Speaking up is hard

In just about every group conflict I’ve witnessed or participated in, I’ve seen some version of this happen:

  • Some people will speak up about something
  • There will be a conversation that gets heated
  • Someone else will be very uncomfortable with the fact that conflict is happening (despite somewhat sympathizing with the people who are speaking up)
  • And they will say something like, “Wow, I don’t like this tone. Can we all try to respect each other a bit more?”

And I think part of this is that people who aren’t speaking up really often have no idea how hard it is. It looks much easier than it is.

It’s hard, and it’s scary, to say something that you know will result in conflict. It’s hard to phrase things well, it’s hard and sometimes impossible to stand your ground in a way that makes everyone feel respected. Especially if you don’t have a lot of practice.

It’s possible that people who are speaking up really are being inappropriately or counterproductively disrespectful. That is a real thing that actually happens. But it’s also possible that people are doing the best they can, because speaking up is really hard and there’s often no way to do it which won’t be at least somewhat painful or awkward.

If you’re not in the habit of speaking up about anything other than the tone used by others when they speak up, it’s entirely possible that tone isn’t the real problem. It’s possible that the problem is that you haven’t learned through experience how hard it is to speak up, and how complicated of a skill it is to learn.

That is not always the problem, but it’s usually a possibility worth considering in that kind of situation.