“The Human Voice is the most perfect instrument of all.”  Arvo Pärt 

Your voice comes from who you are and who you are not, and grows out of your identity, out your own unique brand. Your identity advances your brand because it is connected to your mind and heart, to how you think and feel about things. This is expressed through your authenticity, which is the foundation for everything, and is reflective of your personality. 

How do you develop your voice in a way which expresses your identity? 

How do you use your voice to protect your identity?

When is it good to speak up and when is it OK to not speak up?

A Case Study

Carlos’s Story: Speaking Up: Why? A Simple yet Profound Question

Carlos works in the hotel and leisure industry.  He is quite an easy-going person, gets on well with people and is a good team player. Some time ago Blair joined his team, and from the very beginning she just did not gel with Carlos. It was actually more than not gelling: she seemed to go out of her way to be uncooperative, and was openly critical of any ideas Carlos put forward at meetings. He found her disrespectful and difficult to work with. 

He tried to get on with his work by interacting with her as little as he needed to. But it was a small team, and being the hotel and leisure industry he spent long hours in his job, which meant long hours in her company. It soon came to a head and he knew he had to do something about it.

One day when they were alone, he asked her “Why?” Blair stopped what she was doing and with obvious irritation asked, “What do you mean Why?” “Why What?” Carlos answered, “Why do you behave in the way you do towards me?” “What are you talking about?” she snapped. Carlos answered “Why do you behave in the way you do towards me? I get a sense you’re irritated by me, as you seem to be now. I’m not sure if it’s something I’ve done or said, but it would help to know, because then perhaps we could find a way of working together. Our work means we spend a lot of time in each other’s company, and I think it’s important we try to make this work, not just for us but for the morale of the team.”

Now Blair did not suddenly open up her heart to Carlos, she did not offer an explanation or apologise for her behaviour, she actually did not say anything. Maybe she did not know what to say, who knows. Even so Carlos was glad he had addressed the matter. It was a brief interaction, and he felt he had handled it in a professional way; and more importantly, he got it out in the open by letting her know her behaviour was unacceptable to him, and that he was willing to find a way to work together. 

Although Blair did not respond initially to Carlos, her behaviour towards him did change. She was not so critical of his ideas, and they began to work together in a more cooperative way. While I do not think they will ever be the best of friends, they are actually getting on OK.

The situation Carlos found himself in is not so unusual, and it is one I hear in some shape or form time and time again in conversations with people. Some people will think: “Well I’ll put up with this person or situation while I’m in work, and then I can put it out of my mind once I’m outside of work.” The thing is we spend so much time in our work that it is not always possible or indeed good for our health and well-being.

Working with someone who has a demotivating impact on an individual or team can ruin morale, and it is important not to let a bad situation fester. I think by asking the simple question “Why?” we can open up an awareness to there being a problem, and get the message across that it is not acceptable, and that something needs to change. All of this from one simple question is quite profound, I think.

A Case Study

Valerie’s Story: Not Speaking Up: What I Coulda Shoulda Woulda Said

Valerie had been through a tough time. She had lost her job because of downsizing at her company, her marriage had fallen apart and she was going through an acrimonious divorce. She had lost her home because she could not keep up the mortgage repayments. Her confidence and self-esteem were at an all-time low.

Through a friend’s recommendation she managed to get a job with a company that operated within the mortgage industry. There was a lot to learn to get up to speed with the tech systems they used, but very little support in doing this. The online process she had to complete for each application involved pages and pages of questions. Each application was very specific and very different, and if she did not get it right, it would result in either the client not getting the best mortgage to meet their needs, or not being approved for a mortgage at all. Both these situations would incur great wrath, for which she would be held responsible. 

On her first day, Francesco – who was supposed to be training her in her role – took her through one application, following on from which he expected her to be fully up to speed in knowing what to do. Naturally Valerie was not, but when she asked a question he would sigh, roll his eyes, and say, “I took you through the process, you should know what to do.” There were two other people in the office: Beverly, who helped Valerie until Francesco realised she was doing this and put a stop to it; and Zac, who sometimes laughed when Francesco berated Valerie for asking a question, while other times he would keep his head low, when he was on the receiving end of whatever tongue lashing Francesco happened to be dishing out that day.

To say it was a toxic environment was an understatement. It was unlike anything Valerie had ever experienced or even envisioned could actually exist. This may have played a small part in Valerie not doing or saying anything. But the main reason was that she needed the job. This was the only money she had coming in to pay her rent and other financial commitments. Her lack of confidence and low self-esteem also played a part in her not speaking up. Instead she fought back tears in the office several times a day, cried on her journey home, and sobbed herself to sleep every night.

Then one day it came to a head. She was required to handwrite each envelope and stick the stamp on. Francesco checked the envelopes and completely lost it with her because she had put two stamps on a large envelope but had not lined them up straight. It was the final straw for Valerie. She could not hold back her tears any longer, and broke down, walking out of the office and never going back.

It took her a long time to recover, but as the saying goes, time is a great healer, and in time she not only recovered, but came through with a strong resolve: that she would never allow this to happen again, to her or to anyone she worked with. When she reflected on the whole experience, she wished she had spoken up. She wished she had let him know that his behaviour was not acceptable. She wished she had insisted on proper training. However, she knew emotionally she was not in the right place to have been able to have done any or all of this at that time. 

She is now in a new role back in her old industry. She has followed through on her resolve by having taken responsibility for establishing a good on-boarding system for all new employees, to ensure they are welcomed into their team, department and organisation, and that they have all the support they need to get fully up to speed with their role.

A Case Study

*Petra’s Story: Not Speaking Up and Why that’s Sometimes OK Too

Petra wanted to transition from her role in retail to international development, to create a WorkLife that had more meaning to her.  As part of her job-search strategy she was meeting with people who worked in international development. This was by way of finding out more about the industry, and people were really helpful in sharing insights. That is, until she met Mary, who began the meeting by saying: “Why do you want to move on from where you are, when you have a perfectly good job, and so many people are out of work. You should be thankful to have a job.”These words stung Petra. She was not expecting them, and she did not know how to respond. She did not say anything, and did not speak up. In the moment she instinctively knew she needed to bring the conversation to a close respectfully, and make her exit politely. She handled the situation with dignity, which allowed her to walk away with her integrity intact. It was some time later that she was reminded of the old adage: “That other people’s behaviour is about them, not you.”

Develop Your Story

This is your WorkLife. You get to decide who you want to be part of that. You have the power to shape the characters in your story through your voice, through what you say, and through what you do not say. Words are powerful, and so is subtext. You also have the power to write people out of your story.

Your Speaking Up Story Assignment

Do you have a story of when you needed to speak up to protect your identity and did?

What was the situation? 

What led you to knowing you had to speak up?

What did you say?

How did it go?

What was the outcome?

Are you glad you spoke up?

In hindsight, is there anything you could have, should have, would have done differently?

What did you learn from this?

Your Not Speaking Up Story: What You Coulda Shoulda Woulda Said Assignment

Do you have a story of when you needed to speak up to protect your identity but didn’t?

What stopped you? 

What do you think you coulda, shoulda, woulda said? 

What can you do now to ensure the situation you experienced never happens to you again?

If the situation impacted other people, what can you do to ensure they never have to experience this again?

What did you learn from this?

Your Not Speaking Up But It Was OK Story Assignment

Do you have a story of when you didn’t speak up to protect your identity and that was actually OK?

Why was it OK?

Were you able to honour and protect your identity by not speaking up?

What did you learn from this?

The Moral of this Story

Articulating who you are comes from an understanding of who you are, who you are not, and what is important to you. This drives everything you do. In your voice it allows you to express yourself, in knowing when it’s important to speak up, and when it’s actually OK not to.

Develop a Practice of Continuous Self-Feedback 

As you continue to live your WorkLife, being observant of people and situations, and how they impact your identity, will allow you to know when to speak up and what to say, and when not speaking up is a better way to be protect your identity.

To facilitate this observation, simply check in with yourself in the moment of the situation, to get a sense of what is going on, then take time later when you have some distance from the situation to reflect on it, to get a deeper sense.

Develop a Practice of Insightful Self-Questioning 

I leave you with a question to ponder:

How do I communicate what’s most important to me?

Words of Wisdom

It takes courage to speak up, and also to walk away. In the end it comes from who you are. If you remain true to yourself, you cannot be false to anyone else.

*I’ll share Petra’s full story with you in chapter 10.

© Carmel O’ Reilly 2019 First published 2019 by WorkLife Incorporated

Feel free to publish an excerpt from this chapter, wherever you like. Your blog, your book, your newsletter. It’s all good. 

Just use my full name and kindly link back to my website: You’ll find my bio right here. Thank you. Be Well and Stay Safe.

Published by Carmel O' Reilly

I’m Carmel O’ Reilly, Founder of I’m the author Your WorkLife Your Way, blogger and podcaster on the subject of WorkLife. My work focuses on helping people to live their best WorkLives, by managing their learning, development and growth, through effective self-feedback, insightful self-questions and the ability to shape and tell their unique story. My Mission is: “To spread the power of WorkLives lived with Passion, Purpose and Pride by creating continuous WorkLife learning programmes that are accessible to everyone.”

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