How to Speak Up When You Feel Like You Can’t: Adam Galinsky at TEDxNewYork (Transcript)

Adam Galinsky – American psychologist

Speaking up is hard to do. I understood the true meaning of this phrase exactly one month ago when my wife and I became new parents. It was an amazing moment. It was exhilarating and elating, but it was also scary and terrifying. It got particularly terrifying when we got home from the hospital. We were unsure whether our little baby boy was getting enough nutrients from breastfeeding. We wanted to call our pediatrician, but we also didn’t want to make a bad first impression or come across as a crazy neurotic parent, so we worried and we waited.

When we got to the doctor’s office the next day, she immediately gave him formula because he was pretty dehydrated. Our son is fine now, and our doctor has reassured us we can always contact her. But in that moment, I should have spoken up, but I didn’t. But sometimes we speak up when we shouldn’t. I learned that over ten years ago when I let my twin brother down.

My twin brother is a documentary filmmaker, and for one of his first films, he got an offer from a distribution company. He was excited and he was inclined to accept the offer, but as a negotiations researcher, I insisted he make a counteroffer, and I helped him craft the perfect one. It was perfect; it was perfectly insulting. The company was so offended they literally withdrew the offer and my brother was left with nothing.

I’ve asked people all over the world about this dilemma of speaking up: when they can assert themselves, when they can push their interest, when they can express an opinion, when they can make an ambitious ask. The range of stories are varied and diverse but they also make up a universal tapestry. “Can I correct my boss when they make a mistake?” “Can I confront my co-worker who keeps stepping on my toes?” “Can I challenge my friend’s insensitive joke?” “Can I tell the person I love the most my deepest insecurities?” Through these experiences, I’ve come to recognize that each of us have something called “a range of acceptable behavior.”

Sometimes, we’re too strong; we push ourselves too much. That’s what happened with my brother. Even making an offer was outside his range of acceptable behavior. But sometimes we’re too weak. That’s what happened with my wife and I. This range of acceptable behaviors, when we stay within our range, we’re rewarded, and we step outside that range, we get punished in a variety of ways: we get dismissed, or demeaned, or even ostracized, or we lose that raise, or that promotion, or that deal.

Now, the first thing we need to know is: “What is my range?” But the key thing is, our range isn’t fixed. It’s actually pretty dynamic. It expands and it narrows based on the context. There’s one thing that determines that range more than anything else. That’s your power. Your power determines your range.

What is power? Power comes in lots of forms. In negotiations, it comes in the form of alternatives. So my brother had no alternatives; he lacked power. The company had lots of alternatives; they had power. Or sometimes being new to a country like an immigrant, or new to an organization, or new to an experience like my wife and I as new parents. Sometimes it’s at work, or someone’s the boss and someone’s the subordinate. Sometimes it’s in relationships where one person is more invested than the other person.

The key thing is, when we have lots of power, our range is very wide. We have a lot of leeway in how to behave. But when we lack power, our range narrows. We have very little leeway. The problem is when our range narrows, that produces something called “the low-power double bind.” The low-power double bind happens when if we don’t speak up, we go unnoticed, but if we do speak up, we get punished.

Now, many of you have heard the phrase “the double bind” and connected it with one thing, and that’s gender. The gender double bind is: women who don’t speak up go unnoticed, and women who do speak up get punished. The key thing is that women have the same need as men to speak up, but they have barriers to doing so.

But what my research has shown over the last two decades is that what looks like a gender difference is not really a gender double bind; it’s really a low-power double bind. What looks like a gender difference are really often just power differences in disguise. Oftentimes, we see a difference between a man and a woman or men and women, and we think biological cause, there’s something fundamentally different about the sexes. But in study after study, I found that a better explanation for many sex differences is really “power.” So it’s the low-power double bind, and the low-power double bind means that we have a narrow range and we lack power; we have a narrow range and our double bind is very large. So, we need to find ways to expand our range.

Over the last couple of decades, my colleagues and I have found two things really matter. The first, you seem powerful in your own eyes. The second, you seem powerful in the eyes of others. When I feel powerful, I feel confident, not fearful, and I expand my own range. When other people see me as powerful, they grant me a wider range. So we need tools to expand our range of acceptable behavior. I’m going to give you a set of tools today.

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