This is a lightly edited transcript of Adam’s TEDx talk in New York in 2016.
I’ve asked people all over the world about the dilemma of speaking up: When they can assert themselves, when they can push their interests, 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 coworker 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?
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. And it got particularly terrifying when we got home from the hospital, and 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’ve spoken up, but I didn’t.
But sometimes we speak up when we shouldn’t, and I learned that over 10 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 counter-offer, and I helped him craft the perfect one. And it was perfect—it was perfectly insulting. The company was so offended, they literally withdrew the offer, and my brother was left with nothing.
Through these experiences, I’ve come to recognize that each of us have something called a range of acceptable behavior. Now, 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. And when we stay within our range of acceptable behaviors, we’re rewarded. When 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.
Widening your range of acceptable behavior
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. But there’s one thing that determines that range more than anything else, and 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. Sometimes it’s 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, where someone’s the boss and someone’s the subordinate. Sometimes it’s in relationships, where one person’s more invested than the other person.
The key thing is that 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 that 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.
Releasing yourself from the double bind
Many of you might have heard the phrase the “double bind” and connected it with one thing: gender. The gender double bind is when women who don’t speak up go unnoticed, and women who do speak up get punished. And 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 a really a low-power double bind. And what look like gender differences are really often just power differences in disguise.
Oftentimes we see a difference between a man and a woman or men and women and think, “Biological cause. There’s something fundamentally different about the sexes.” But in study after study, I’ve found that a better explanation for many sex differences is really power. And 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. And over the last couple 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; 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. And I’m going to give you a set of tools today. Speaking up is risky, but these tools will lower your risk of speaking up.
The first tool I’m going to give you got discovered in negotiations in an important finding. On average, women make less ambitions offers and get worse outcomes than men at the bargaining table. But Hannah Riley Bowles and Emily Amanatullah have discovered there’s one situation where women get the same outcomes as men and are just as ambitious: That’s when they advocate for others. When they advocate for others, they discover their own range and expand it in their own mind. They become more assertive. This is sometimes called “the mama bear effect.” Like a mama bear defending her cubs, when we advocate for others, we can discover our own voice.
Take the perspective of others
But sometimes, we have to advocate for ourselves. How do we do that? One of the most important tools we have to advocate for ourselves is something called perspective-taking. And perspective-taking is really simple: It’s simply looking at the world through the eyes of another person. It’s one of the most important tools we have to expand our range. When I take your perspective, and I think about what you really want, you’re more likely to give me what I really want.
But here’s the problem: Perspective-taking is hard to do. So let’s do a little experiment. I want you all to hold your hand just like this: Your finger—put it up. And I want you to draw a capital letter E on your forehead as quickly as possible. OK, it turns out that we can draw this E in one of two ways, and this was originally designed as a test of perspective-taking. I’m going to show you two pictures of someone with an E on their forehead: my former student, Erika Hall. And you can see over here, that’s the correct E. I drew the E so it looks like an E to another person. That’s the perspective-taking E because it looks like an E from someone else’s vantage point. But this E over here is the self-focused E. We often get self-focused. And we particularly get self-focused in a crisis.
I want to tell you about a particular crisis. A man walks into a bank in Watsonville, California. And he says, “Give me $2,000, or I’m blowing the whole bank up with a bomb.” Now, the bank manager didn’t give him the money. She took a step back. She took his perspective, and she noticed something really important. He asked for a specific amount of money.
So she said, “Why did you ask for $2,000?”
And he said, “My friend is going to be evicted unless I get him $2,000 immediately.”
And she said, “Oh! You don’t want to rob the bank—you want to take out a loan. Why don’t you come back to my office, and we can have you fill out the paperwork.”
Now, her quick perspective-taking defused a volatile situation. So when we take someone’s perspective, it allows us to be ambitious and assertive, but still be likable.
Provide flexible options
Here’s another way to be assertive but still be likable, and that is to signal flexibility. Now, imagine you’re a car salesperson, and you want to sell someone a car. You’re going to more likely make the sale if you give them two options. Let’s say option A: $24,000 for this car and a five-year warranty. Or option B:$23,000 and a three-year warranty. My research shows that when you give people a choice among options, it lowers their defenses, and they’re more likely to accept your offer.
And this doesn’t just work with salespeople; it works with parents. When my niece was four, she resisted getting dressed and rejected everything. But then my sister-in-law had a brilliant idea. What if I gave my daughter a choice? This shirt or that shirt? OK, that shirt. This pant or that pant? OK, that pant. And it worked brilliantly. She got dressed quickly and without resistance.
Form allies and ask for advice
When I’ve asked the question around the world when people feel comfortable speaking up, the number one answer is: “When I have social support in my audience; when I have allies.” So we want to get allies on our side. How do we do that? Well, one of the ways is be a mama bear. When we advocate for others, we expand our range in our own eyes and the eyes of others, but we also earn strong allies.
Another way we can earn strong allies, especially in high places, is by asking other people for advice. When we ask others for advice, they like us because we flatter them, and we’re expressing humility. And this really works to solve another double bind: the self-promotion double bind. The self-promotion double bind is that if we don’t advertise our accomplishments, no one notices. And if we do, we’re not likable.
But if we ask for advice about one of our accomplishments, we are able to be competent in their eyes but also be likeable. And this is so powerful it even works when you see it coming. There have been multiple times in life when I have been forewarned that a low-power person has been given the advice to come ask me for advice. I want you to notice three things about this: First, I knew they were going to come ask me for advice. Two, I’ve actually done research on the strategic benefits of asking for advice. And three, it still worked! I took their perspective, I became more invested in their calls, I became more committed to them because they asked for advice.
Tap into your passion
Now, another time we feel more confident speaking up is when we have expertise. Expertise gives us credibility. When we have high power, we already have credibility. We only need good evidence. When we lack power, we don’t have the credibility. We need excellent evidence.
And one of the ways we can come across as an expert is by tapping into our passion. I want everyone in the next few days to go up to friend of theirs and just say to them, “I want you to describe a passion of yours to me.” I’ve had people do this all over the world and I asked them, “What did you notice about the other person when they described their passion?” And the answers are always the same. “Their eyes lit up and got big.” “They smiled a big beaming smile.” “They used their hands all over—I had to duck because their hands were coming at me.” “They talk quickly with a little higher pitch.” “They leaned in as if telling me a secret.”
And then I said to them, “What happened to you as you listened to their passion?”
They said, “My eyes lit up. I smiled. I leaned in.”
When we tap into our passion, we give ourselves the courage, in our own eyes, to speak up, but we also get the permission from others to speak up. Tapping into our passion even works when we come across as too weak. Both men and women get punished at work when they shed tears. But Lizzie Wolf has shown that when we frame our strong emotions as passion, the condemnation of our crying disappears for both men and women.
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I want to end with a few words from my late father that he spoke at my twin brother’s wedding. Here’s a picture of us. My dad was a psychologist like me, but his real love and his real passion was cinema, like my brother. And so he wrote a speech for my brother’s wedding about the roles we play in the human comedy.
And he said, “The lighter your touch, the better you become at improving and enriching your performance. Those who embrace their roles and work to improve their performance grow, change and expand the self. Play it well, and your days will be mostly joyful.”
What my dad was saying is that we’ve all been assigned ranges and roles in this world. But he was also saying the essence of this talk: those roles and ranges are constantly expanding and evolving.
So when a scene calls for it, be a ferocious mama bear and a humble advice seeker. Have excellent evidence and strong allies. Be a passionate perspective taker. And if you use those tools—and each and every one of you can use these tools—you will expand your range of acceptable behavior, and your days will be mostly joyful.