Own Your Place at the Table

Sometimes it can be hard to know what our place is in a new group – especially after college, when we first join the workforce. It’s that time when you’re trying to balance being the new team member who has a degree and fresh ideas with being the new team member who wants to respect seasoned staff and listen before sharing ideas. Knowing when to speak up and when to stay silent can be difficult.

It was for me. I wanted so badly to do a good job and be a valuable contributor that sometimes I offered too much input and other times I didn’t speak up enough. I felt lost in my many self-imposed expectations of perfectionism. 

In Louder Than Words: Harness the Power of Your Authentic Voice, author Todd Henry describes perfectionism as, “an inhuman aim motivated by a concern with how others view us.” (Side note: Todd Henry is one of my favorite authors and podcasters. I found his work early in my career and it’s served as sort of a “digital mentor” to me. I’ve interwoven Todd’s quotes throughout this post.)

Below are three challenges I faced and solutions I found related to knowing and owning your place at the table – which I define as being able to share your unique perspective and ideas.

“You have to let go of your fear of what you think you must be so that you can embrace the possibility of what you might be.”

–Todd Henry, Louder Than Words

Challenge #1: Inability to Speak Up

Examples: 

  • You have an opinion, but you don’t know how to share it. You feel paralyzed and mute when you try to speak up.
  • You feel like you can’t voice your ideas to a group; you have to share privately with your boss or another authority figure and rely on them to get your message out.
  • You feel like you don’t have enough authority to share important input.

Challenge #2: Fearful to Have An Opinion

Examples: 

  • You feel like having no opinion protects you. If you have an opinion, there is a possibility that people whose opinions you value will disagree. That feels unsafe. It feels safer to agree with everyone than to make a claim and put your stake in the ground.
  • You agree externally with everybody and neglect or tune out your internal opinions. This leaves you feeling confused and you have no idea what your opinion or voice actually is.
  • Rule you live by: Agree = safe; Disagree = argument

Challenge #3: Can’t Provide Directions

Examples:

  • Instead of offering ideas for a project or problem, you ask others what they want you to do. You do not think for yourself or suggest solutions. You trust others’ ideas and discount yours.
  • You feel like only others can provide directives and you are only allowed to take directions. 
  • You feel like all you ever do is help other people make their ideas come to life. No one cares about yours and you don’t have time to work on yours, because you’re busy mobilizing others’ visions.

The problem with all of these challenges is that they trap you in a stifling pattern that prevents you from moving forward in your life and career. They also can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where you believe these inhibiting statements are true, so you live as if they’re true, making them true.

Steps to Change

The first step for me was self-awareness. When I feel paralyzed to share my opinion, stopping to ask myself questions like the following can help me ground myself and come back to reality.

  1. How do I perceive myself? Is my perception true?
  2. How do others perceive me? 
  3. How do I want to be perceived?
  4. Is sharing or not sharing helping me make the impression I want to make?
  5. What emotion do I feel right now?
  6. When was the first time I felt this emotion?
  7. What’s true in this situation?

Questions 5, 6, and 7 I got from a fantastic counselor, who asks clients to keep an emotion journal. When overwhelming and paralyzing feelings arise, the client writes down the answer to each of those questions as a grounding exercise. 

I found this practice to be beneficial because we often move through our day and feel a range of emotions without stopping to think about them. Knowing where our emotions came from – a traumatic childhood experience, a positive memory, or a painful situation, for example – can help us to evaluate whether our fear of speaking up is valid or not. 

I’ve found that many times, it’s not.

Especially if the fear to speak up comes from a traumatic childhood experience, it can be strong. It can overwhelm all logic in us, to where we cannot speak. That’s where the opportunity to “reparent” ourselves, as psychologist and researcher Pia Mellody calls it, becomes a helpful tool.

“To cultivate your authentic voice, you must cultivate three things: a strong sense of identity, which means doing work that is rooted in something substantive and personally meaningful; a consonant vision for your work, meaning a sense of the ultimate impact you want to have; and mastery of your skills and platform.”

–Todd Henry, Louder Than Words

I believe knowing our identity starts with self-awareness.

Other questions you can ask yourself are situational, and can help you think logically:

  1. What was I hired to do? 
  2. Does sharing my opinion on the topic at hand align with doing the work I am responsible for?
  3. Does holding back my opinion hinder the team from moving towards a goal?

If you find that refraining from sharing your opinion actually goes against your job responsibility and function, that can be a wake up call (realization) that sharing your input is not only a good idea – it’s required. 

For me, that made me speak up! 

Your company hired you to share your unique perspective and contribute to a team. If you just agree with everyone, never speak up, or don’t challenge the norms, what do they need you for? When I become fearful of what others will think of me if I speak up, I remind myself that it’s actually worse if I never share my unique opinion.

You’ve been given a place at the table. Own it!

How does this resonate with you? Is it easy or difficult for you to share your thoughts? What have you used to overcome challenges to speaking up? Please comment below!

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