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How to get better at speaking up in the moment

Learning how to push back can be hard. But it’s something you can get better at, with practice.

How to get better at speaking up in the moment
[Photo: lemono/Getty Imagwes]

A lot of people struggle speaking up in the moment. Sometimes, it’s due to the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing and suffering repercussions. Or maybe it’s because they’re not prepared and are caught off guard in the moment. The problem with not pushing back is that you don’t address the problem, says Amber Cabral, author of Say More About That . . . And Other Ways to Speak Up, Push Back, and Advocate for Yourself and Others.

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“Whatever the not-okay behavior, oppressive action, or inappropriate discussion may be, it will continue to go on,” she says. “It should be resolved or addressed by pushing back.”

Cabral defines pushing back as challenging an idea or position someone else had before. In the workplace, that can be something as simple as disagreeing with someone’s perspective. Or it could be a matter of trying to create space for your ideas.

“When you’re thinking about pushing back, that means that you’re trying to challenge something that has been presented that is inequitable or doesn’t consider all the information is available,” says Cabral.

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How to Push Back

There is a wrong way and a right way to push back, says Cabral. “You may be living life through your eyes, but other people are experiencing it, too,” she says. “You want to recognize how things might land, because messaging that lands well is more likely to be effective.”

For example, if your ideas aren’t being heard and you’re not being given the space you need, Cabral suggests inserting yourself by asking a question, such as, “I can appreciate what you shared. Would you be open to a different perspective?”

“What that question does is it invites folks who are listening to say, ‘Oh, there’s another person,'” says Cabral. “They have to give you an affirmative or say no. When you pose a question, you’re ‘permissioning’ those who are in the room with you, asking them to shift to their listening ear. It’s also very nonconfrontational; very inviting.”

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Pushing Back When You’re Interrupted

If you’re being interrupted, however, the approach is a little different. “People don’t necessarily realize that they do it,” says Cabral. “However, the person experiencing the interruption can feel that it is deliberate.”

Cabral suggests pushing back by staying quiet and making steady eye contact with the person. “When they’re done, I give it a couple extra awkward seconds after they’re finished. Then I chime in and say, ‘Is it a good time for me to share my idea?’ The answer in the workplace is usually an affirmative. It gives you an opportunity to share what you have to say and address the interruption directly.”

Another technique is interrupting the person who interrupted you, saying, “Is it okay if I continue my thoughts?” “Most folks will stop in their tracks right in that moment and say, ‘Oh, yes, of course. My apologies for interrupting,'” says Cabral. “Questions force people to give you the permission that you are seeking versus being confrontational, pushy, and direct. It gives people the opportunity to course correct and gain awareness of their behavior. And it helps protect your reputation.”

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Why It’s Important to Push Back

Pushing back is important for challenging things that are not equitable. You can make space for aspects of your identity that may not get the space that they deserve. A perfect example is that just five years ago, we were not having conversations about pronouns, says Cabral.

“The reason it’s happening now is that people chimed in and pushed back, giving us an opportunity to have a collective shift to our mindset and perspective,” she says. “Pushback is one of the ways that we move our culture, our identities, our communities—and our workplaces—forward because it introduces ideas that we may not have considered, and challenges us to be willing to evolve and shift to create more inclusive and equitable spaces.”

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About the author

Stephanie Vozza is a freelance writer who covers productivity, careers, and leadership. She's written for Fast Company since 2014, and her byline has appeared in several other leading publications and websites

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