When to speak up – and when not to

How do you know when to speak up? How do you know when it’s better not to? What are the rules?

Photo: Dawn Arlotta

This is an issue many of our clients seem to wrestle with. It’s often difficult to speak up when you know something others don’t. Here is a step-by-step guide to speaking up.

  1. What’s the context?

The time that people find most difficult to speak up is in a meeting, especially when it’s the boss who has got something wrong. In this situation, ask yourself these questions:

  • How critical is it for me to speak?
  • Do I need to speak now?
  • What are the consequences if I don’t speak?

If you know something important that other people don’t, and the consequences are serious for others if you don’t tell them, you need to speak up.

However, you also need to judge the situation.  If you are about to tell your boss, in public, that they are mistaken, you need to use strong politeness markers.

Depending on the people involved and your personal style, you can signal that you are not being deliberately confrontational, aggressive or offensive with introductions like:

  • “I recently learned that …”
  • “You may already be aware that …”
  • “I’ve just received new/additional information on this issue”, or even
  • “Could you let us know your opinion on this opposing view?”

However, balance this with the fact that if it’s important enough to speak up, then you should try to ensure your message is delivered with confidence, and isn’t lost in too much deference.

Is it essential you speak right now?

If it’s not urgent, find a time later to talk to the person who had the wrong information. Politely let them know you have been given different or perhaps more recent information. Offer to check which of you is correct and update the person later. Try to find out where the other person got their information and be prepared to be wrong.

Is it important?

Sometimes someone is wrong but it’s not important. You need to use your judgement here. If there is no risk and no serious consequences, sometimes it’s best to let it go. Don’t let this become an excuse for never speaking up, however.

Is it personal?

If someone has said something personal, it’s best wherever possible to talk to them later. You are the only person who can judge whether you need to speak to them and when. If you find it’s impeding your relationship, you should seriously consider speaking to them. You may be surprised at how often people are apologetic and upset to find their words were hurtful.

Does it always have to be you?

Observe carefully how other people in the team act in these situations, especially more experienced team members. Are you the only one who ever speaks up? If so, ask yourself why no-one else is prepared to speak. Consider other ways to get your information across.

How can I avoid this situation in the first place?

If you are the subject matter expert, for example in HR, legal or finance, offer to find out the latest information in advance and prepare some notes for your boss for future meetings. A good boss will be glad of the offer of assistance and pleased with your initiative.

Speaking up needn’t be scary. If you learn when to speak and how to speak up politely but firmly, you will gain a reputation as a subject matter expert, a trusted authority and a good communicator.