With a naturally soft voice, people often misunderstand me, ask me to repeat myself, and talk over me. I hate being interrupted or interrupting others, so many times over the years I’ve held back. In classes and meetings I have been attentive but rarely spoken up. Even if I’ve had what I thought was a worthy contribution, often by the time I could process it and work up the courage to speak, the opportune time was past — or filled by one of the talkative people.
Growing up in a small town, I got labeled shy early on, and I didn’t know how to shake it. At my senior high prom, two class officers gave a speech with humorous predictions of where classmates would be in ten years. They said I’d be on a national speaking tour promoting my book, Who Says I Have to Be Quiet?
So when a friend responded to my reflections on my vocational dreams with the words “You want to be heard,” it was a little jolt of enlightenment. True, I’d never sought the podium; but for years as I learned new things I continually thought about how I could teach them to others.
Now, years after that conversation, I’ve made progress in finding my voice, but I’m still feeling my way. I’ve learned to accept my personality, including my introversion and methodical processing; I know it’s okay — often good — to be quiet. But there are many things that are important enough to me that I will gladly make the effort to speak up — in writing, in small groups, or even before a larger gathering.
On the other side of the pull to stay silent, however, are self-centered temptations to seek recognition and influence. Voice, respect, and power can all be good things used for greater good. But I’ve been surprised to discover how intoxicating they can become. How do I know when I’m pursuing them to be faithful to my calling from God and when I’m indulging my own desires to be special and right? In my efforts to contribute to my church or workplace, am I seeking to serve others or promoting my agenda? Being heard comes with risks, including to my own soul.
Maybe you are an introvert who finds herself teaching, or you want to expand your influence but have been held back by self-doubt or the expectations of others. Finding the right balance is an ongoing challenge as we grow in our gifts and calling. I’ve found a few principles to help as I go forward with fear and trembling.
Be a respectful listener, faithful worker, and thoughtful conversation partner who cares about both individuals and the bigger picture. Often what people need most is to be listened to, and offering good leadership or guidance requires hearing others out. People value what I say more if they know I’m careful with my words and want the best for all. Continuing to practice receptive listening will help me stay grounded, however much attention I’m getting.
Pay attention to emotions.
Take time to consider how emotions are influencing — or stifling — your words. As a perfectionist and idealist, for example, I can be moved by anger to make things better or defend what I believe; but when I speak out of anger I usually regret it. We need consistent healthy methods to deal with emotions instead of bottling them up so they don’t manifest in harmful ways.
Don’t be bound by fear of mistakes.
We have to accept that sometimes we will say things we regret, write imperfect pieces, and not connect well with or even offend listeners. For much of my life, fear of doing things wrong has helped protect me, but has also inhibited my creativity, initiative, ability to take risks, and even enjoyment of life. How can we grow or show others what we have to offer if we don’t keep trying?
Be vigilant against pride and self-righteousness — but don’t let fear of being prideful keep you from doing right. Not wanting to appear proud or elitist, we may tamp down zeal for spiritual growth or mutual instruction. But instead we should trust God to help us grow in understanding in our communities as we’re bold to both listen and speak.
Be an advocate.
Look for ways to empower others who have less of a voice. Whatever platform I may have is not ultimately for me, and the more I can turn attention to underrepresented, marginalized, or hesitant voices, the better. As I continue to find my voice, I also want to look for ways to hear and transmit the voices of others — including from the past, from the margins, and from the person sitting next to me.
Ask God for wisdom with your words and accept his help. Jesus set the perfect example of using his voice and influence with boldness, gentleness, and wisdom, and we need to know him ever more closely if we’re to follow in his footsteps.
The desire to be heard speaks to a common human need to be valued, known, and respected, but it is also part of many of our vocational callings — as teachers or researchers or writers, we are people with words to share. Our voices are a powerful tool when used well. After all, who says we have to be quiet?