Speaking Up with Care and Respect

By Inge Woudstra

To develop an inclusive culture, it is important to speak up when something happens that is inconsistent with the values of our organisation. And it’s not just leaders who need to speak up, but everyone in the team. An inclusive culture doesn’t just come from leaders; inclusion is something in which every single team member has a role to play.

Speaking up isn’t easy. We hesitate to speak up if we perceive it to be risky to our image or reputation or our career progression. We might worry about the consequences, we fear it might damage our working relationships or ruin our career. We can be anxious that others might judge us and we might lose the support of our colleagues.

No wonder. Social relationships are vital for human beings. In fact, the distress caused when a social bond is threatened activates the same brain circuits related to physical pain. We even feel this when we see someone else experience it, as more fully explained in this article: The Pain of Social Exclusion – Science Daily. 

What we can learn from this is that although it’s important to speak up, it’s important to speak up with care and sensitivity, in a way that protects relationships. That is, to speak up in a way that is diplomatic and respectful of others.

In our workshops on Inclusive Behaviours, we work on how people might do this in a number of scenarios. In one example, we ask what a team member might do when, for instance, a woman is interrupted in a meeting. We know that women are typically interrupted 3x more often than men, (and not just by men) and this is something we can address relatively easily, with respect and sensitivity.

So what could we say or do? Here are two of the suggestions offered up in our workshops and their relative merits:

1.     Scenario A“Put up your hand and say, ‘Sorry Richard, Samira was speaking, could you please let her finish?’”

While this gets the job done, this suggestion has the potential effect of embarrassing Richard in public for something that he may not have done intentionally, or perhaps even consciously. For this reason, it is not an ideal approach. Moreover, when we interrupt Richard, we are making the same mistake he made.

2.     Scenario B

“Wait until Richard has finished making his point and then say, ‘Thank you Richard, great point. Now I would like to hear from Samira as she was still making a point.’”

This way you do speak up for Samira, but just as with the first suggestion, Richard is likely to feel put in his place. This may seem deserved and feel right to some, but now Richard may feel excluded and may be resentful.

So we need to find a way that allows Samira to speak, yet is still respectful of Richard and his feelings. We could, for example, wait until Richard has made his point and then say, ‘Thank you Richard, that was a valuable contribution. Samira, I think you also wanted to say something.’This way, Richard feels heard and Samira has a chance to share her ideas too. This respectful and diplomatic approach also sends a message to everyone else in the team that all perspectives are welcome and valued.

It’s important to ensure people don’t feel embarrassed but valued and respected when we call out their behaviours. We must acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes, even those of us who feel we’re inclusive and considerate. We ought to avoid making people feel blamed or ostracised, like some men might feel as this Forbes article suggests.

Are you working to develop an inclusive culture, and would you also like your teams to behave more inclusively? Do get in touch to discuss how we might be able to help.