals preface criticisms with fluff. “I am so sorry but…” or “I enjoy working here but…” While useful in some instances, in most they serve no purpose. Keep things short and direct…then listen. If you say too much, you leave room for error and discourage two-way conversation.
5. Start small, perhaps with friends. Be assertive about a restaurant or movie choice and move up from there. Eventually, saying what you think should feel natural in both your personal and professional life. The last thing you want is to accidently explode during an annual review.
6. But don’t wait! If conflict comes knocking on your door, deal with it swiftly. Say leadership asks you to stay late an unreasonable amount outside of your contract. Most people meet those expectations to avoid conflict but the longer you wait to express concern, the longer this unwanted situation develops into a norm. As a result, confrontation becomes difficult or unlikely.
7. If all else fails, try to express it in writing. This is an influential stand-alone tactic. If you do not feel comfortable with your verbal skills, put it in writing. While it is not always appropriate to convey certain thoughts this way, the written word is extremely powerful. Send an email, a text message, or even a hand written note – but be mindful of the context.
How you do or do not express yourself is directly tied to perceptions of you as a leader, team member, or individual. My husband thought I wanted him to solve my problem. What I wanted was a little empathy! In most cases, if you “wait” to speak up you will be misrepresented. How did you overcome your fear of speaking up? Has speaking your mind accelerated your career?