We need to feel safe to get our voice out

Will Smith’s behaviour at the Oscars has prompted a rash of writing, it has urged me to share something of my own story and thinking too.

In the era I was brought up, what we now call domestic violence was far more common. Sometimes it was even seen as an ordinary and appropriate part of parenting. After seven years in the second world war, today we would most likely have described my father as having PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome). His war experience landed on top of his childhood with a disciplinarian father and the loss of his mother when ten years old, things, in my perception, he found very hard.

What this meant for me was that he could fly off the handle quickly, easily and unpredictably, and slap us as children to bring us into line. Home was not a safe place to be.

In my professional world now, I am quite often working with women, who are developing their career into more senior, and more visible positions. Some of the most capable women I work with, and some men too, struggle to share their thoughts, views and ideas, even when they are ostensibly encouraged by their organisation to do so. They struggle to get their voice out, to use it early and well, and to use their voice in an effective way.

There is a lot to get curious about here. My skills, i.e. the coach’s skills, in empathy, trust, listening for the unsaid, creating and providing space, acknowledging challenging emotions, can all allow what needs to be said to surface. These are some of the skills in creating psychological safety to enable progress to be made.

What holds these women and men back? There are as many stories as people. These, however, are some of the themes:

  • What I have to say is of no value
  • What I have to say has been said already
  • I don’t like to take the space.

You and I both know these things are unlikely to be true. For me, it is much more likely some form of fear or judgement are holding these capable people back. Messages from earlier in the lives, home or school, could have been internalised, become self judgement and taken to be true. My empathy can help the negative self belief surface, be held to account and, from this, more promising, helpful thinking emerge.

My point though, is that context can often limit or trump that which can come from individual growth. We can coach and support people all we like, but without a shift in the system, not too much will change, or for long. As leaders we need to provide psychological safety for our teams, our colleagues, our friends, and most importantly of all, as the first group any of us are ever part of, our families.

How can we do this?

  • Model it, through offering our own vulnerability, owning our backstory, as well as offering our strength
  • Listen and welcome all comments and opinion, overtly accepting and building on what everyone has to say
  • Show a learning culture, where answers are generated together, not from above.

It is only when we feel safe that we can get our voice out in the right amount – not too much and not too little – in the right way, at the right time, saying the right things, to increase the chances of the right outcomes.

It is only with psychological safety that thinking, and diverse thinking, will want to show up in the room.

And to everyone in the world who has been on the receiving end of, or a witness to violence, who is coming to terms with their past, sometimes imperfectly, as witnessed with Will Smith last month at the Oscars, I salute you.

You and I know how hard this work can be.

Gill How loves to work internationally with managers, executives and professionals to help them to evolve, stretch and grow their leadership capability. She is a Master Executive Coach and innovative Leadership Developer. If she can help you in developing the potential of women and men in your organisation, contact her at 

You may also know that Gill is co-founder of the Women in Transport Leadership Programme, Lead. The next programme starts later this month. Here is what one of our participants, Tracy Read, from Nexus has to say:

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Gill How

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6 Comments

  • Martin How says:

    Over the last 40 years I have had many staff working with and for me, mostly in relatively junior roles. I remember a number of them mostly (but not exclusively) women introducing themselves to visitors as ” I am only the ……” Receptionist – the one who every visitor meets first and has a huge initial impact, Payments Clerk – the one who makes sure suppliers are paid correctly and on time, essential for small business, and even “I am just the IT Helpdesk person” – the person who can put us at ease, not make us feel stupid and 90% of the time help us solve our problem right away.

    I suspect that this is a part of the culture of holding back that Gill talks about.

    We have to value people, for who they are, not the status they have and remember daily that everyone one has valuable experience. So we can reinforce the message that everyone matters.

  • What a thoughtful transparent and balanced approach to the Oscar incident.

  • Martin White says:

    I found this very good, clear and thought provoking – in fact the best piece about this incident that I have read. Well written.

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