Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Stand Up for Yourself

Dear Crucial Skills,

How can I find the strength to say what I need to say when someone does me wrong? I struggle to tell people when I’m bothered because I believe I will get in a heated argument with them and get lost for words. Sometimes my dad raises his voice at me and I just keep quiet. Sometimes a colleague will speak to me in a threatening voice and I say nothing. Sometimes someone makes my child cry and I still say nothing, and so on. These often feel like life-or-death situations, and afterward I blame myself for being weak. Sometimes I so badly regret not speaking up that I can’t even sleep at night, playing over and over in my head what I should have said. What can I do?


Dear Timid,

When you say you lack “strength” to speak up, what I hear is you lack confidence. One way to increase confidence is to develop skills. As your ability to do a behavior increases, your confidence to do it also increases.

The other way to increase confidence is to address your thinking. Are there beliefs or attitudes contributing to your lack of confidence? Unless your thinking changes, your behavior is unlikely to shift by much, whether you practice new behaviors or not.

So, let’s start there.

Instead of playing over and over in your head what you wish you would have said, examine why you find yourself in this pattern of behavior.

In Crucial Conversations we teach a concept called Master My Stories. The premise is this: the stories we tell ourselves shape our interpretation of events and our behavior. While we teach this concept as it relates to moments of conflict, it can be applied much more broadly.

Another word for story is belief. I suspect that your lack of “strength” to speak up for yourself is not merely the result of not knowing what to say. It is likely grounded in beliefs and perspectives that have been formed during your life and run years deep. They are embodied and have been shaped by your experiences. What are they?

Perhaps you’ve spoken up in the past only to make matters worse. Maybe those attempts have damaged your relationships or reputation. Perhaps you’ve determined that no one will listen to or care about what you have to say. Whatever it is, somewhere along the way you’ve come to the conclusion, consciously or not, that it’s better to remain silent than to speak up for yourself.

Uncovering the underlying premises does not mean you will be able to immediately shake them off. Changing our perspectives often entails years of work. Awareness is simply the first step. Based on my reading of your question, this is where I recommend you begin.

As you work to uncover your beliefs, I invite you to replace them with this belief: you are a source of power and responsibility in the world.

If you aren’t already familiar with it, all our work is rooted in this idea. Each of our courses and books teaches a framework that invites us to see ourselves as agents in a world where it is tempting to believe we aren’t. This framework places power and responsibility in ourselves.

Why is this important? It is my experience that patterns of self-defeating or destructive behavior have their root in beliefs that either (1) ignore our power of agency or (2) justify efforts to avoid taking responsibility for it.

Now, you may not be convinced of that. That’s ok. I know many who see what I’ve just outlined as objectively true, as in capital-T truth, and I’m sure there are those who think it false. I, on the other hand, am agnostic. Maybe it’s true, and maybe it’s a useful story.

But if it’s a story, then, like other stories, it has power to shape our interpretations of events and our behavior. In other words, to some degree our capacity to change our behaviors and outcomes depends on the belief that we can do so.

Consider that as you search yourself for self-limiting beliefs. You must develop the feeling that, somewhere and somehow, you have a perspective worth sharing.

Next, what can you say?

I feel that what I’m about to suggest is grossly inadequate. There are likely dozens of steps you can and probably should take on the road to confidence to stand up for yourself, but I hope this gives you a starting point: affirm and preserve your sense of self-worth.

To affirm your sense of self-worth, just say no. “You can’t talk to me like that.” “No.” “You can’t disrespect me.” “I won’t listen to this.” Find an expression that allows you to calmly but surely affirm you will not tolerate being disrespected.

To preserve your sense of self-worth, leave. Excuse yourself. Get to another room, a friend’s house, another colleague’s office. State your affirmation, then say, “Excuse me.” And go.

Please don’t take these suggestions as a copout or a sign of weakness. In the words of Albert Camus, “Saying no does not mean giving up. It also means saying yes, with every gesture.” Say yes to yourself.

Finally, I’ve responded to your question on the assumption that you’re not in danger but have developed a habit of allowing others to disrespect and disregard you. If it’s worse than that—if you are being bullied—I urge you to seek safety and professional help.

And don’t stop here. I’ve shared what I have as a starting point only. Continue to learn and work on your ability to speak up. In addition to our books and courses, you’ll find across our website dozens of free videos, articles, and webinars that can help you on your journey.

Good luck,

This article was edited by the author March 7, 2024 to clarify a point about the power of the stories we tell ourselves.

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14 thoughts on “How to Stand Up for Yourself”

  1. Reader

    Great topic and excellent format for getting advice. However, felt the author’s response came off too judgmental and not validating that this is actually a common experience. The tone of the advice came off as if the writer was alone/unusual in this experience. However, almost everyone I know experiences this, especially at work/hierarchical setting. I appreciated the underlying message of the response but even more concrete methods to address situations constructively would have strengthened the message. Still great post and would like to see more on this topic.

    1. Daniela

      Same feeling here, I do not resonate with any of the formulas proposed.

  2. KateC

    I could have written that letter (except for the kid part – we couldn’t have kids). I went through this (yet again) with my new-to-me boss on Monday in my one-on-one. What I got “coached” on was that I spoke up and apparently the execs did not like that I spoke up (all I did was note that my group which just changed leadership and still lacks clear direction was not part of the strategy and the two pillars we had been part of was removed from the strategy – literally all I said was there was nothing about xyz group).

    It bugged me until the next morning (affecting my sleep like the initial writer) and after talking with a former coworker, I stopped beating myself up about it and started working on a plan for my future. I also made the conscious decision to never regret speaking up – I cannot help if our leadership demands yes people. So, thank you for the response to the letter as some of those things are things I decided to start working on recently.

    1. Sarah

      I am so proud of you!! What a beautiful way to change your story and affirm yourself.

  3. Clara

    Beautifully said. And I would say Timid’s problem is likely rooted in his/her upbrings, his/her parents. Although he/she is adult now biologically, deep in heart, he/she is still the kid that found there was no use to fight for themselves.

    1. Jean

      Agree. This post resonates with me and what I have been hearing from my counselors. My lack of confidence/skills in negotiation (conflict management) is deeply rooted in my past experiences. I need to empower myself, and justify my offer well to speak up for myself.

  4. Steve Boos

    I have been teaching and using Crucial Conversations for 15 years. This article struck me powerfully because in a very few words it gave the essence of what can drive us (stories which are actually beliefs – and some deeply baked in over years) and it affirms our agency (power) and corresponding responsibility. First step is to work on ourselves, then we can work with others. Thanks for showing how the power of agency lies beneath all of the Crucial Learning teaching.

  5. Debbie Howard

    I would have added that her trigger seems to be loud & threatening voices. I agree that her response is probably based on experiences from childhood forward. But when she can see that loud/threatening voices are a trigger, she can tell herself a new story or tell the person what she hears. “When you raise your voice when you talk to me, it is very hard for me to hear/listen/respond to what you are saying. Can we please have this conversation without raised voices?” She can tell herself a new story – just because someone has a loud voice doesn’t mean they are right. And the loud voice may not even be directed at her -they could be just passionate about the subject. She could still respond with asking for the conversation to take place in a different tone.
    I agree that there are times to assert oneself or walk away, but she could also ask someone to decrease the volume/intensity of the conversation.

    1. Curious

      I agree. I was surprised that the advice given was to make a statement and walk away. This seems counter to the idea of holding dialog even when it can be challenging. We are only hearing Timid’s version of this pattern, and I would bet other people in these situations see things entirely differently. It seems to me that it would be better to suggest something that furthered dialog and relationship building rather than making an accusatory statement (that will likely make the other person feel defensive) and then fleeing.

  6. DePaiva, Elimar

    Excellent – thought provoking article. I identify with and would like to learn more on how to be in control of myself.

  7. Lee Strickland

    I want to learn more.

  8. Teresa Morgan

    While I know that Crucial Learning does not specialize in dealing with racism and discrimination. I appreciate how you provided no nonsense advice in this post.

    I am wondering if you can offer suggestions on how to deal with folks saying racist jokes or comments in front of myself a person who self identifies as BIPOC.

    I’d like to know what to say to shut it down without awakening white fragility and without getting emotionally involved.

    A few simple yet effective ways to stop the offender from the comments that they are think are funny or ok.


    1. Ryan Trimble

      Thanks, Teresa. I’ll include this in our pool of questions for a future post.

  9. Fellow (recovering) Timid

    Dear Timid,

    Fellow after-the-fact overthinker here and afraid of loud voices and threatening attitudes too… I would suggest starting small, like stating your preference when you are choosing a place to eat instead of thinking what others may want, and going up from there. Every little thing you do for yourself, every no you say when you don’t want to do something will create a feeling of reward that will make you try with bigger things although you are shakey and your voice is trembling.
    I have lately confronted one coworker and asked a man at the Dr’s office to lower the volume in his mobile because it was disturbing everybody in the waiting room and I felt awesome afterwards. Stick to that feeling and it will get better!! You can do it!!

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