Speaking up

For most of my life, I have disliked the sound of my own speaking voice. (I say “speaking” because I did sing in various choirs and chamber groups in middle and high school, and somehow that was fine.) It feels like a bizarre act of self-betrayal to say that I hated it. But at some level, I think I did.

When I was younger, it was the comments from various older Chinese relatives and family friends (“Waaa, her voice is so soft!!”) that first started to make me feel self-conscious about it. By the time I was working in a corporate environment, I was painfully certain that the sound of my voice was a complete anomaly and an embarrassing liability: girlishly high-pitched, childishly “sweet,” soft, and hard to hear (especially in rooms full of confident males who had no issues whatsoever hearing the sounds of their own voices).

It didn’t help that I was naturally reticent and an introvert in a consulting world apparently populated by orators who had a knack for “thinking out loud.”

Or that my first boss once mimicked my voice in a mocking way.

Of course, I did manage to speak up more and more over time. Needless to say, I facilitated meetings, gave presentations, and led programs. I received praise. But no amount of praise could really set me free from the fear that, as soon as I started speaking, heads would swivel in surprise at the sound. Or that no one would take me seriously. Or that I sounded ridiculous, like a child impersonating a professional adult. Whenever I spoke, it was in spite of this fear.

In my early 30s, I read a book or two about how to “improve” and train one’s public speaking voice. The advice was inevitably to breathe and speak from the abdomen and lower one’s tone. The point was always to sound more authoritative, assertive, and confident. (Someone obviously gave Elizabeth Holmes the same counsel.) I even emailed a speech coach in 2011 to ask about private coaching; she never replied.

I never did change anything about my voice. But as I began to feel more comfortable with myself, the fear naturally began to dim.

In more recent years, every so often, I would hear someone on the radio that I thought maybe sounded a little bit like how I thought I maybe sounded to others, and I would think to myself, Well, she sounds fine, right?

Then came an unexpected turning point. My formal training to be certified as a coach with the Hudson Institute of Coaching started with three intensive days in a room full of people I’d never met before. Each day, I received at least one completely unsolicited, unexpected compliment on the quality of my voice.

Perhaps it’s the magic that can unfold in the presence of coaches, but somehow, this set of spontaneous feedback suddenly allowed me to reconsider my lifelong (to-that-point) relationship to my voice.

On a piece of scrap paper, I wrote down what I had always believed to be immutably true:

My voice is girly.

My voice invites teasing.

Everyone is surprised when they hear my voice for the first time. They don’t take me seriously because of it.

And then I wrote down what I could now start to believe instead:

My voice is part of my unique presence.

My voice has power because it is different.

Is it any coincidence that, ever since I was finally able to embrace my literal voice, I feel I have finally been able to start ‘finding my voice’ in a more figurative sense?

I can’t help but wonder how different my life might have been if I always had been wholly unafraid to use my voice. Who could I have been? What could I have done? I grieve a little bit for my younger self—and for everyone who fears, even a little, to speak.

There is a certain privilege that comes with never hesitating to use one’s voice, literally or figuratively.

If you have this privilege, please use it well.

If you don’t, you have my ear: What gifts do you have yet to give to the world?

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