Study: People have never been more afraid to speak their minds

November 10, 2021

Findings just released from a study conducted by Crucial Learning—a Provo-Utah-based company that offers courses in communication, performance, and leadership—indicate that a shocking 9 out of 10 people have felt emotionally or physically unsafe to speak their minds more than once during the past 18 months.

Predictably enough, the conversation topics that have generated the most fear include political or social issues (74%) and COVID-19 issues (70%), the company states in a news release posted on PRNewswire.

The study of more than 1,300 people found that instead of voicing their opinions or concerns, respondents are resorting to a host of unhealthy behaviors that are crippling constructive dialogue and driving viewpoints farther apart. Among the behaviors are the following:

  • Staying silent but feeling inauthentic (65%)
  • Avoiding people (47%)
  • Silently fume and stew (42%)
  • Ruminating about all the things they’d say if they had the courage (39%)
  • Faking agreement (19%)
  • Severing relationships (14%)

Indeed, 39% of survey respondents reported feeling unsafe either every day or every week. Only 7% report that they are just as confident as ever in social situations.

Emily Gregory, a co-researcher of the study and coauthor of a brand new third edition of  the book, Crucial Conversations, said the results begged the question: What is causing this heightened fear?

“Is the sole cause of our anxiety and subsequent silence the results of a volatile social landscape?” asked Gregory. “Or are there other factors at play and we’re actually in more control of our conversations and outcomes than we think?”

Leaning on a long-established concept in psychological research called the Least Preferred Coworker scale, Gregory and and her co-researcher Joseph Grenny asked subjects to describe their level of fear in a recent social situation and their scaled perception of the person(s) they were fearful of addressing. For example, were they more open or close minded, informed or ignorant, or rational or irrational? Using stepwise regression, they next measured how much of their fear could be accounted for by more negative characterizations of others.

The result? Those who tended to tell more extreme stories about their conversational counterparts were more than three times more likely to feel fearful and 3.5 times more likely to lack confidence in speaking their minds.

“We were stunned to see the size of the effect stories have on our confidence and ability to speak up,” Gregory reports. “But it makes sense. If I tell myself you are an ignorant, evil, jerk, I’m more likely to think you’ll be vindictive—or worse—if I disagree with you.”

Having identified subjects who faced similar communication challenges, but generated more confidence and less fear, Grenny and Gregory asked them to identify skills that help speak up with poise and integrity. Top skills included:

  • Make it safe (used by 76% of confident subjects). When emotions escalate, good crucial conversationalists reassure others of their respect for them and point out values they both share.
  • Get curious (used by 72%). Rather than try to decide “who is right,” they sincerely try to understand the world view of the other person. They ask questions, seek to understand, and show interest.
  • Start with facts, not judgments or opinions (used by 68%). Carefully lay out the facts behind their point of view. Use specific and observable descriptions.
  • Don’t focus on convincing (used by 48%).Don’t let your main goal be to change the other person’s mind. Instead, encourage the sharing of ideas and listen before responding.
  • Be skeptical of your own point of view (used by 42%). Conversations work best when you come in with a combination of confidence and humility. Be confident that you have a point of view that is worth expressing, but humble enough to accept that you don’t have a monopoly on truth and new information might modify your perspective.

Research contact: @CrucialLearning