Unlearning Silence in the Workplace: How to Speak Up at Work

UPDATED: May 14, 2024
PUBLISHED: January 30, 2024
Shy woman learning how to speak up more at work

It’s happened to the best of us. You’re in a meeting—perhaps learning about a new company initiative or listening to a boss who wasn’t happy with your team’s performance—and you have something to say, but then you just… don’t. Because, after all, you want to keep your job, or you are worried it will come out wrong. 

But some workplace experts are speaking up and encouraging employees to do just the same in 2024; perhaps the only “resolution” you will need this year is some real talk. 

Unlearning Silence by Elaine Lin Hering

It’s a concept Harvard Law School lecturer Elaine Lin Hering, an expert in negotiation, influence and conflict management skills, explores in her upcoming book, Unlearning Silence: How to Speak Your Mind, Unleash Talent, and Live More Fully. She pushes readers to explore how we’ve learned to be silent, how we’ve benefited from silence, how we’ve silenced other people—and how we might choose another way.

Unlearning Silence book cover

“Only by unlearning silence can we more fully unleash talent, speak our minds and be more complete versions of ourselves… and help other people do the same,” she writes in her book.

She asks people to examine the costs of staying silent: “We unlearn being silent by recognizing and wrestling with the silence we’ve learned. What assumptions do we hold about where and when we’re allowed to speak up? What have we experienced as the costs of speaking up in the past? How are those costs the same or different in our current life or work situation?”

A 2020 survey found that 17.5% of employees surveyed don’t speak up at all at work when it comes to difficult topics. It’s easy to see why: In a constantly fluctuating market with an unpredictable economy, it can feel much safer to be quiet and do your job. But at what expense? Workplace environment and happiness, in some cases.

“Encouraging employees to be real in the workplace involves creating an environment where open communication is valued, diverse perspectives are welcomed and feedback is constructive rather than punitive,” says Carla Bevins, assistant teaching professor of business communication at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “This can contribute to a positive work culture, increased employee satisfaction and ultimately, improved organizational success.”

Here’s what to know before you open your mouth to reveal a bit more than you usually do.

Learning how to speak up more at work isn’t easy at first

If you are used to being more reserved or holding your thoughts to tell your work bestie at your next coffee break, it can feel a bit daunting or out of character to start sharing how you really feel. You also might not be immediately met with positive feedback, as it can be hard for those around you to start hearing what you’ve been thinking, especially if it isn’t all rosy.

People often face challenges, such as fear of repercussions, a lack of psychological safety or concerns about damaging relationships,” Bevins says. “Workplace hierarchies, communication barriers and a fear of being perceived as disruptive can also impede open dialogue.”

It can help to give it a go when you are in a room with more trusted colleagues and work friends, rather than starting in your most tense meetings. 

Unlearning silence has a greater impact on women

Especially in a male-dominated profession, some women might struggle to speak up and voice their concerns more than men. 

“Speaking up can be more challenging for women due to historical gender norms that discourage assertiveness,” Bevins says. “Women may fear being labeled as aggressive or confrontational. It is essential to promote inclusivity, mentorship and leadership training to empower women to voice their opinions confidently.”

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Women, or anyone, who is hesitant to get started can try speaking up more outside of work. “Try speaking up in low-stakes situations with strangers about issues that you don’t care deeply about: a coffee shop where the barista gets your name wrong or with a cab driver you likely won’t see again, versus someone with whom you have an ongoing relationship… where the stakes are high,” Hering says.

How to speak up at work and broach hard-to-address topics

Once you get a bit more comfortable speaking up, you can broach harder topics with compassion and honesty for meaningful change at work.

“Sensitive topics like mental health, workload concerns and interpersonal conflicts are often challenging to address openly,” Bevins notes. “Employees may hesitate to express dissatisfaction with management decisions or voice opinions that go against the prevailing norm.”

But sometimes, it’s worth the work to shed light on those thoughts and opinions, and speaking up results in lasting positive change. 

“I worked for an international company whose main headquarters was in another country. We had a small office in California run by someone I had worked with for years. He ran the office like a tyrant and bullied several people in the office, including me, but no one would say anything to HR in the other country,” says Analei Samasei’a, CEO of Think Brilliantly, a marketing firm in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

“I did complain but was never taken seriously, so I thought,” Samasei’a continues. “Finally, he was traveling and headquarter’s HR came out and interviewed everyone in the office to see how things were going. No one said anything about the tyrant and bullying. When it was my turn, again I spoke up and gave examples of both, and it turned into a huge investigation in the company. The California office employees were brought back in and asked specifically about this. They all finally spoke up. The tyrant was removed from the office, and we all enjoyed the rest of our time together.”

Don’t just complain—come with a solution

It’s one thing to learn to voice concerns and another to voice both the concern and the potential solution. Bosses will love the latter a lot more, and they will be more likely to respect your voice on the issue and future ones as well.

“Developing the skill of speaking up involves active listening, choosing the right time and place, framing feedback constructively and offering solutions,” Bevins explains. You might even be part of building an environment where everyone can more openly bounce ideas around and feel they are in a safe space to disagree. “Encouraging a culture that values feedback and dissent can make it easier for individuals to express their thoughts without fear of backlash.”

How to speak up for yourself at work: Use some psychology for better results

Don’t just start blabbing. Study the people you work with first to determine what makes them tick and what strategies would work best to impact and persuade them. “That means starting from the perspective of how can I influence this person? Why do they do what they do? What’s motivating and animating them? [What are] their underlying interests?” says Timothy J. Vogus, faculty director of the Leadership Development Program and professor of management at Vanderbilt University. 

Then, once you have a better understanding of that, Vogus says it’s time to start offering feedback in a way that is actionable and specific, outlined as follows: “‘What am I observing? When does it occur? What is the evidence that it is a problem? What is a better approach and a willingness to help?’”

4 steps to unlearning silence according to Elaine Lin Hering

If you know why you are speaking up, you are more likely to succeed, Hering says. 

“What matters more to you than your own discomfort with speaking up? Is it justice? Is it someone’s dignity? Is it making sure this same thing doesn’t happen to other people?” she says. Here’s how she recommends doing speaking up:

  1. Start with your why. 
  2. Connect the dots. “Connecting the dots means explaining your thought process and data, because you do have reasoning and data to back up your perspective that is likely different than how someone else sees it,” she says.
  3. Make the ask clear.
  4. Embrace resistance. “Knowing that resistance is to be expected takes some of the sting out of it. You’re less likely to be surprised when people get defensive, push back or attack,” Hering says. “Instead, it’s ‘ohh there it is. There’s their resistance.’ And then if you want, engaging with the resistance to understand what new information you might learn from it.”

What companies can do across employee teams

Bosses can also facilitate more open conversation, encouraging whole teams to express themselves better. 

“One tool I use in my teaching is what is sometimes referred to as a ‘personal user manual,’ whereby students assemble into teams, describe their preferred styles of working and communicating…their ‘pet peeves,’” Vogus says. “By making what is typically tacit and learned through experience (if at all) explicit, it creates a foundation for empathic understanding and for more honest conversation and real learning to occur.” 

While building a positive workplace culture might seem like a lofty goal, it should be discussed in the same vein as profitability, along with retention goals. Nobody wants to work somewhere they are frequently silenced, either overtly or discreetly.

“This is a crucial issue, because honest communication fosters a positive work culture, encourages innovation and resolves conflicts efficiently,” Bevins says. “When employees feel heard and valued, they are more engaged, leading to increased productivity and overall job satisfaction.”

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