Heather Hansen is Founder and CEO of Global Speech Academy and author of the new book Unmuted: How to Show Up, Speak Up, and Inspire Action. In a recent Training Unleashed Podcast, she and host Evan Hackel explored her very big idea that we can all succeed and accomplish more if we are “unmuted.”

It’s a fascinating concept. We know you will benefit from these edited portions of their remarkable conversation.

Evan and Heather Discuss “Unmuting”

Evan: Let me start by asking what you mean when you say that we can “unmute” ourselves. When did you first start to think about what it means?

Heather: What did it mean to be unmuted when we moved online during the pandemic? In so many video meetings we kept hearing, “You’re on mute, you’re on mute.” And after hearing that a million times, I thought, do you know what? How many of us are really on mute? We’ve been on mute way before the pandemic in our lives and our careers and our families, not having the courage to speak up to share our bright ideas. And that’s hurting our businesses.

Evan: That’s a great concept. So it means that we’re not giving fully right? How do you see muted employees hurting business and unmuted employees impacting the business in a positive way?

Heather: I think there are a number of benefits, innovation for one, when we start hearing everyone’s ideas . . . not just the eloquent speakers, not just the leaders, but the people who are looked over on a daily basis.

We all have something to contribute. So innovation is a big one. Inclusion is a big one, when we start really listening to every voice. There are a number of different movements happening now. You know, there is the concept of the fearless organization with Amy Edmondson, there is psychological safety, there is greater awareness around cross-cultural issues.

There are so many things coming together right now, and I think we will have a real awakening happening after the pandemic where we’re looking for new styles of leadership. We’re looking for a new way to interact in our companies, a more human way to appear at work. And when we start showing up fully, I think we’re going to see a massive shift in the success of businesses and in innovation, inclusion and ultimately, in bottom-line profits.

Evan: I totally agree. When I was a kid, I think people were taught that you don’t say anything at work, just do what you are told. But I think the younger generations want to be unmuted. But of course, that requires management to be receptive to listening. So let’s talk about management for a moment. What does management need to do to encourage people to unmute and to create a safe space to be unmuted?

Heather: That’s a really great question, because I think a lot of the change does have to happen top-down. We have to see leaders showing up and unmuting themselves. And there’s the big bad word. Every time I say it out loud, I get the worst feedback from leadership. And that is the word vulnerability. In my talks or workshops, I will always get a hand in the air and someone will ask, “Oh, why do I have to be vulnerable? Vulnerable is a bad word. I don’t want to be weak. I don’t want to be seen as weak.”

And there are a lot of cultural issues tied up in this as well, of course. But I think it’s important that we start realizing that vulnerability isn’t a bad word. It doesn’t mean putting your private life on a plate for everyone in the office to see. It doesn’t mean crying at work. It means showing up and sharing your full self, not just the professional side.

I struggled with it. As I wrote my new book, I kept reminding myself, “Heather, live your mantra. As leaders, we have to walk the talk.” Now, that doesn’t take the responsibility off of everyone else because we also down the ranks need to be willing to speak up in a toxic environment, need to be willing to speak up when we see a mistake, and be willing to speak up with very positive and good ideas that we have. And so it does go both ways. But if management is not creating that open culture where we aren’t afraid of failure, where we’re able to speak up without negative repercussions, we’re going to run into some problems. So I think you nailed it right there. It starts at the top.

Evan: Yes. People have to lead by example. One of the things that I talk about a lot is that people are evasive in a lot of cases because they’re trying to not hurt people’s feelings. And you know, the polite police are the enemy of a good meeting. What advice do you give to employees to unmute themselves? How do I go about encouraging that?

Heather: Well, ideally a culture has developed where there is a space for that. So maybe it’s in the weekly meetings, maybe it’s actually the leader who’s been asking for that feedback. If that person is receptive, then most likely people aren’t going to have a lot of trouble unmuting because they know the leader is receptive. And it’s been made very clear and it’s a part of the culture, and there isn’t any real worry about voicing a concern or saying, “Hey, I have this amazing, amazing right hand woman who supports me, and I’ve made it very clear to her that she needs to speak up and tell me what I don’t see, right?”

We can’t have all the answers. And of course, you know, we’re in a very global environment. I’m dealing across cultures as well, where there’s a lot more stress. Even if I come in and say, “Please tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me,” that doesn’t mean that people will necessarily tell me. Maybe the person you’re speaking with is based in Singapore or om Southeast Asia, where there’s a very strong culture around not necessarily challenging a superior in the workplace.

And we see that happening in a number of ways in larger organizations, people taking their concerns to H.R. instead of the individual wanting to be anonymous in their feedback. Again, a lot of these are systems that would have to be set up by the company . . . this idea of managing up is very difficult for a lot of people. But being able to sit down with that person and be quite open and honest with them and focus on the situation and not the person.

It can mean saying, “I’ve been thinking about this project, and I wonder if I could just share some different ideas with you that I was thinking about.” And not to say, “I don’t think that the direction that you’re taking is the right way.”

Being unmuted isn’t throwing your ideas in someone’s face and being hurtful. It’s being conscious and aware and emotionally intelligent. So it is about building the relationship with the individual, focusing on the situation and not the person, and airing your ideas and solutions and not just focusing on problems.

When we are in meetings, we can say, “I know that you have amazing ideas and I want everyone to hear them.” And if I’m doing my job properly in the meeting, I am going to be turning to you and specifically asking you for feedback. So I might warn you of that and say, “I want you to know that in meetings, people are sometimes talking over you. I know that you have ideas that you want to voice and you aren’t getting the opportunity. So I’m going to make sure that I create that space for you. I want you to be able to speak up in those situations. And how do you feel about that?”

Evan: If you had only one tip to share with our audience, what would it be?

Heather: Oh, I love that question. And when it comes to communication training in particular and enhancing our communication skills, the one tip I’m always telling my clients (and I wish they would practice more) is to set an intention in the morning of what you want to focus on that day for your communication skills. Because we are communicating all day, every day.

If you’re trying to slow down your speaking pace, then set that intention. If you want to speak clearly, think about how you are articulating in every conversation. If you want to be a better listener, try to press mute more often today and really listen to people.

We have every opportunity all day long to enhance the way that we are communicating with people! Simply set aside five minutes in the morning to think about how we are going to do that today and how are we going to inspire others to do the same. And so that would be my big tip when it comes to improving our communication skills.

A Special Offer from Heather for Members of the Training Unleashed Community

Heather invites you to take advantage of free bonuses that accompany her book. Go to heatherhanson.com/unmuted and open unmuted assignments and exercises you can start with your team. You’ll find an implementation guide for companies and HR departments that want to experience the effectiveness of unmuting their people.

About Our Guest

Heather Hansen is Founder and CEO of Global Speech Academy and author of the new book Unmuted: How to Show Up, Speak Up, and Inspire Action. She helps top global leaders show up, speak up, and inspire action in a changing world. She is on a mission to unmute leaders and teams so they can be more innovative, inclusive and efficient while adapting to modern challenges.

Heather’s primary areas of expertise:

  • Global English Pronunciation and Intelligibility
  • Workplace and Leadership Communication
  • Linguistic Diversity and Inclusion
  • Cross-Cultural Communication
  • Presentation and Interpersonal Skills
  • Language and Virtual Communication Policy

Heather is an outspoken advocate for global voices. She raises awareness around microinequities related to language and accent in international teams and helps companies build UNMUTED communication cultures where every voice is heard.

Heather’s experiences speaking foreign languages and working in global environments give her increased empathy for her clients and their challenges. She has spent a combined eleven years in her current home, Singapore, where she first moved in 2006. Her work has taken her to 16 countries on four continents, and her clients come from every corner of the world. She was an early adopter of online technology and has been coaching and training her global clients online since 2012. She published her first fully-online course, the Pronunciation Mastery Program, in 2013.

Watch Heather’s 2018 TEDx Odense talk: 2 Billion Voices: How to speak bad English perfectly