With the primary election only a few weeks away, people are more likely to be speaking up about their preferred issue or candidate. And that’s good – in a democracy, we all need to make our voices heard in order to create an effective and positive government. There are many other places, however, where we also need to speak our minds to make life better, even if it’s sometimes uncomfortable in the moment.

Just because there is no explicit conflict doesn’t mean all is well. Sometimes we need to make the issue visible by addressing it directly. We’re not creating the conflict, simply bringing it to light so we can deal with it. This usually means some difficult conversations. However, in some cases, intervention, political action, or even law enforcement involvement is necessary.

Lots of situations happen at work and home where the need for intervention is obvious, but unacknowledged. We don’t give voice to what we see or feel. We tell ourselves that if we ignore it, the conflict isn’t there or will go away on its own. A too-common example is hearing a neighbor yelling and swearing at their spouse night after night – we don’t want to get involved, so we say nothing, and the verbal abuse continues.

Rightly or wrongly, silence is construed as agreement with whatever is going on. When we remain silent, it reinforces the fear others feel about saying anything. Others who see the same problem feel isolated and question whether their concerns are real. We’re social animals. We look to others for cues about behavior. Silence begets silence, and conflict grows.

In the workplace, derogatory talk is a big issue. Individuals are ridiculed for the way they dress or talk, or simply because they are different. Being bullied tends to make the targets feel less power to stick up for themselves. It’s easiest for those of us on the sidelines, those not under attack, to help stop the bullying. But precisely because we are not directly involved, it requires more effort to choose to act.

Of course, speaking up is not a justification for an unfiltered spewing out of whatever we think. Not all thoughts should be spoken and not all desires should be acted upon. Nor is it an excuse to tell others how to live their lives. They are not going to welcome our unsolicited opinions on their choice of clothing, hair, parenting, career, etc. It’s also not helpful to make our comments into a personal attack on who they are. For example, “You need to stop yelling now.”, is much more effective than “You are a loud idiot!”. We need to interrupt injustice without mirroring the injustice.

Speaking up is about setting limits and defining acceptable behavior. We must be frank about behavior that is not acceptable at home or work, or even beyond – at the county, national, and international levels. Passivity by those of us for whom action is least risky escalates situations until we’re all at risk. Think how much suffering we can prevent if we can only find the courage to speak up. Bullies will be thwarted and fewer people will be harmed.

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