We hear a lot of talk about being assertive these days. With all the lean-in chatter and “bossy” talk, it’s become one those vague, theoretical buzzwords about women in the workplace. We all know assertiveness is a crucial and often difficult skill — not only for women, but for anyone who struggles with speaking up, introversion, or insecurity (i.e. everyone).
The good news is that assertiveness isn’t an always innate ability, but a learned skill. And, once you start practicing small changes, you’ll see how much better your workday becomes. Communication becomes smoother, conflict is less intimidating, and goals are infinitely more achievable.
1. Don’t apologize for doing your job.
The old trope is that women need to stop apologizing so much, and while that’s true, we need to be more specific. In fact, it’s very important to apologize when we hurt someone or when we failed to do something that we gave our word on. The problem is when apologize for doing something we’re supposed to do.
Are you asking for something or pressing an issue that falls within your purview? Then you have nothing to be sorry for. It would be a misstep not to ask for that draft or follow up on that request. Apologizing in these scenarios is not only needless; it fosters an unhealthy dynamic between you and your coworkers.
2. Assess the risk.
If you’re hesitant to speak up, try this quick and simple trick. “Ask yourself, what is the worst that could happen and what is the best that could happen? If the best that could happen is worth the risk, then why not speak up?” And, really — even if you stumble over your words or can’t get your point across, is the worst case scenario that bad? Might it not be worth the risk just to prove to yourself that you can?
3. Don’t wait for perfection.
Women are generally raised to be more socially conscious than men, “meaning we care more about what people think of our words and behavior. We often think people will judge us personally — even more than we worry about how they will judge our work. That’s why we often hesitate to jump in unless we have the absolutely, positively perfect thing to say. There are also smart, confident women who are not assertive because they think they need to have a fully-formed, correct suggestion before they share an idea.
4. Get to the point as soon as you can.
Nervous people often give a lot of backstory or tell others how they might judge what they are going to say before they say it. But, the most important thing is to get to the relevant info. In terms of preamble, start with saying, ‘I have found that…’ or ‘I had a different point of view I’d like to offer…’ Then, concisely share your information, concern, or idea. And, be sure to be loud enough so people hear you!
5. Remember why you’re there.
No one is doing you a favour by keeping you on the books. You’re there because you add value to the bottom line. Odds are, you’re not valued for the times when you hold back but for the times you speak up. You have information that is useful and ideas that could be important. If you keep this information to yourself, things could get worse or possibilities won’t be explored. Not only will it help you to speak up, it will help others.
6. Check your facts.
Having confidence in our statements goes a long way to making assertiveness easier. And, the best way to create that confidence is to check your facts. It’s easy to make an assumption. But, if you’re heading into an important (and nerve-wracking) meeting, or replying to a superior, it’s always best to re-read that email or double-check your notes. It takes an additional moment, but it’s a moment well spent. That way, you can be fully confident in what you know.
7. Welcome disagreement.
Disagreement is needed to weigh the best options for a decision. If a colleague offers a dissenting argument, hear them out. “Listen for the fears behind their doubts and the beliefs behind their stories. When you name their worries and acknowledge their beliefs, they feel ‘seen’.
Offering this courtesy and consideration makes people more willing to hear your response, even if you have an alternate viewpoint. Furthermore, considering other people’s opinions and concerns will help you better define your ideas and position.
8. Be willing to do what others won’t: be unpopular.
Sometimes we can’t make everyone happy and sometimes we can hardly make anyone happy. But, Ford reminds us that offering a dissenting opinion is an important task and a powerful move. One of the ways to prove your mettle in the workplace is to “take that step forward and be willing to be unpopular.” It might not be fun, but when push comes to shove, that’s not why you’re there.
People won’t always accept your point of view, but if you boldly, directly, and concisely speak up, they will honor your assertive behavior. If they show disrespect for your ideas, don’t fall to their level of behavior. Hold your ground and demonstrate what respecting people’s ideas look like so they can learn from you.
9. “No” is a complete sentence.
This should actually be #1. It’s the number-one thing people struggle with. They say ‘no’ and follow it up with some caveat. You have to learn to leave all that stuff off and just be okay with saying ‘no.'”
We all want to be agreeable and helpful, but if you have to say “no” to something, say it with confidence. Remember that you don’t need to add apologies or conditions. You can be polite without bending over backward.
10. You’re not here to make friends.
“Friendship at work is a perk, not a requirement. This is important to bear in mind because it helps us to remember our real role and value in the workplace. A lot also depends on the environment in which you work. Not all jobs or companies make it easy. If you can have real friendships at work, great. But, if not, that’s okay, too.
If doing your job compromises a work friendship (and, it often does) just know that it doesn’t reflect on you personally. That’s the risk you run, and as long as you’re acting in a respectful, professional manner, you’re doing just fine.
11. Approach conflict quickly and directly.
If you’re having a hard time with a colleague, go to them one-on-one. Obviously, this is a challenge, especially if you’re naturally shy or avoidant, but it’s the fastest route back to harmony. First, assess what the real issues are and then reach out. Above all, always remain calm.
Be clear and honest about the issues you’re having. Odds are, they’re not feeling great about the situation either. So, initiate a respectful discussion that you can feel good about. Even if it doesn’t resolve the problem, you’ll know you behaved well.
12. Watch the “feelings” talk.
We’re often taught to deal with conflict by making “I feel” statements — “I feel hurt,” “It makes me feel angry,” etc. While that’s often the best route with personal relationships, but remember: you’re at work.
Some people won’t respond to an ‘I feel’ statements in a professional context, but you can let them know how they’re being perceived in a different way.” Try saying, “What I’m hearing from this is…” or “It sounds like what you’re saying is…” Then, they can correct or confirm your perception and you can move forward. When you get your feelings involved, things only get more complicated.
13. Fake it ’til you make it.
This is a great strategy for any new behavior. Your brain will try to talk you out of anything that feels uncomfortable. You’ve got to push through and do it anyway. When you step outside your comfort zone and realize it’s not so scary after all — that, in fact, it’s pretty great — you’re actually rewiring your brain. Your response patterns will begin to change and these new behaviors will become habits. But the brain needs evidence of success before it can change. You have to provide that evidence by feeling the fear and doing it anyway.
15. If they call you “bossy,” good.
We’re all sick of hearing the b-word, but the truth is, it works in your favor. True, there’s an undeniable component of sexism here: Women are judged more than men as being bossy or disruptive when they speak up. But what many don’t realize is that these labels don’t stop women from getting ahead. Bossy, disruptive women often succeed because, in truth, they are bold, direct, and see important things other people miss. It takes the ability to speak up to get ahead.
The next time someone throws the b-word in your face? Congratulations. You’re doing something right.