Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Speak Up in a Pandemic

Dear Joseph,

Where I live, concern about COVID-19 seems lax. I’m often surrounded by people who have already thrown social distancing and mask-wearing out the window. Just the other day, while in line at the grocery store, the man behind me blatantly ignored the big sticker on the floor telling him where to stand and I found him practically breathing down my neck as I was checking out. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t. I wasn’t sure exactly what to say to someone who clearly has no regard for the current situation. Any advice for how to navigate this weird world we’re living in?


Dear Tongue-tied,

What you described is a quintessential crucial moment: a moment with huge downstream consequences. And we’ve all been there. And, yes, I do have some advice. Speak up. Please!

We’re in the middle of one of the greatest influence challenges of our day. Medical science can’t yet solve our global problem. All we have to rely on is human behavior for now. So, success in the next several months will not actually hinge on masks and sanitizer, rather, it will be getting people to use these simple measures, every time, for however long it takes. And frankly, that won’t happen unless those who see someone drop the ball speak up and remind them.

But you’re not alone in feeling nervous about speaking up. We asked Crucial Skills Newsletter subscribers about their COVID-related fears. Three out of four said they are nervous about infection risk when interacting with others. Nine out of ten said they feel downright uncomfortable around strangers. Forty percent expressed the same nervousness about being infected by coworkers. Nearly one in four even admitted to being nervous around their extended family members. And yet almost three-fourths of us say we often say less than we should when others lapse into risky behavior.

Why do we fail to speak up? Some of the reasons you told us include:

  1. I don’t feel it is my place to tell others how to behave or act (33 percent)
  2. I don’t know how to speak up in a way that won’t feel offensive (33 percent)
  3. I worry that speaking up won’t do any good anyway (31 percent)
  4. I don’t feel I am an authority on the matter (29 percent)
  5. I am unsure on exactly what to say (28 percent)

So two things are clear:

First, we know that a few simple behaviors are the key to saving lives for the foreseeable future. For example, research shows that if employees wash their hands five times during a work shift, transmission risk is reduced by as much as 45%. Even more promising, a review of multiple studies concludes that if just two-thirds of us wore even marginally effective masks consistently, the epidemic could be stopped.

And second, we know that the only way we can create strong social norms for safe behavior is if people remind those who lapse.

So, what does that mean for you and for me? It means that when we observe people disregarding the rules that will keep us all safe—not to mention move economies and businesses toward recovery—then it’s our job to speak up. It’s all of our jobs to speak up. End of story.

Here are three things to remember when it’s time to speak up and save lives.

1. It’s Kind to Remind. Your motive for speaking up is a better predictor of others’ response than you might think. If you are speaking up in an attempt to belittle, punish, or control, others will pick up on it and respond in kind. The key to mustering the courage to speak up is to remind yourself, “It’s kind to remind.” When your motivation is kindness, your words feel different. So, next time you’re worried about speaking up, repeat this phrase: “It’s kind to remind,” then open your mouth and save a life. And when your mouth opens, a great word to begin with is “Please.” WATCH MY VIDEO TIP >>

2. Gratitude Not Attitude. One of the best ways to help us establish a norm of polite reminders in the world, is to offer an example of a polite response when you are reminded. For example, our research in hospitals shows that when a doctor says “Thank you” after being reminded to wash her hands, the nervous nurse who reminded her is significantly more likely to offer a reminder the next time he sees a lapse. Any time someone reminds you to do something safe, look them right in the eye and say the magic word: Thank you! A quick, sincere thank you makes the tension they felt before speaking up disappear. And it disabuses all who see it of their fear of offering similar admonitions. So remember, It’s kind to remind. And when someone does, give them gratitude not attitude! WATCH MY VIDEO TIP >>

3. Speak Up and Let Go. When you’re in an awkward moment writhing with uncertainty about whether or not to remind someone to be safe, I’ve found it helpful to do two things: Speak up and Let go. First, speak up. Don’t overthink it. Don’t amplify your own misery by imagining all of the horrible things that might happen if you open your mouth. Hardwire it. Make it automatic. Have a ready phrase at hand—something clever, catchy, and brilliant like: “We’ve been asked to have only five in the conference room.”

Then, let go. Don’t hand your self worth over to the other person. Let them have their own reaction. Usually what dresses up like resentment in others is actually embarrassment. And that is theirs to work through. It’s not a comment on your dignity unless you make it one. Break off eye contact. Don’t make it a standoff. Take a breath. Congratulate yourself for doing the right thing. Then let it go! WATCH MY VIDEO TIP >>

While COVID-19 has amplified the intensity and seriousness of our social interactions, we built our business on research that shows it’s possible to achieve dialogue in crucial moments. And when you do, results follow. These skills are timeless, but they are also needed now, more than ever. And still, we acknowledge that finding the right words, isn’t always easy.

To help you, my colleagues and I have created a video series that shares tips and scripts specific to crucial moments we all face right now—tips that are built on the skills and principles taught in our bestselling book and training course Crucial Conversations. In just a minute or two, we’ll answer that age-old question, “But, how do I say that?” and give you the confidence AND words you’ll need to speak up when it matters most. We hope you’ll enjoy it and share it with others who are feeling just as concerned as you. WATCH AND SHARE the How Do I Say That? video series >>

And if you’d like to take the next step and learn five skills for speaking up, check out our on-demand mini-course. In this course, I teach principles and skills that will help you feel confident and capable to speak up to anyone in any situation. LEARN MORE >>

Please join me in saving lives by speaking up.


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12 thoughts on “How to Speak Up in a Pandemic”

  1. S. L. Throm

    All fine advice, but given the level of polarization in society today, not a terribly safe thing to do. Have you seen what happened in Michigan, or where they drove over nurses trying to get to work to help sick people or blockaded hospital entrances? Excuse, but some people that have decided they are not going to follow anything the health authorities or the government say are getting rather violently radical. Not exactly a safe situation. When people start issuing death threats, which some have, it is time to back off and run for cover and NOT try to guess if this person is one of the violent ones or not and carrying a gun. Getting shot or even stabbed is not worth the risk! These are not normal times and won’t be for a long time yet.

  2. Susan Flores

    This column sounded self righteous and one sided. There are people who are legitimately that worried about their jobs and livelihoods and are as scared about their futures as other people are scared about the covid virus.

    1. Shana

      Susan, thank you for sharing your perspective. I’m having a hard time trying to understand and hoping you can help me. Are the folks who you were referring to that are as scared about their futures as other people are about the virus, not concerned about the virus? Are they concerned but have decided that the risk to themselves and others is worth it?

    2. Britney

      Thanks Susan for sharing your perspective. I am the editor of the Crucial Skills Newsletter and wanted to respond. It is our opinion, based on research, that the sooner we can alleviate the effects of the virus the sooner our economies will recover and our future will be more secure in every aspect of life. We are certainly concerned about the economy as well. We hope that by speaking up and kindly encouraging people to follow social distancing rules, life can more quickly return to normal and threats can be alleviated. We feel speaking up is a solution too many of the challenges we are facing. Best of luck in the current crisis, it’s scary for all of us.

  3. S.J.

    Whenever I encounter a safety situation and need to speak up, I like to “Let’s save a life today. Would you please ?”. It could be their life, my life or even someone else’s life.

  4. qing shi

    Thank you for the encouragement for speak up. I need it 🙂

  5. Ree

    I think both are scary. I don’t see anything in this article that denies that. I am not sure why you feel offended by it.

  6. Joan S. Neuweiler

    My first experience with a Temp taker when I had Dr. appointment -All wore masks (and I had a glove on as well) – I used my walking stick to enhance distancing.! In CA we wear our protection before leaving home. Riverside County has made us vulnerable by trying to open without the required data that is keeping us safe -one hot head may cost lives -at least he did not carry a gun, but more violence against those who are saving lives will cause many more deaths -economy excuses are not realistic -supporting the front line in this crises and helping those who lost jobs is paramount to our recovery.

  7. We’re in this together, be cautious of the inner critic. | Wisdom of Friends

    […] media is possibly fueling your inner critic and keeping you quiet. The question that was raised in How to Speak Up in a Pandemic, was  how to address anxiety about communicating fears/discomfort to others, […]

  8. Rob C.

    I think one of things that I found missing from this story is what the person was telling themselves of the situation: “to someone who clearly has no regard for the current situation”.

    It might be hard to enter into this conversation if the story that I’m telling myself is that this other person has no regard for the current situation.

    To be able to move into kindness – we still need to stop telling and believing the story we are telling ourselves.

    1. Paula K

      I agree, Rob.

      The comment in Tongue-tied’s message—“I wasn’t sure exactly what to say to someone who clearly has no regard for the current situation.”—offers an opportunity to reinforce the importance of being aware of the stories we tell ourselves.

      That statement sounds a bit judgmental and implies intention, but Tongue-tied may be making that assessment based on her/his own measuring stick. It’s similar to saying that a person who smokes clearly has no regard for her/his own health. People who have more knowledge of the science and facts about smoking’s detrimental health impacts may take that position and may even argue that with the abundance of public health information on the topic AND warning labels on cigarette packs themselves, the majority of people should know smoking is not a physically healthy practice. However, is that the case for everyone?

  9. Becky Hastings

    Wow. My perspective is 180 degrees different. I have been pursuing health through a wide variety of healthy practices for decades. I have thoroughly searched scientific literature and concluded that wearing masks is not going to provide benefit, and can actually bring harm physically, psychologically, and relationally. I absolutely agree that we should speak up and graciously explain our position. The reason I do not wear a mask, and smile and interact with everyone I meet, is so I can be a benefit and blessing to them. God did not give us a spirit of fear. I do not fear a virus, nor am I a walking health hazard. God created our bodies with a need for oxygen, for face to face interactions, and to have community. I trust the immune system He designed and I practice good hygiene and respect for others. Dig a little deeper into the actually rate of recovery from the so-called unique virus – >99% recovery rate for all ages. We need to disconnect from the fear driven mainstream media narrative. More people will die from despair related circumstances than from a virus. All cause mortality rate is lower in 2020 than it was in 2019. Look up stats for flu deaths this year. Almost non-existent. We really need discernment in knowing what information to trust.

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