In honor of Women’s History Month, today’s “Lessons from the Field” is dedicated to women who “rock the boat” in the interest of creating more equitable and effective organizations. There are countless everyday “she-roes” who speak their truths, when not everyone is willing to listen. It is often a few brave women who speak out, sometimes repeatedly, to catalyze crucial conversations that make our organizations, communities, and society work better for everyone.

Withholding Communication

There are many times when we humans withhold our thoughts, feelings or needs to avoid rocking the boat with our colleagues. In doing so, we may miss opportunities to make a difference or dismiss our own needs. This post is about giving up “withholding” and speaking our truths.

Patterns of withholding can become habitual for individuals and groups. Here are some questions that can help identify patterns of withholding in your self, your team or your organization.

Do you withhold or “sugarcoat” feedback to avoid:

  • Hurting someone’s feelings?
  • Conflict?
  • Negative repercussions?
  • Damaging relationships?
  • Being labeled “too critical”?

Do you withhold or dismiss your ideas, questions or opinions because:

  • They might be unpopular?
  • People might get defensive?
  • You don’t want to be labeled a “negative Nelly”?
  • You don’t want to come across pushy or aggressive?
  • You think that speaking up won’t make any difference?
  • You don’t think you are as smart as others?
  • You don’t think your ideas and opinions matter?

Do you hesitate to ask for what you need because:

  • You think your needs aren’t really important?
  • You don’t want too appear too needy or picky?
  • You don’t want to come across as a complainer?
  • You don’t want your commitment questioned?

The Impact of Withholding

We may choose to withhold a thought, feeling or need at any time. For example, I sometimes withhold an observation I have about new clients because I am just beginning to build trust. Withholding can be healthy when it is coming from a place of choice, rather than reaction or habit. And, withholding can also have a cost.

One obvious cost of withholding is that unvoiced concerns do not get addressed. This can impact the organization’s effectiveness in multiple ways. Within the team, the lack of constructive feedback or discussion gets in the way of innovation, accountability and interdependence. Internal and external relationships may suffer, because no one is willing to give feedback about behaviors that they find offensive or counter-productive. Similarly team members feel undervalued when their contributions are not acknowledged. Gossiping may become and unhealthy norm, which adds more toxicity to the work environment.

When our needs are not expressed, they will not be addressed. Resentments and frustrations may build up, which create an unpleasant work environment and dampen motivation. One of the biggest costs of withholding may be sadness, anger and pain when we sense that we are not being true to ourselves.

Why We Withhold

From a very young age we receive messages like “be seen and not heard,” “sit down and be quiet,” “don’t question authority,” “keep your feelings to yourself” and “get along.” These messages may be spoken or implied and may be different depending upon our class, race, gender, culture and other aspects of our experience.

Dynamics of oppression impact the messages we get. For example, young girls are often socialized to be caretakers, “good girls” and discouraged from being too smart, strong or “aggressive”. Inundated with conflicting and negative messages, many women are taught to devalue our selves and our opinions, and believe that our feelings and needs don’t matter.

Nonprofit and public organizations each develop their own cultures, which mirror society. New staff members quickly learn the unwritten rules to follow in order to fit in. These norms often involve shying away from conflict to the detriment of organizational and individual learning and growth. Power dynamics can also result in people feeling unsafe saying what’s on their minds.

Interrupting Old Patterns and Creating New Ones

Through my work I have seen organizations interrupt old patterns of withholding and create new ones. As a result, they develop dynamic and trusting working relationships and are more effective in their work. Some essential elements for success include:

  • Self-reflection, openness to explore and humility to learn as a “beginners.”
  • Commitment to practice on an ongoing basis along with acceptance that the process will have ups and downs.
    Courage to take risks more than once.
  • Willingness to listen supportively and non-judgmentally, especially to messages that are hard to hear.
  • A sense of humor, compassion and caring for self and others.
  • Leaders who help set the tone by practicing new communication behaviors and listening non-defensively when staff members speak their truth.

Transforming communications norms in organizations and teams is not usually a linear process. It may require trying on different approaches and evaluating what works along the way. Here are some steps that organizations and teams can take.

  • Identify patterns of withholding and make a collective commitment to transform them.
  • Identify and address power dynamics that impede open communication.
  • Develop a shared vision for the team and how it will communicate.
  • Develop and agree upon communication agreements that foster open communication.
  • Create spaces to “practice” these agreements on an ongoing basis. Set the tone that “we are all human and we’re all learning.”
  • Invite and create forums for courageous conversations.
  • Make sure that people are fully heard when they take risks and speak their truths.

Individuals may feel that they are powerless to make a difference unless they are in positions of formal power. In my experience, people who are not positions of authority are often key catalysts for change. People from all levels of the organization can play leadership roles in fostering open communication. To learn to speak their truths and support others in doing so, individuals can:

  • Be aware of one’s own individual communication patterns and notice when they aren’t working.
  • Notice and resist the tendency to withhold important communication.
  • Practice reminders to self: “my ideas, perspectives, experiences and needs matter.”
  • Practice using “I statements” to speak one’s truth without shaming or blaming
  • Be supportive when people try new ways of communicating, whether or not they “get it right”.

In conclusion, courageous communication can make the difference between teams that do “okay” and teams that thrive. Patterns of withholding are often learned from a young age and reflected in organizational culture. These patterns can be unlearned and new patterns can be established through exploration, intention and ongoing practice.”

“Courage is the most important of all virtues, because without it we can’t practice any other virtue with consistency.” —Maya Angelou

Note to readers: I hope you enjoyed reading “Lessons from the Field.” If you find this information useful and want to share it with others for purposes of learning (not for profit), please feel free to do so. Please acknowledge Mayeno Consulting and include my web address ( if you pass it on to others. Thanks!