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?
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