In the early 1990’s, 12-year-old Severn Suzuki was passionately obsessed with real world issues like poverty, ocean pollution, and global warming. She was just a child, but she also understood that the decisions adults made concerning these issues would impact her life and the lives of all children for generations to come. And she believed she and other children should have a voice and be present during critical global meetings on these issues.
Severn boldly set her sights on attending the next United Nations (UN) Conference. At the time, in over 50 years, no child had ever attended a UN Conference—a formal meeting where ambassadors from nearly every developed country come together to openly discuss the future health of the world. But Severn believed it was time to change this—it was time for children to have a voice too. So not only was she determined to figure out how to attend, but she resolved to make sure her voice was heard loud and clear too.
Severn applied to attend the UN Conference through the environmental non-profit she and her friends founded when they were all just 9-years-old. And when her application was accepted—not because of her age, but because she had helped build a relevant non-profit—she knew it was just the beginning.
When Severn arrived at the UN Conference she hit the ground running with one goal in mind: to find an opportunity to publicly convey her message about the importance of children being a part of the UN’s global conversation. Quickly, she learned that one of the scheduled speakers was unable to attend the conference. So she volunteered to replace that speaker. And although there was some initial reluctance, her offer was ultimately accepted.
A few days later she stood on stage, utterly nervous, looked out over a room filled with ambassadors from around the world and began speaking in a clear, steady voice. She may have been just 12-years-old, and she may have felt out of her element, but her air of authority and passion were unmistakable: “I’m only a child, and I don’t have all the solutions. But I want you to realize, neither do you.”
When Severn wrapped up her speech and exited the stage, the ambassadors gave her a standing ovation. But more importantly, they heard her, and they took action. At the next UN Conference on Environment and Development children were invited to attend and participate. And it all happened because one 12-year-old girl had the courage and tenacity to stand up for her right to be heard.
In a nutshell, that’s the power of good communication!
And although Severn’s story is just one interesting example of how good communication can be leveraged, let it inspire you to think about all the other incredible possibilities that can bloom when someone, of any age or stature, stands up and speaks intelligently from their heart.
If you have something meaningful to say, but you’re scared to speak up, remember…
- Not feeling ready to speak up could be a sign that you actually are ready. The more you live and learn—the more seasoned and educated you become—the more you will come to realize just how little you actually know in the grand scheme of things. Every human being deals with this phenomenon to a certain extent. Research suggests that the so-called “impostor syndrome” that takes place when we suddenly don’t feel “good enough” or “ready yet” gets more intense as we grow wiser. In addition, the more experienced or knowledgeable we become, the more likely we are to compare ourselves to, or even rub shoulders with, ever more interesting, talented and wise people, leaving us feeling even more inadequate by comparison. So, in a backwards way, if you’re concerned that you don’t measure up—that you’re not ready yet—it could very well be a sign that you actually do measure up just fine, and that now is the time to speak up.
- Most social conflicts between good people start with bad communication, or no communication. Too often we try to read each other’s minds to no avail, and then we sit back and wonder why we’re all on different pages. Take this to heart. The single greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Give the people in your life the information they need, rather than expecting them to know the unknowable. Speak clearly and honestly, and then listen sincerely. And keep in mind that when you hear only what you want to hear, you’re not really listening. Listen to what you don’t want to hear too. That’s how we grow stronger, together.
- The only way to find support is to admit how you feel in the first place. For example, sometimes we feel as though the world is crashing down around us, as if the pain we are experiencing is unique only to us in the moment. This, of course, is far from the truth. We are all in this together. The very demons that torment each of us, torment all of us. It is our challenges and troubles that connect us at the deepest level. Once we fully embrace this, our relationships become a place where we can look each other in the eye and say, “I’m lost and struggling at the moment,” and we can nod back at each other and say, “Me too,” …and that’s OK. Because not being “OK” all the time—not having it all figured out—is perfectly OK.
- The right words can be incredibly healing. When you grow older and you look back on your life, you will inevitably forget a lot of the stuff that seemed so important when you were young. You probably won’t remember what your high school or college GPA was. You will lookup your old classmates online and wonder why you ever had a crush on that guy/girl. And you will have the toughest time remembering why you let certain people from your past get the best of you. But you will never forget the people who were genuinely kind—those who helped when you were hurt, and who loved you even when you felt unlovable. Be that person to others when you can. Your voice can heal. Sometimes you will say something really small and simple, but it will fit right into an empty space in someone’s heart.
- Silence can be self-abuse. You have to admit, to a certain extent, you have spent too much of your life trying to silence yourself. Trying to become quieter. Smaller. Less sensitive. Less needy. Less YOU. Because you didn’t want to be too much for people. You wanted to make a good impression with them. You wanted to fit in. You wanted everyone to like you. So for much of your life, you’ve sacrificed a part of yourself—your need to be heard—for the sake of not stepping on anyone’s toes. And for much of your life, you’ve abused yourself with your own silence. But you’re tired of living this way, right? When you give yourself permission to openly communicate what matters to you, peace will develop within you despite the possible rejection or disapproval you may face. Putting a voice to your heart and soul helps you to let go and grow. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Self-Love” chapter of our book.)
- Honest communication can disarm people’s difficult tendencies. We all have difficult people in our lives, but not all of them are difficult on purpose. Sometimes people who care about you—people who have decent intentions—are incredibly hard to deal with simply because they’re struggling with their own issues. Such people need your support, but you must also be honest with them. Not confronting someone’s difficult behavior can become the principal reason for being sucked into their drama. Challenging their behavior upfront, on the other hand, will sometimes get them to realize the negative impact of their actions. For instance, you might say, “I’ve noticed you seem angry. Is something upsetting you?” or “Your attitude is upsetting me right now. Is this what you want?” Direct statements like these can be disarming if someone is subconsciously stuck in a rut, and these statements can also open doors of opportunity for you to help them if they’re genuinely facing a serious problem. And even if they deny their behavior, at least you’ve made them aware that their attitude has become a known issue to someone else. (Angel and I build honest, mindful communication rituals with our students in the “Love and Relationships” module of Getting Back to Happy.)
- Your voice can bring people together. I know this is true because, over the past decade, Angel and I have coached hundreds of people of different ethnic backgrounds, from different cities and countries, who live at various socioeconomic levels, and every single one of these people basically wants what we want. We ALL want validation, love, happiness, fulfillment, financial stability, and hopes for a better future. The unique ways we pursue these “wants” is where things branch off, but the fundamentals are the same. So whenever possible, find the courage to use your voice to help those around you see the world through commonalities of the human heart and soul—remind them that we’re all in this together. This is how humanity as a whole gradually evolves and grows stronger. The language of the heart and soul—of togetherness—is mankind’s common language. When we change the way we communicate with each other, we change society for the better.
Speaking Up is Not About Engaging in Drama
With all the aforementioned said, keep in mind that constantly talking and challenging others isn’t communicating. It’s just drama.
You are as powerful as the meaningful ideas you share with others, and you are as wise as the selective silence you leave behind.
Think of Severn Suzuki again. She didn’t just speak—she had something decisive and meaningful to say.
So do your best to be wise with your words. There is a time to speak up and a time to remain quiet. Knowledge is knowing what to say. Wisdom is knowing whether or not to say it.
Of course, the “wisdom” of striking the right balance will take practice, and that’s OK. Just speak from your heart and soul—with kindness and the intention to add value—and you will gradually learn not to waste words on moments that deserve your silence.
In closing, I like to lighten the mood and leave you with a joke on communication recently told by Ellen DeGeneres:
“Not only have we given up on writing letters to each other, we barely even talk to each other these days. People have become so accustomed to texting that they’re actually startled when the phone rings. It’s like we suddenly all have Batphones. If it rings, there must be danger.
Now we answer, “What happened? Is someone tied up in the old sawmill?”
“No, it’s Becky. I just called to say hi.”
“Well you scared me half to death. You can’t just pick up the phone and try to talk to me like that. Don’t the tips of your fingers work?”
So, at the very least, I hope this article inspires you to speak up by picking up the phone today, just to say something meaningful to someone you care about.
But before you go, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Which point above resonated the most, and why?
Also, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to sign-up for our free newsletter to receive new articles like this in your inbox each week.
Number 5 is the reminder I needed today, not because I necessarily need to speak up against the opposition, but because it reminds me not to silently belittle myself. I know you’ve mentioned something similar in previous posts and emails, but today it hit me just the right way. Maybe it’s because I started watching your 2017 Think Better, Live Better conference recordings last week, and after our follow-up coaching call I’ve been truly hooked on the daily practice of challenging my negative self-judgments. The battle is absolutely in my mind, for all of us, and I’m glad I’m learning to ease the tension.
Thanks again, for all the support. 🙂
Marc Chernoff says
It’s great to hear you’re enjoying the Think Better, Live Better 2017 conference recordings. Looking forward to seeing you at our next event in San Diego. 🙂
Joanna L says
M&A, thank you! This post is a jewel. I especially needed the reminders in #5 and #6. For far too long my silence was indeed self abuse. But with the guidance I’ve received from your course and coaching over the past few weeks, I have been making it a daily ritual to break my silence a little more and gracefully stand my ground against my older brother who has been an emotional vampire in my life for decades.
Oh, and thanks for the joke at the end. It just inspired me to call my daughter just to tell her I love her.
Marc Chernoff says
You’re welcome, Joanna. 🙂
Henry Janson says
Checked my email randomly this morning and I’m so glad I did. Clicking on this post and reading was enlightening to say the least. Thank you for reminding me that my voice matters, and that it’s normal for me to feel like I’m not ready or worthy enough to speak up.
For the past four years I’ve passionately volunteered and worked for a non-profit in California that provides food and resources to poverty-stricken families. And although I’m making an impact, I know I could be doing so much more. I have ideas and strategies for community programs that could solve some of the common poverty issues I assist families with every day, but I rarely speak up. I’m only 19-years-old, and all of the people I work with are older than me, and they seem to look down on me for my age. They still think of me as the kid that’s just helping out.
In any case, you’ve inspired me to change my approach. Thank you.
God bless you, Henry. Go for it. Many of us out here felt the same as youngsters, but just kept quiet and allowed ourselves to be quenched, and now have achieved far less than we could have. Go graciously and firmly, and make a difference!
Marc Chernoff says
Angel and I also agree with lizzo. Go for it, Henry! And keep us posted.
I must say, the whole piece you have written above really hit home. I’m struggling with so much internally that in the long run is really run by fear, my own fear. Closing with Ellen’s joke is beyond true. I work in a hospital and have been using text as my formal way of communication and now when people call I know it must be bad news. It has actually caused me issues to call others when I really needed or need to in some given situations. I hope when I am able I can join your coaching classes and your program as I have been struggling for quite some time and you are the first set of folks, Including responders, that actually make sense. Trying to make a life change is big and that’s why I originally signed up for your program, but hard times had to me force my hand to leave. I will be back and hopefully soon. Thank you to all who write and respond and of coyrs thank you Marc and Angel 🙂
Thank you, for your post.
I’m wondering, do you have any tips on, ‘when your partner refuses to communicate’, and,’takes offense to your verbalizing your feelings by grunting, growling, ignoring, using, “Wow” and “Whatever”, or, not bothering to come home at all until he thinks you’re over whatever you felt and said?
Marc Chernoff says
Monica, I think you may find value in this post: 9 Rampant Toxic Behaviors that Break Relationships Up
The single greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. #brilliant
I didn’t really GET that.
Can you further explain, please?
When the difficult person is a parent. And yes u have something important to speak up on and u know their reactions to such matters what can u do?
Thanks Marc and Angel for all the help
Morgan Ryan says
Love this article and needed it right now in my life. Curious if you ever have guest bloggers! Would love to connect and discuss 🙂
Marc Chernoff says
We do occasionally publish guest posts. Email Angel:
angel [at] marcandangel [dot] com
Really liked the article. This will help me for sure. All the points mentioned in the article seems so relevant and also,the way you started and ended the article. Starting with a story which helps us to make a connection with the topic and then through that mentioning about the important points.It’s interesting and learnt a lot.
Keep Sharing 🙂
call it fate, but i saw this article sitting in my inbox minutes before having a long-awaited conversation with my dad (debating if i should even have this conversation today, maybe it could have waited…impostor’s syndrome). it’s a conversation i have been postponing due to nerves, but reading this was like a felix elixer for me – it gave me a small but much needed confidence boost.
the joke definitely helped lighten my mood too, gotta love ellen.
Great insights. Love when I hear that children are wanting to be involved (and allowed to be involved) in creating the future that will impact the quality of their lives. Sometimes people don’t want to open up and communicate their thoughts and feelings honestly. It feels to vulnerable and scary for them. Some people seem to have a desperate need to be in control. There’s talk, but nothing ever gets said, no real communication, which takes two people, and not one-sided. Thank you!!
Great article, Marc. There are some really good insights in here, and I loved the story about Severn. What an incredible young woman.
I’m curious about the research you mentioned regarding imposter syndrome. Could you share the name of or link to that research? I’d love to read more about that.
Marc Chernoff says
Rich, my research came from this book. An interesting read: The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It
Thank you Marc. I’ll check it out.
As an Afghan who’s been an immigrant for many years of his life (in Iran and now Sweden), almost always I’ve tried to be quiet and not express myself but after reading this, I think things could’ve been much better I had honestly talked about my needs and problems with people that wanted to help… sadly at the time I thought by not asking for help from anyone at all I’d grow up into a strong man… but it seems we all need each other after all and no one can truly live independently from everyone and be happy
Hi mark and angel i was thinking i wish i had your advice years ago, but think ” no “now is definitely the right time. Fear has always held me back, childhood always treading on egg shells, knock me down comments and bullies stole my confidence, sometimes we need wisdom to know when and when not to speak up, still learning that one. It,s taken massive courage to speak out and the part where you say, ” say what you mean and mean what you say “, absolutely excellent and may i add, ” be true to yourself /myself” finally made me stand my ground, funnily enough i now have the freedom to say a lot more but find myself saying a lot less, the irony eh,
bless you guys love Jacqueline
Camille B says
I always feel so bad about myself after not saying how I really feel, because I end up dealing with the consequences, knowing that had I only said something, I wouldn’t be in the situation I’m in right now. Thanks guys.
Ray Leslie says
Thank you for sharing the words that I can always resonate with and get inspired!
Ray Leslie says
I like the sentence the best—“The single greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Sometimes I think too much in my brain and want others to know the unknowable. I really should communicate more with people who care about me and who I care.