Spectrums are common in nature, of light, of consciousness, and of political views. But I have yet to come across a spectrum of assertive speaking. Here, I use the notion of a spectrum to showcase an effective coaching process for people who want to speak up for themselves more at work, or to delegate more, or to stand up for themselves in general.
There is no shortage of encouragement to be “more assertive,” which is often how “speaking up” is communicated. But there is a lack of actual processes designed to walk you through the steps it takes to get there. Make no mistake about it, developing your voice is one of the most important mindfulness practices in which you will ever engage. But there is a recipe for it, and once you start cooking with this recipe, you are likely to enjoy the meal more than you thought possible.
Most of us have had the following thought after having a difficult exchange with someone: “What I should have said is… [insert well thought out, well presented point/argument].” It’s natural to go back in our minds and fantasize about becoming the hero in our own story. Armed with the perfect turn of phrase, we would emerge victorious.
What you may not know is that this is the first step in the evolution of your voice. If you are satisfied with your fantasies, then you can stop here, because I am going to outline the steps you can take to turn those fantasies into reality. But no change worth making is easy; courage only matters when there’s (perceived) danger. If you want to “develop your backhand,” this process will help you do that.
Step One – Noticing
You either notice or you don’t. Growing your voice is not a matter of re-contacting something that has been suppressed. It is seductive to accept the arguments of some people that we all have voices that are suppressed by society, but I think this is unhelpful (except in cases where severe physical or emotional abuse occurred while growing up, but that’s not the norm, by definition).
It is simply not useful to your development to think of your voice as having been suppressed. Neither yell at nor sympathize with the acorn for not-yet being an oak tree. Some people are content to remain in the “don’t know what they don’t know” window. But if you “know what you don’t know” (i.e., what you should have said in that difficult conversation), then you are usefully irritated because your voice is emerging. Otherwise, you wouldn’t care.
Step Two – Fantasizing with Curiosity
This is the step that most people arrive at quickly after they notice what they “should have said.” Instead of feeling bad or ashamed during these moments, recognize that you are on a path, and you’ll have ample opportunities to practice. Write those perfect comebacks down on paper. But also write down why you would need to be courageous in that prior moment. What would have been at-risk for you had you said those things? It’s likely that those are the natural constraints with which we must all reckon during our development.
Step Three (A) – Forming with Thought Experiments
In this step, you will begin to form the things you might say if those natural constraints did not exist. There are a few things that you can do with this step, things that have nothing to do with an actual response.
The first is to get clarity on the risks that result from violating your natural constraints. Perhaps it is the most common catastrophe, “I might lose this relationship.” Or maybe it is more about getting things done, “If I say this, our work will be derailed.” Or maybe it’s about how you would feel about yourself, “I don’t want to feel the guilt of shutting someone down.”
Natural constraints are lying in tension with another voice. This is the voice of your future self. “Here I go again…remaining silent”; “I won’t respect myself if I don’t say something”; “They’re not right, this could lead to a bad outcome for us.”
The tension you feel is being created by the engine of your development, a polarity of motivations where both responding and not-responding have equally bad outcomes. Or so you believe.
Believing is seeing, perhaps more so than the other way around. If you’re worried about the “echo chambers” created by the (social) media, follow Ghandi’s advice and become the change you want to see in the world. Find the courage to look your beliefs in the eye so that you can accept the real-and-imagined risks of using your voice. When not using your voice is worse, you will be ready to speak assertively. That insight takes inner work.
Step Three (B) – Anticipating with Thought Experiments
After several rounds of the above, you will naturally begin anticipating where someone is going during a conversation. In the past, such anticipation would likely motivate you to a defensive position. By remaining calm in the face of what you might say, you are beginning the process of hatching your voice.
Anyone who has ever dealt with a truly life-or-death situation, or read anything about Flow states, or watched a program about someone who survived a perilous situation knows that an eerie calm emerges. It is not until after the event that the “I could have died!” thoughts start to emerge. This is something I call the Primal Learning Loop.
Your lizard brain sends the most messages to your mammal brain and executive functions in the immediate aftermath of such events. It’s attempting to teach you a lesson, it’s rewiring your brain. This is why we “get back on the horse” after falling off. We want to disrupt the Primal Learning Loop before it gets a chance to hold us back from the things we enjoy/need.
This is the time to safely practice. In your mind, as you anticipate where they are going, start to think in your voice. You needn’t actually talk – indeed, now may be the worst time to talk. This is the part of the process that is most often missing from otherwise well-meaning guides. It is risk-free and moves you towards the next step.
Step Four – Practicing and Interviewing
Practice what you might say next time in front of a mirror. Practice with a coach or friend. Role play. But don’t forget to give the other side their due. Create genuine responses and ask anyone helping you to occupy those responses with the same feelings or views of that person.
Most importantly, find someone who speaks up for themselves well. My college friend worked as a short order cook, and they had a dress code that men had to wear pants because they have leg hair, while women could wear shorts. So he shaved his legs, and when his boss tried to reprimand him, he said he was following company policy, asked for a raise, and got it.
Not everyone is this bold but choose someone to interview whom you know will stand up for themselves. You will likely be surprised when you ask them, “Why is it o.k. in your mind to advocate so strongly for your agenda?”
Step Five – Safe Experiments
“Step into the punch” as they say in martial arts. It’s not easy to give up the values of work and love that are a big part of maintaining the status-quo. But every ending is a new beginning (perhaps this is my bias, but I’ve seen enough to believe this is generally true).
Things could get messy, but they will not be not fatal. Think about all of the people you’ve accepted despite what you see as flaws; now consider the fact that others are just like you. Most people are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, as you grant this to others.
The person with whom you will speak has the same capacity for making sense of you in multiple ways. Sure, they might be uncomfortable or upset, but if your voice is a deal-breaker for them, then any reasonable adult would advise you to reconsider the relationship.
This is the time to experiment. You’ve practiced enough. Time to find someone safe enough, in a context that is also safe enough. For example, you might request more time when a trusted colleague asks something of you. Or you might gently correct someone who doesn’t accurately summarize your views on a matter.
You may need to wait for a pause in order to give birth to your voice. Or you may need to interrupt. Take a deep breath. Take two. Remind yourself that it’s o.k. to mess up – these are messy situations! Try not to overthink this. The last thing you should say to yourself before giving voice to your voice is “My Voice Matters.”
This is the moment to begin speaking more assertively. The inner work is done. Test the universe as you test yourself.
Make sure you write down all of the results from your experiments!
Step Six – Less Safe Experiments
Similar to the above, except you will “turn up the volume” when speaking up. You’ll likely turn the actual volume of your voice down, because after a few attempts, you will have greater emotional regulation during conversations. You may still need to remind yourself that your voice matters, and now you can add, “I’ve been here before, and it was o.k.”
Again, it is vital that you record the results of your experiments.
Step Seven – Consolidate in a Narrative
Well-meaning processes the world over leave out this crucial step. Write down all of the things that actually happened or did not happen, including things that have not-yet happened which might, because you’ll write those final results down later on the same page or notecard. This last move completes the creation of neural pathways that compete with the Primal Learning Loop.
I like to follow C.G. Jung’s model of the “hero’s journey” when creating the narrative of someone’s change arc:
- Call to Adventure – You receive feedback from yourself or others that you should develop your backhand.
- Refusal of the Call – The resistance you felt for responding to the feedback.
- Supernatural Aid – The Spectrum of Mindfulness Practice! (Or, an Immunity to Change development map, if you have a coach with whom you can create one).
- Crossing the Threshold – Seeing how much you’ve been holding yourself back as it is happening.
- Road of Trials – All of your anticipations, interviews, and thought experiments, your moments of practice before running experiments.
- Temptation – Any despair you might have experienced which caused you to want to give up.
- Transformation – Running your first experiments.
- Atonement – Running your less safe experiments.
- Ultimate Boon – When you realized that you are living in a different world, where your backhand can be as good as your forehand, maybe even better in certain ways.
- Refusal of Return – You are now so good at your backhand, you rely on it more than your forehand!
- The Return – Knowing when to use your forehand, and when to use your backhand, and why. This is wisdom.
- Master of Two Worlds – Gaining the ability to mentor others on this same journey.
- Freedom to Live – Any insights you have gained about life in general, based on your transformation.
Some Final Thoughts
There is no going back after you give birth to your voice, and that is a good thing. Nobody can take it away from you even if they attempt to stifle you, because your voice is a state of mind, a worldview that elicits respect from all parties, especially yourself.
The Spectrum of Assertive Talking is something I’ve used in my coaching for almost a decade. It can feel selfish to some people to privilege their voice during a conversation. For others, the opposite is true – it feels like a violation to listen. For them, the Spectrum of Empathic Listening is perhaps a better process for their growth and development.
Communication is the playing field that is both private and public for who we are and who we are becoming. Learning where you actually meet the world, as opposed to where you’d like the world to come and meet you, is the easiest way for us to access our own ongoing evolution.
As I often say, “Life is a No-Standing Zone” where you are both the offender and the authority. When you authorize the development of your voice you are certain to be pleased with the results. For each relationship that you risk, better relating will be the result.