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The Tools You Need to Speak Up

Speaking Up

Speaking up is hard to do, as Adam Galinsky attests in his Ted Talk.  This became especially apparent to him with the birth of his child. As new parents, Galinsky and his wife were concerned about the health of their baby boy but hesitated to call their pediatrician for fear of making a bad impression. Instead, they worried and waited until their next scheduled appointment, only to find out that their son was dehydrated.  He is fine now, but Galinsky realised that in that moment, he should’ve spoken up, but he didn’t.


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Galinsky can recall other moments in his life where he should have spoken up but kept his thoughts to himself.  He considered this dilemma and began asking people all over the world about speaking up. He was curious what caused them to assert themselves in some situations and not others.   

The range of stories was varied and diverse, but they also made up a universal tapestry. Through these experiences, he has come to recognise that each of us has something called a range of acceptable behaviour. When we stay within our range of acceptable behaviours, we are rewarded. When we step outside that range, we get punished in a variety of ways. We get dismissed or demeaned or even ostracized.


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Understanding Your Range

The first thing we need to know understand is your personal range. The key understanding is that our range isn’t fixed; it is dynamic. It expands, and it narrows based on the context. There’s one thing that determines that range more than anything else, and that’s your power. Your power determines your range. Power comes in lots of forms. In negotiations, it comes in the form of alternatives. Sometimes it’s at work, where someone’s the boss, and someone’s the subordinate. Sometimes it’s in relationships, where one person’s more invested than the other person.

When we have lots of power, our range is very wide, and we have a lot of leeway in how to behave. However, when we lack power, our range narrows and we have very little leeway. The problem is that when our range narrows, this produces something called the low-power double bind. The low-power double bind happens when, if we don’t speak up, we go unnoticed, but if we do speak up, we get punished.


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Gender Differences

The phrase “double bind” is sometimes connected with gender. This refers to situations where women who don’t speak up go unnoticed, and women who do speak up get punished. Women have the same need as men to speak up, but they have barriers to doing so. Over the last two decades, Galinsky’s research shows that what looks like a gender difference is not really a gender double bind, it’s a really a low-power double bind. Gender differences are often just power differences in disguise. A better explanation for many sex differences is power. The low-power double bind means that we have a narrow range, and we lack power. We have a narrow range, and our double bind is very large.


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Expanding Your Range

To overcome this, we need to find ways to expand our range. To do this, you must understand the two things that matter. The first is that you seem powerful in your own eyes. The second is that you seem powerful in the eyes of others. When you feel powerful, you feel confident, not fearful which allows you to expand your range. When other people see you as powerful, they grant you a wider range. We need tools to expand our range of acceptable behaviour.


Advocate for Others

The first tool you need to expand your range is to learn to advocate for others. When people advocate for others, they discover their own range and expand it in their own mind. They become more assertive. This is sometimes called “the mama bear effect,” because it is similar to a mama bear defending her cubs. When we advocate for others, we can discover our own voice.



Sometimes we have to advocate for ourselves. How do we do that? One of the most important tools we have to advocate for ourselves is something called perspective-taking. This is about looking at the world through the eyes of another person. It’s one of the most important tools we have to expand our range. When someone else takes your perspective and thinks about what you really want, you’re more likely to give them what they really want.


Signal Flexibility

One way to be assertive but still be likable is to signal flexibility. Imagine you’re a car salesperson, and you want to sell someone a car. It is more likely that you’ll make the sale if you give them two options. Let’s say option A is $24,000 for this car and a five-year warranty and option B is $23,000 and a three-year warranty. My research shows that when you give people a choice among options, it lowers their defenses, and they’re more likely to accept your offer.


Earn Allies

Having allies is the top reason people give for feeling comfortable enough to speak up. We want to get allies on our side. When we advocate for others, we expand our range in our own eyes and the eyes of others, but we also earn strong allies. Another way we can earn strong allies, especially in high places, is by asking other people for advice. When we ask others for advice, they like us because we flatter them, and we’re expressing humility.

This also helps to solve the double bind of self-promotion. The self-promotion double bind is that if we don’t advertise our accomplishments, no one notices, yet if we do, we’re not likable.  However, if we ask for advice about one of our accomplishments, we are able to be competent in their eyes but also be likable.


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Another time we feel more confident speaking up is when we have expertise. Expertise gives us credibility. When we have high power, we already have credibility. We only need good evidence. When we lack power, we don’t have the credibility. We need excellent evidence.


Tap into Your Passion

When we tap into our passion, we give ourselves the courage, in our own eyes, to speak up, but we also get the permission from others to speak up. Tapping into our passion even works when we come across as too weak. Both men and women get punished at work when they shed tears. Research shows, though, that when we frame our strong emotions as passion, the condemnation of our crying disappears for both men and women.


Using These Tools

We’ve all been assigned ranges and roles in this world, but they are constantly expanding and evolving.  Understand your situation and when a necessary don’t be afraid to be a ferocious mama bear and a humble advice seeker. Have excellent evidence and strong allies. Be a passionate perspective taker. If you use those tools, you will expand your range of acceptable behaviour, and your days will be mostly joyful.


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