by Dr. Teresa Peterson
We all avoid things: conversations, situations, the laundry on the couch. In a world filled with so much to do and say, why do we, sometimes, just . . . not?
The question feels rather general, but the answer isn’t. It generally has to do with a (sometimes unconscious) evaluation of risk (laundry example notwithstanding, because we all know you can just scoot that over).
Take the case of that conversation we’ve been avoiding, for example. Perhaps we aren’t sure how we’ll be received, which is a scary unknown. Or maybe it feels like there’s too much on the line. Or maybe we don’t feel safe and supported enough to speak up, even if what we have to say feels important. Or maybe we’ve been professionally gaslit into a loop of questioning whether or not there is a problem at all. Maybe we aren’t sure if our thoughts and opinions will be heard in the larger context of the problem we’re trying to solve. Maybe we think talking about it won’t make a difference or will make things worse.
Whatever the reason, we silence ourselves. And what we don’t say has an impact just as much, if not more, than what we do.
Sarah often tells the story of one of the best gifts she ever received: it happened as she was hanging back and was asked, “What are we missing by not hearing from you? What are we not getting without your voice and your perspective?”
That’s not to imply that it’s always the right time and place to speak and stand with courage. Certainly, though, that place exists (hint: it has to do with psychological safety—we’ll get to that).
But it is to point out a common assumption: that if we’re not saying something, there’s nothing to be said. Not true.
There are two angles to come at this idea of silence: one is how to help people speak and stand with courage, and the other is how to create environments in which that not only feels safe but is celebrated. Let’s focus on the latter.
How do you create environments where people feel psychologically safe sharing with you? Where they don’t water their impact or contribution down by (even unconsciously) calculating the risks of being heard? Where they know they can share ideas, opinions (even contrary ones), be the devil’s advocate, spar with ideas? How do we create the conditions where that is safe and possible?
This is the side of the avoidance conversation that isn’t talked about nearly enough.
Here’s why: we often work with leaders who say some version of, “I want people to speak up more. I like pushback.” The only problem is that they only like pushback from their favorite team members. Or they only want people to speak up when they’re in agreement. Or they’re using some version of, “If people aren’t speaking up, I can’t force them” as an excuse not to go deeper. For these folks, it’s not a fun truth to hear a lot of the time, but it is the truth nonetheless. And once we name it, we can begin to work on it.
Moving forward requires us to consider that there are two roles in a conversation that matters: one person’s role is to step into discomfort, speak and stand with courage, and share the information/emotion/opinion/etc. The other person’s role is to receive it.
It is very true that you can’t force someone to speak, but you can create conditions where people feel empowered to share honestly—not just once, but moment by moment.
Really think about it: in the moment, as the listener or receiver, how can you hold steady if what you’re hearing is uncomfortable to you or isn’t what you expected/were prepared to address? How can you ensure your team feels heard and validated, regardless of the outcome?
A good place to start is recognizing that the silence of your team does not equal their agreement and tranquility. If you let yourself believe it does because that feels easier than creating an environment of psychological safety, you’ll struggle with obvious things like employee satisfaction and retention and less obvious things like the stagnation and irrelevancy that comes from a lack of cohesion, innovation, and creativity.
We don’t want that for you or for the humans who make up your organization, which is why we’re here to help. For more on building psychological safety, listen to episode 68 of the Conversations on Conversations podcast with Sarah and guest Brandon Springle. For more on the idea of silence, be on the lookout for Elaine Lin Hering’s forthcoming book, Unlearning Silence, which we’ll be exploring together in March.
Dr. Teresa Peterson
Dr. Teresa Peterson is the Director of Learning and Development for Sarah Noll Wilson, Inc. In her daily work, she serves as Sarah’s key content collaborator. Teresa enjoys facilitating, researching, and is passionate about applying best practices for learning to make our experiences meaningful, engaging, and accessible for all types of learners. Teresa holds a Doctorate in Education from the University of Northern Iowa and brings over twenty years of experience teaching, facilitating, and leading to our team. Our clients love Teresa’s grounded energy, depth of thought, and ability to listen deeply.