Why we hesitate to speak up

If this were a game of family fortunes, the top scoring answer would undoubtedly be fear.

Most of us avoid speaking up because we are preoccupied by fear. We are nervous about saying the wrong thing and fear the reaction of others in response.

In this way, lack of confidence, keeps us safe from the feeling of not being heard, validated, or accepted. It can also lead to frustration with oneself when someone else says that brilliant point we had in our heads.

Fear can be a signal to act or to resist the urge to act. We need to trust in ourselves to know the difference. Confidence is not the absence of fear it is in acting despite it.

How do we get to know the difference?

It can be difficult in the moment to assess this speedily enough. Reflection afterwards can be a useful way to make the assessment and learn something ahead of next time. Three useful questions to ask yourself:

#1 What is the aim of what we have to say?

Challenge yourself to consider, was your intention to share about related to your intended contribution or a feeling that you ‘should’ be speaking. With the former, it is likely fear is a signal to act. Building the confidence to do so would benefit from focusing on the potential effectiveness of your contribution and weighing up whether the risk to your self-esteem if it isn’t appreciated in the way you would like it to be. With the latter, perhaps fear is signal to resist?

#2 Where was your fear coming from?

Here are a few common examples,

  • Perceived lack of skills or experience in the area to which you would be contributing – This may be a valid reason for not raising your point, you may be incorrect or have missed the point. However, you could be raising something that brings a different perspective. Perhaps there is a way to contribute which acknowledges your alternative lens?
  • Perfectionism – Even when we have the knowledge and skill our expectations of what a perfect contribution looks like can hold us back from speaking up. The focus of our contribution is often about earning approval and acceptance.  Focusing on the value or potential value of our contribution on the task in hand can help to divert our attention to the content of our contribution rather than our anticipated reaction to it.
  • Critical self-judging voice – telling us that we don’t know enough to contribute despite experience and logic telling us otherwise. We have a natural tendency to judge and criticize ourselves much more harshly than we criticize those around us. Therefore, anything you might be telling yourself about the worthiness of your contribution is likely to be harsher than what anyone else will think in practice.

#3 What is the worst that could happen?

You have probably already imagined it. Is it really that bad? How would you deal with it? Knowing how you would handle a feared reaction means that you will be better prepared for it. One principle of optimistic thinking is hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

The second top scoring answer would be a struggle to find the gap. In particular in meetings with many active contributors, it can be hard to get a word in edgeways. When we have some fear already, coupling this with the search for a long enough pause can make speaking up a near impossibility.

From working in an extraverted environment with lots of directive and active contributors, here are a few tips….

  • Face to face meetings, direct eye contact and body language towards the speaker. They will start to engage with you and it will be easier to take your turn at speaking next.
  • Conference calls (perhaps a thing of the past for many of us), try coming in with a gentle interruption ‘…yes’ a few ‘mmms’ or ‘…good point….’. This is a polite way of making it your turn next.
  • Video calls, use the functionality and put up your virtual hand, even if you are the first to use it you may start a trend and bring structure to the meeting.
  • If your thoughts are slower than the pace of the meeting, don’t be afraid to jump in when you can and take the meeting back. A worthwhile contribution is worth stepping back for.


Brene Brown (2021) Atlas of the Heart

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