Do you take on more and more work—for fear that your boss will be angry if you decline, even when your sanity or health might suffer? Do you avoid boundary-setting conversations because the consequences terrify you? Do you ever say no? Marcia Reynolds, Ph.D., author of The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs, offers tips for how to be more assertive at work. Changing your behavior can change how others view you, not to mention your own attitude toward your work. Talk your way onto more challenging, compelling projects, and you may find you’re no longer dreaming about an alternate career. For more smart advice on how to effect this transformation, try Life Reimagined’s three-day program, Refresh Your Outlook.
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Ask yourself: What’s the worst that could happen? Walk through the scenario—whether it’s declining a draining assignment or pushing back on a colleague’s absurd request—and visualize the end result. “Often, this crystallizes things. Will you get fired? Lose half your pay? Human beings are ‘master rationalizers,’” Reynolds says, and often what we fear most simply won’t happen. When we over-rationalize bad consequences, Reynolds says, “we just shut down and don’t ask for what we need.
Understand how your brain works. “Your brain’s primary function is to protect you—not to make you brilliant. It keeps you alive. It’s always asking, ‘Can this hurt me?’ It’s not really logical,” she says. Often, we’re afraid to be assertive due to this craving for self-protection. Realizing that a reluctance to speak up is just our brain trying to protect us will help put the fear in perspective.
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Realize there’s a difference between assertion and pushiness. “Pushy people say things like, ‘You need to think this way.’ To be assertive, start with ‘I’: ‘I have some thoughts I’d like considered before we move on.’ You’re not imposing your opinions on other people this way.”
Let assertive behavior build on itself. “The more you realize there aren’t horrible consequences to speaking up, the more you can talk your brain into doing it and realizing it isn’t a threat,” Reynolds says. “Find a way to share your ideas in a comfortable setting, which will teach your brain that it’s OK.” Practice this one-on-one or in a small team meeting among close colleagues, rather than a larger meeting or in front of a crowd.
Bring data. Still afraid to get your point across? Arm yourself with the facts. If you want a raise, go in prepared. List your accomplishments, with metrics that prove their worth. Research competing salaries in your industry. This will help you value yourself.
Think about who you are, not what you do. “Examine your strengths not in terms of your daily work but in terms of your personality. Are you curious? Determined? Generous? Remind yourself of this. It builds core strength—if you’re speaking from your core, you’re more likely to be heard,” Reynolds says.
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Ask for time. “People are often afraid to say no or to speak up because they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, or they feel they’re the only ones who can do a project right. If you feel put upon but don’t want to decline right away, ask to think about it,” she advises. “Then ask yourself if the project will fit with your goals and plans. Don’t feel pressured to answer on the spot.”
Toot your horn. If you’re regularly passed over for projects or promotions, have a conversation with your boss. “Say, ‘I’d like to share what I’ve accomplished lately. I feel the work I’m doing isn’t being seen.’ You have to do that or you’ll get stepped on,” says Reynolds. “Your work won’t speak for yourself, because people are busy.” Really, it’s not about you at all—and for a shy person, that’s a comforting thought.
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