Learning to speak up

During a recent interview, a candidate asked me about my biggest learnings during my time at Gusto, both technical and otherwise. It was easy for me to pinpoint my biggest area of non-technical growth. When I started, I was super reluctant to speak up or mention things I’d noticed whereas now, I am a (possibly annoyingly) vocal person on our team.

I’ve been thinking about how this happened, especially as I approach my four year anniversary at the company. I’m still a pretty introverted and shy person; however, I’ve learned to speak up, even when it’s not something I’m comfortable with. I realized that doing so is better than the alternative — staying quiet and regretting it.

But what specifically helped me get to this point? I can think of a few things, some that naturally occurred due to my work environment and some I had to more directly focus on myself. Here are the lessons I’ve learned that I hope will help others in a similar position.

Lesson 1: Give your opinion when people seek it out

I distinctly remember being in a meeting where there were only one or two dominant voices in the discussion. I had a lot of imposter syndrome and so I assumed they knew more about the topic than me and didn’t offer my perspective. Then, someone said, “Seema, what do you think?”

This simple act of asking me for my thoughts went a long way. I shared what was on my mind along with why, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was able to highlight some things that had been overlooked.

I found this was the first step to eventually participating on my own without anyone asking and later raising topics on my own: simply being willing to be open and honest when someone asked me a question.

Lesson 2: Start with the ways you are most comfortable with

I was always more comfortable expressing myself non-verbally, so when I began opening up and sharing my opinion, I initially did this through things like email or a chat conversation. This allowed me to think about how to best formulate my thoughts and express them clearly and concisely.

Later, I pushed myself to speak up face to face as well. I initially started this by planning some of what I had to say in advance. When I wanted to talk to my manager about focusing our conversations more on my career trajectory, I wrote out what I wanted to say in advance and then let them know I wanted to share some feedback in our next 1:1. Eventually, I felt more comfortable just speaking up in the moment, without having to plan out what I would say. The multi-step process of starting with what I was most comfortable with, then moving a little outside of it, and finally embracing what I was initially anxious about proved immensely helpful.

Lesson 3: Don’t be afraid to disagree, but be open and flexible as well

It’s uncomfortable to be a dissenting voice, but sometimes it is necessary and the only way to raise awareness of things. That being said, there have been occasions when I’ve felt strongly about something only to realize there were other factors I was missing.

Share the reasons behind your thinking, but also ask questions to get insight on where others are coming from. Some of the things I personally like to ask are “What are your thoughts?”, ‘Do you mind explaining a bit more?”, and making sure that I understand the other side accurately by saying “Just to make sure I understand correctly, you are saying _.”

Gaining perspective from the other side can also help you find common ground. I found myself disagreeing with the technical design of a feature during a pairing session and asked about some of the decisions made. Not only was I able to learn more about the reasons behind how it was implemented and gain context I didn’t realize I lacked, but we were also able to work together to improve the code and find a better solution.

Lesson 4: Be as specific and actionable as possible

One of the most useful things I have learned is about how to deliver useful feedback. The key is to be as specific as possible.

If you find yourself consistently waiting for code reviews from a teammate, rather than saying “You never review my code quickly enough”, you can say “I noticed that the last 2 code reviews I assigned you took 5 days each. This makes it hard for me to deliver the stories within our sprint. Can we work together to make sure the time for feedback works for both of us?”

By highlighting a specific example, identifying the impact of it, and then offering to figure out a shared solution, you can make a lot more progress. Part of this also means bringing up things in a timely manner, as soon as you notice them to avoid generalizations, including phrases that involve absolutes like “always” or “never”. Focus on the specific things you notice, how they affected you (and why you care), and stay focused on actions and results.

Lesson 5: Apply the lessons you’ve learned to help others also speak their mind

The last lesson is simple: pay it forward by encouraging others to speak their mind, sharing what you have learned, and setting an example by willing to speak up even when it’s outside your comfort zone. If you are in meetings where a few people are dominating the conversation, bring it up with them on an individual basis and also encourage those less comfortable participating to do so. Simply just asking them for their opinion can go a long way.

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