Speaking up | Tarnya Davis

POWER: Degrees of assertiveness.
POWER: Degrees of assertiveness.

We know that relationships are good for us and our mental health, perhaps our connections are the purpose for most of what we do. Yet, asking for what we need, speaking up for ourselves, letting others know what’s OK and not OK for us, can be tough for some. 

Speaking up for ourselves is a skill that some have under-mastered and others perhaps have over-mastered. There are those who are very clear in making it clear to others what they need – sometimes too strongly – and others who struggle to have a voice at all. Often both ends of the spectrum of what we might call ‘degrees of assertiveness’ ends up a problem for the person in their relationships. 

We see differences in the ability to use our voices – particularly when gender, race and disability come into play – and social psychologist Adam Gallinsky talks about the ability we have to speak up as being reflective of our power.

Gallinsky says those with low power are punished when they speak outside the band of what they and others consider acceptable – speaking less is punished with being ignored, while speaking more than that is punished by being rejected.

So, how can we expand the range of what’s comfortable for us in order to ask for what we need? The solution is change at a societal level.

Gallinsky suggests the solution individually comes when a person with low power begins to seem powerful in their own eyes. This, by definition, is difficult, perhaps due to a low sense of deserving, and painful experiences of asking for what was needed in the past. Sometimes not asking has been a survival strategy to avoid the pain of rejection. 

But evidence shows that people with low power are more able to use their voices when they are advocating for others. Perhaps, if we imagine the people we are advocating for standing behind us we will feel more able to ask for what we need.  If we imagine that our asking for what we need from our work is advocating for our families, we are more likely to feel more powerful, for them. If we imagine that asking for what we need in our relationship is also advocating for the survival of that relationship, we can feel more powerful, and if we understand that speaking up shows our children healthy skills, it may be an easier first start.  

Tarnya Davis is a clinical and forensic psychologist and principal of NewPsych Psychologists. Her book of columns, All Things Considered, is sold at theherald.com.au