5 ways to check yourself before you take a stand on a divisive issue

With protests happening all over Canada, and the main point of tension just down the highway from us, it’s been tense. It’s been a difficult time for many of the people I work with and for, as well as nearby friends and communities. We all can’t help but be affected by what’s going on in Northwest BC and across Canada, and the many points of views surrounding the situation. 

And there are lots of points of views! Some have voiced them loud and clear to cheers and support. Other comments have resulted in angry rebuttals and nasty criticism. (The Facebook threads have been toxic and hard to read.) Some have said things they will likely regret. Others have said things we can only hope they regret. 

For some, piping up and giving their opinion about situations like this comes naturally. It’s not even a question. For others, they fear the repercussions that may come with putting your opinions out there. This situation can’t help but bring up the question, from an individual and organizational perspective: when is it time to speak up, and when is it time to stay silent?

Speak up

Silence can be considered complicity. Believing this to be true, even in cases where I’m uncomfortable or scared, I force myself to speak up. I remember being at a Canucks game in Vancouver a couple years ago. Two guys in the row behind me kept yelling offensive comments to a girl in a short skirt a few rows down. She didn’t hear them. But I did. Loud and clear. And it made me really angry. I turned around and said to them, “What are you gaining from what you are saying? It’s disrespectful and rude. Stop.” I was scared they might start yelling at me or, if I turned my back, they’d kick my chair, or spit on me. You never know what people are capable of. 

Thankfully, they basically ignored me and kept watching the hockey game. None of it seemed like a big deal to them. But it was to me. It took a lot out of me to speak up. Because it’s scary to put yourself out there and not know how people will react. Especially if you know not everyone will agree with you.  

In this situation, I was speaking up on behalf of all women who have been wrongfully disrespected. And I was speaking up for the girl being harassed, because she couldn’t hear them and speak up for herself. I didn’t swear at the guys or call them names that I could have. I simply told that their behaviour was inappropriate and they should stop. 

I think we can all agree, there’s times you should speak up.

Be silent

In contrast, however, a big learning for me over the last couple years, has been that in some situations, it’s best to be silent. It’s not always my place to speak. 

Anyone who has career aspirations and wants to make a positive difference – in life, school, at home, work, wherever – we are often taught we need to extroverted. We need to speak up, and show leadership. As Cheryl Sandberg told all ambitious women, “Lean in.” 

But as a settler working with many First Nations over the last few years, I’ve actually learned the opposite: the importance of being still. Being silent. And listening. 

It’s not uncommon where I am sometimes the only settler present. If I’m asked for my opinion, or think I have something valuable to offer, I will speak. BUT in some situations I purposely stop myself from talking too much. I don’t have the same lived experience, or the same cultural and community understanding as those I am often working with. 

I may be the communications expert, but in a lot of situations, I rely on the community members and staff to tell me what they think would work best for their people and Nation. Because they have a deeper understanding of what’s going on, and how people are feeling and thinking. They understand many situations on a different level than I do. On a different level that I can never, and will never, understand.

So I stay silent. I listen. I don’t try to prove myself or act like I know what is best. And that’s okay. It’s taken time, but I’ve become more comfortable in this role.

Should you, or your organization, speak up?

Last year, in light of the #MeToo movement, Gillette started a campaign called #TheBestMenCanBe. The campaign focused on toxic masculinity and exposing the false, unrealistic, and often harmful, definitions of what is means to be a man. The campaign was controversial. Lots of people praised the company, saying this positive message could make a real difference, teaching men to be respectful and vulnerable. And if not teaching, at least, putting light to this problem. Others criticized it as an ‘attack on men and masculinity’, and called for a company boycott. 

So like any stand an organization may take, it was divisive. People either loved it or hated it. They supported and promoted the company more than ever, or fully rejected it.  

And that’s just it. Taking a stand, speaking out on behalf of a cause, may get you super fans. But it also may get you super haters. 

Cause marketing vs. personal outrage

Cause marketing, where organizations take up a cause, is actually a popular marketing strategy. Its purpose is to differentiate an organization or business in the market. Gillete’s campaign is a great example of cause marketing. No other men’s shaving company had done anything like this before. 

But we’re not talking about a marketing strategy here. We’re talking about when something impacts you to your core. Threatens your values. And affects or has the potential to affect you, your family and friends, and your community. And you can’t help it; you ‘need’ to say something. You ‘need’ to speak up. 

5 ways to check yourself before you speak up

So as a leader of an organization, do you go with your gut and follow this ‘need’ to speak up? 

We suggest you check yourself before you start vocalizing all those thoughts in your head. We don’t have all the answers, but here’s a few things to ask yourself before you potentially nosedive yours and your organization`s character:

1. Why you?

This sounds harsh, but is it your place to say anything? Is this your cause? Is this your fight? If you are speaking up on behalf of a group of people that for some reason cannot speak for themselves, go for it. But maybe it makes more sense to empower the people who are actually the ones most affected by the situation to speak up, rather than you. Take a few minutes to look outside of yourself. 

2. What are you adding to the conversation?

Are you adding new information that isn’t out there yet? A new idea? A new take on the situation? Do you have a solution? Are you sending out a message of hope and inspiration that will help others feel safer or reassured? Great. Chime in.  But if you are just ranting and repeating things that other people have already said to get them off your chest, don’t bother. It’s not helping anyone and it definitely won’t do you any favours in the long run either. 

Side note: rant to friends and family. It’s good for you to talk to get frustrations off your chest, and your friends and family will hopefully be honest with you if you are being unreasonable, and keep you accountable to good behaviour.

3. Have you considered the other side?

We all have our own perspectives and lived experiences, and it’s easy to convince yourself that you are right because you feel so strongly about something, and those around you agree with you. But we tend to gravitate and spend time with people who are like us, so checking in with those closest to you is not always the most reliable barometer. 

Stretch yourself. Consider the other perspective. Educate yourself about the other side of whatever issue you are speaking for or against. Make an effort to hear what ‘the other side’ has to say and where they are coming from.

Unless you’ve educated yourself about all the issues and all the sides, made an effort to learn as much as possible about all angles of the story, you don’t know enough to speak up. 

4. What will be the impact of what you say?

Are you attacking others? Or are you offering solutions and ideas to better a situation? Will what you say give others a better understanding of the situation? Or just fuel anger and backlash? Will your contribution lead to more compassion and consideration, or more division? Aim to increase understanding, compassion, inspiration and hope. Offer solutions that bring people together, don`t rip them apart.

5. Would you say this to your neighbour’s face?

Social media has made it so that you can say anything online without necessarily being accountable or feel the repercussions of your words. But would you say what you are posting on Facebook, to someone else’s face?

It’s easy to think of the opposition as ‘them’, ‘they’, ‘their side’. But picture your neighbour. You may not realize that he or she feels very differently from you about a certain topic. Picture one of your customers or clients. Imagine that he or she is ‘the other’.  And imagine yourself saying what you are posting online to their face. How would that go? Would you use the same tone? The same words? What would expect their reaction to be? How would that affect your relationship? 

If it was a face-to-face conversation, you would probably try harder to understand where they are coming from. So that you could maintain a positive relationship. That’s how you should approach ‘speaking up’.

Be respectful. Remember we are all humans trying our best.