Voicing our opinions doesn’t always come easily: But with your career and relationships at stake, it definitely pays to be upfront.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Voicing our opinions doesn’t always come easily: But with your career and relationships at stake, it definitely pays to be upfront.

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Ever had the nagging feeling that you should be standing up for yourself, but instead of opening your mouth, you ignore your instincts? Turns out keeping mum when you need to express your feelings honestly can be detrimental to your work, health, and social life.

“When I had young children, my mother had a habit of calling at precisely the worst time of the day – dinner time. Instead of telling her from the start that this was my tear-my-hair-out moment, and could she call back later, I took her calls. A pattern formed of her ringing at this set time of the day,” says writer Tammy Cohen.

“I wish I could turn back the clock and pick up the phone that first or second time and say, ‘Mum, I’d love to talk, but can we arrange a time when I’m not so frantic?’ How hard would that have been? But instead of speaking up, I resented her for calling, and set a negative tone that coloured our relationship for a disproportionately long time.”

Saying exactly what we mean isn’t something most of us are trained to do. From childhood, we’re taught the art of people-pleasing – saying yes even if we mean no, holding back from saying anything that might offend and toning down forthrightness in case it comes across as being inconsiderate or arrogant.

But there are some very good reasons for trying to unlearn those early lessons now, and not holding off from speaking your mind. Learning to speak up will help you immensely, not just in your personal relationships, but also in your career. Here, Dr Susan Newman shares seven reasons why finding your voice and standing up for yourself will help things work out better for you in the long run.


It’s your birthday, and your sister’s given you yet another bottle of the same perfume – the one you detest. “Don’t be silly. I know how much you like it,” she says, when you try to protest about her spending so much. You kick yourself for not telling her five birthdays ago that though you appreciate the thought, it’s not quite your taste, and could you please change it for one you really like? Not speaking out can sometimes lead to a lifetime of regrets. For example, if only you’d told your boss you wanted to contribute more, you’d have been more fulfilled in your career. Words can be taken back, but silences can’t.


Most of us still feel it’s too demanding to articulate what we crave. Instead, we come out with halfrequests in the hope that others might fill in the gaps. So you say, “It would be great if you could give me a hand for five minutes,” when what you mean is, “If you stayed behind for an hour to help me, I might be able to leave work before midnight.” Similarly, you must say what you don’t want. When your boss dumps an assignment on you, don’t automatically say, “That’s fine.” Instead, try saying, “I’d like to help, but I’ve got a lot on at the moment. Can we see how best to get it done in the light of this other work I’ve got to do?” That way, you’re not saying no, but you are emphasising your value, as well as negotiating a more realistic workload.


How many times have you clattered around the house seething with anger, because you’re doing everything and no one else is helping you? How often have you directed bad karma thoughts at colleagues who seem blissfully oblivious to the fact you’re taking on more than your fair share of work? We’re so unused to spelling out our needs that we expect those around us to guess them instead. By speaking up, you’re giving those closest to you a chance to meet your needs rather than becoming victims of your unexpressed resentment.


We all want to be understood by other people, yet without saying what you mean, you risk being misinterpreted. How many times have you looked at someone you know well and thought, “If you really knew me, you wouldn’t have said that”? But how are they expected to know you if you never say what’s really in your head? You may not always be as nice, but you’ll be more real – and that can be surprisingly rewarding.


Think about the phrase ‘getting something off your chest’. Speaking out, particularly on important subjects, can feel like a weight is being lifted off you. Being assertive is good for you: It increases your self-confidence and makes you feel you’re taking control of your life. What’s the worst that could happen if you tell everyone that, while you love the usual annual family get-together at Christmas, this year you’d like to go away on your own? Yes, some relatives will have to make other plans. But they might enjoy the break from the routine. At the very least you’ll be free from the weight of unexpressed dreams, which are the heaviest of all.


Ever walked away from an encounter feeling angry with yourself for not saying what you meant? The fact is that biting back what you really want to say can be tantamount to hitting the self-destruct button. Racing against time to pick your friend up from the airport? Your fault for not saying you had too much on. One of the worst things about failing to say what’s on your mind is that you’ve absolutely no one to blame but yourself.


People prefer honesty, even if you’re not telling them what they want to hear. For example, you tell your best friend that you and your husband are going away for the weekend to celebrate your anniversary and she says, “That sounds wonderful, we might join you.” You could say nothing, then stew for days about how she’s hijacked your romantic weekend and should have known not to tag along. Or you could tell the truth: “Actually, we’d like to be on our own.” She might be disappointed, but she’ll get over it and it’s better than spending the foreseeable future wondering what she has done to upset you.


Here’s how to start being more forthright

Don’t overestimate ‘nice’

Being considered nice doesn’t win you friends, promotions or respect. Honesty and integrity are actually far more valuable qualities.

Always ask for time before committing

Our immediate instinct is to agree to a request, but we can end up bitterly regretting it. Say you need some time to consider it first.

List your priorities

These would be your family, friends, work or hobby. By understanding your priorities, you’ll speak up when they are threatened.

Try to see the bigger picture

We’ll often lie awake at night stressing about our words, whereas for the other person, it’s much less of a big deal than we think.

How To Get The Pay You Deserve

At 19 per cent, Singapore’s gender pay gap is slightly higher than the global average: Here’s how to speak up for your rightful pay

It may be 2018, but women still face discrimination in the workplace. “Women in various fields regularly report to us experiences of sexist condescension in their professional lives, and such stereotyping may lead to a bias in assessing women’s performance at work,” says Jolene Tan, Head of Advocacy & Research at the Association Of Women For Action And Research (AWARE). Still, there’s no need to suffer in silence. Here are three ways women can voice their concerns and fight for equal pay.

1 Band together

Standing together with others is powerful, says Jolene. “Women may wish to band with other women in their organisation to show unity, as the women at BBC did last year.”

2 Talk to your union

Unions advocate for employee rights, which include the right for women to speak out if they are being unfairly discriminated against. “If they are members of a union, women can consider asking their union to take action and support them,” says Jolene.

3 Build your case

If you are excluded from a promotion or pay raise, and suspect gender politics are at play, do your research and argue for your right to fair pay. As in any negotiation, be prepared with facts and documentation, such as your performance ratings, and a strong understanding of your achievements and contributions, says Jolene. “If possible, you should also have information about the pay scales and structures in your organisation. If you don’t have this information, it is perfectly reasonable to ask your manager to provide it.”