This article first appeared on Forbes
Have you ever held back from speaking up in a meeting to avoid disagreements or arguments? And then watched others propose something very similar and vow the audience. Or stopped yourself from sharing your ideas for fear of disapproval or judgment, and wished you could be more like those (men) who can speak fearlessly, and even shrug off criticism as though nothing happened?
Welcome to the world of most women. It’s true that sometimes we don’t bother to speak up for what we want or believe in because we’ve become so used to seeing our ideas taken lightly, or having been spoken over way too many times that we see no point in engaging in dialogue.
But mostly, women self-silence because of a relational nature. We look for approval, we want to keep the peace, and to make sure everyone is on board when we propose an idea. This makes us more sensitive to people’s facial expressions and body language, and we can spend an entire meeting obsessing about a shrug or a perceived slight. And when others argue with us or criticize our ideas, we can spend many sleepless nights ruminating about it. Even the possibility of arguments or criticism can stop us in our tracks.
However, research shows that silencing is like a virus that affects us at our very core. We feel stuck, helpless, frustrated, doubting our capabilities and losing our confidence. We feel we’re not growing, not contributing and work does not us bring a sense of meaning—which further adds to unhappiness and disengagement. And often, there are physical symptoms that we don’t immediately relate to the silencing, such as a generally lowered immune system, weight gain, sinus infections and more. Or having experienced subconscious biases such as a boss asking us to get them coffee, or mindlessly giving credit for our idea to a male colleague, that we begin to lose faith in ourselves.
Having done extensive research on women’s confidence, I’ve found that breaking the cycle begins with women recognizing that our sense of self-worth is at least partially coupled with external feedback. We tend to see it as a reflection of our worth as a person, because that’s just the way we are. If we’re to own a sense of agency, and feel energized and engaged at work, we need to change how we relate to negative feedback. Or else we’ll continue to avoid it like the plague, and let it throw us into downward spirals of shame and blame.
This takes a new learning strategy. Most of us have grown up fearing arguments and criticism because we’ve been taught that good girls don’t ruffle feathers or come across as troublemakers. We’ve been rewarded for giving in, for letting go, for disengaging from arguments and disagreements. And so we haven’t learned to handle them.
Thank fully it’s never too late. Over the years coaching and training women to own their voice, I’m amazed at the difference a little curiosity can make in helping us see criticism as a wonderful opportunity for growth. This is especially true for women, because it brings us a sense of meaning that can help us feel engaged even in the most challenging workplaces.
If you have a fearful relationship with criticism, here are two ways you can use curiosity as a perfect antidote!
Broaden Your Perspective
We make sense of our experiences through an internal meaning-making system that’s quite rigid most times because it’s based on our very early interactions with the people around us. This may have been fine when we were younger, but in the complex world we live and work in as adults, limits our perspective and blinds us to possibilities. If a disagreement leads you to form a negative opinion of the person arguing with you, such as “they hate me” or “they think I’m stupid” you close yourself to the possibility that they may have a point you’ve overlooked. Or that they may even have your best interest at heart. Instead of closing down in shame or blame, you can become curious about what they have said, so you gain from their perspective and arrive at a much better decision.
Better Your Understanding
Sometimes, people argue for the sole purpose of feeling better about themselves. Your ideas may feel threatening to them for various reasons. Perhaps they have a fragile sense of self-worth where they feel good about themselves only when they look better than others. Or they may be truly anxious about the risks involved in your ideas because they doubt their own capability in dealing with the potential fallout. That’s when you need to know that it’s about them and not about you.
Engage your curiosity so you understand their fears or preferences and approach them accordingly. This does not mean silencing yourself, although in extreme cases it’s best to avoid a caustic relationship. But more often it means adapting to the needs of the person you’re talking with in order to present your ideas in a way that feels less threatening to them. Especially if the person is your boss.
The beauty of changing the way we relate to negative feedback is that we don’t need to become victims of our relational nature. In fact, we can use it to our advantage by taking an interest in other people, their ideas and their fears, so we build a sense of belonging that not only leads to better decisions but also builds an authentic sense of self-worth.