This started as a response to a Reddit comment, but the more I considered the matter, the more I had to say. Rather than confine myself to a word count limit, I’ve decided to post this here so I can explain exactly what I wish to say.
Before beginning, I’ll note that I’m no psychologist, social worker, nor an authority on this matter. This is 100% my own opinion. Things that work for me obviously may not work for everyone and some of these suggestions may seem backwards, but these are the actions I’ve taken to master and control corporate conversations and avoid the bullying that often manifests in this environment.
There are a number of points to being assertive in a corporate environment while avoiding rudeness, but ultimately, everything boils down to maintaining control. It’s not something that can be mastered overnight and there are multiple layers to the act. Hopefully, my notes might provide a bit of help for those who struggle with crafting an assertive image.
I’m going to reach back to an old high school trope: “All it takes is one.”
In nearly every high school, there’s almost always “that” table in the lunchroom, the trendy table. Whether you sat there yourself or not, but you knew this table in the lunchroom, and you knew what types of people who sat there. Some of them were nice to talk to every once in a while, and others were horrible all the time, but the people at that table typically kept within their own group and it was difficult to cross into that group if you didn’t start there in the first year of high school.
That said, all it ever took was one. If just one of the people at that table took a real liking to you, the others would miraculously see the “cool” in you and you could manage to make the crossover into that group. It’s sad to say that these folks were always a bit conformist and sheep-like. If one of their flock sees something they like, the others all fall in suit.
Why mention this high school diatribe regarding the corporate world? Because it is exactly the same. Where in high school, the trendy table was made up of people who either were well off enough to buy the trendiest and expensive styles, the corporate world is instead made up pay grades and those who feel self-important because of to whom they report or what businesses/projects fall under their leadership. Just like in high school, however, these folks are also incredibly clique-ish and will often speak down to those outside of the clique…until just one takes notice of you.
I’ll use a personal example for both. In high school, I floated between groups because I hated being the token black girl in the popular clique, but that meant that while I knew and often hung out with many of those within the popular clique, I didn’t hang with them enough for all the outer circles of that clique to know me well. I was on a number of athletic teams and I knew a couple people from one of those teams and shared a class with them. At the start of the year, the folks from that team couldn’t be bothered to even look at me twice while we were in class and would actually turn away if I tried to engage in conversation. And yet, when I’d made my rounds and these same people saw that I was not only friendly with other members of their clique, but I had known and been friends with them since the 6th grade. All of a sudden, these same people who couldn’t be bothered with me earlier, wouldn’t shut up or leave me alone in class; I was instantly treated as a dear friend. As soon as they saw that one person, or in my case 3, considered me part of the “club”, they immediately fell in line.
In a separate example, in my line of work, I’d been involved with dozens of projects interacting with those on from much higher pay grades and levels of leadership, and my boss’s boss had me join a daily conference call to provide knowledge about some ongoing business matters. When I first joined, I could hardly get anyone to even acknowledge if I’d even said anything on the call. And then, on one call, a guy who’s the peer of a boss three levels above me directly called my name and asked me a question which I answered promptly. Just like in high school, everyone else immediately fell in line. Instead of being interrupted and ignored, I was not only asked my opinion, but my direction was also followed. Just like in high school, all it took was a single person for the others to see my value.
The Squeaky Wheel
With all this notwithstanding, while “all it takes is one” does work, you still have to get the one and that by itself can be the greater challenge. To use yet another parable, the “squeaky wheel gets the grease.” This doesn’t mean that you have to be the loudest person around, but simply that your face and name need to be presented as much as possible to get noticed.
Pulling from school again, I played basketball, but I wasn’t a starter. I’m rather short, so there’s that, but I had enough tenacity to assist and shoot against these Amazon women that populated most basketball teams. Getting my coach to notice this was a difficult, though. In practice, there were the starters and then the rest and crossing that line was seemingly impossible. To get my coach’s notice, however, during games, I made certain to sit right beside his seat when I was on the bench. When he saw someone screw up on the court and he needed to take her out for a moment, he turned to look down the bench and first person he saw was me. Unless he specifically wanted someone else, he would say, “Kaitco, go in for Ashley.” and I would have my moment to shine. The first time it happened, it was only for a couple plays, but because I played like my life depended on it in just those two plays, when it continued to happen, I became the one he wanted first to go in and then also to stay in the game.
There’s no basketball analogy for the corporate space, but the “squeaky wheel” is still the one who gets that kind of notice. In one position in my career, I was working overnights where I found that it was difficult to showcase the work that I could do for those who were much higher up the chain. I quickly learned that my direct manager had no interest in trying to help me forward my career, so I had to put my name in front of his manager as much as possible. I put together a weekly report of my accomplishments in an email and sent them directly to my boss’s boss. For the first couple months, I got no response at all, but I still kept sending them and eventually in a meeting, my boss’s boss mentioned “Well, Kaitco sends me details about what she’s doing every week, so how could we not have seen that these numbers were slipping if she’s sending out these reports each week?” Even with that little blip, I kept sending my reports because getting a promotion didn’t happen immediately, but it kept my name directly in front of him constantly, so that when it was time for a promotion, he recognized what I could do without anyone directing me to do it.
What’s important about getting your face and/or name in front of those in positions of power is that they become your “one” because all it takes is one to get to push your career forward.
Still, the original question was still about being assertive, so how does all of this pertain to assertiveness?
Ultimately, your ability to be assertive comes down to having full confidence in your abilities and your knowledge that you have something worthwhile to add to the conversation. It can be difficult to bring out that confidence, especially within a corporate environment, but that’s where your “one” helps. You can be confident in meetings, or even through emails, and assert yourself because you’ve got your “one” who already believes that whatever it is that you have to add is relevant and accurate (because you’ve already proven it to them) and you can gain further confidence that your “one” is going to help the others fall in line. So, when you speak up, you can speak with authority and confidence which is all being assertive is.
So, now we’ve got an understanding about the foundations of being assertive, but putting this into action can be a little more difficult, especially if you’re not naturally tenacious.
I’m going to reiterate the importance of confidence in your ability to be assertive. In some cases, despite all efforts, you may never have that “one” and you may be in a situation where you’ve got to be strong at a moment’s notice in an unfamiliar scenario or amongst unknown individuals. This where bold pride comes into play and where you must be mindful of timing and tone.
Regarding bold pride, it may sound like pride on the point of pure arrogance, but going into a situation with the idea that you are the most knowledgeable person in the room, and that you are superior to everyone else goes a long way into driving that confidence. Even if this level of pride isn’t entirely accurate, I’ll default to the old adage: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull!” As long as you sound confident and then SOUND as if what you’re saying is accurate, others will be less inclined to interrupt or speak over you.
Also, in written communication, I’ve also found that using larger, less common words that folks generally don’t recognize will reduce the amount of people who will be combative in e-mails. Often, since they don’t recognize the words used, especially if the word isn’t easily understood by context, people don’t want to appear stupid by asking for a meaning or immediately responding in case their response indicates that they didn’t know a word, and many are too lazy or busy to look up the word you’ve used and will simply stay quiet. That silence gives you a bit of an upper hand; the last person to respond wins!
Let’s say you’ve got the bold confidence and you know you’ve got your “one” backing you in the meeting as well. The remaining piece is how to interject without being rude.
I’ve found that a simple interjection in something along the lines of “Um, sorry to interrupt, but…” and then continuing as long you’re not speaking over another person. It helps to use a smaller, milder voice in that “sorry”, but it still must be strong enough to actually stop someone. The goal is to interrupt, because some men will seriously continue talking just because they enjoy the sounds of their voices, but interrupting with the slight apology to make it at least appear that you don’t mean to interrupt.
Be sure to leave off “I’m” from the sorry. It’s not “um…I’m sorry” but “um…sorry to interrupt.” Word choice is important in the interruption and starting with “I’m sorry” gives a negative connotation to what you’re saying and also starting with “I” can make others feel as if you are bringing the attention directly to yourself instead of to the point you’ve got to make. The “um…” is your soft interjection and it must be said a bit soft so that it’s not a hard and rude interruption. It’s like a small blip into the conversation that softly introduces your voice and your intention to add something to the conversation.
Another option is to wait for an actual pause in the conversation to add “and, if I could interject…” The “and” doesn’t need to be as soft as the “um” since you’re not actually interrupting, but you still do not want a blasting tone. You should be at the same volume and tone as the rest of the participants in the conversation. I’ve also found that “um, this is Kaitco…” immediately followed by the point I’m trying to make. Not only does your face/voice get a name, but you’re drawing attention to the name for future conversations as well.
With either interruption, what’s most important is what you have to add once you’ve got the spotlight. This comes down to thoroughly knowing your audience. In a highly corporate environment, the higher up the chain someone is, the more concise and poignant you (the unknown entity) must be. When stepping into the conversation, have a single point to make, and get to it in less than 8 seconds of straight speech. It sounds like a tiny amount of time, but when hearing a complete unknown, anything more than that will cause others to start ignoring you. It should be a small interruption that adds to the conversation by directly countering or increasing what has been said and then pausing for further questions.
An additional piece to being assertive is how to manage those who speak over you or simply won’t let you get in a word. Some individuals may be more naturally tenacious (or argumentative) and can combat more easily than others. What’s important, however, is to stop the other party without reverting to shouts. I’ve found a good way to stop others in their tracks is by just saying their name. If you’ve tried to interrupt “Drew” twice, but he won’t take the hint, start by just saying his name. “Drew.” This will make him pause for just long enough for you to begin a proper interjection.
Fight Fire with Superior Fire
At the end of all of this, sometimes you’ve got to fight the proverbial fire with fire, but what’s important is that you never stoop to a lower level and that you maintain control of the conversation.
There’s a difference between an inflection in your voice and yelling. You should be to still enunciate your words very clearly with an inflection; yelling causes a strain that inhibits this. Keep a purposefully slow, natural pace against those who may be speaking fast; it keeps you in full control of the conversation and makes the other sound irrational and combative. No matter what profane or explicit language is thrown at you, never repeat it. Again, this is about maintaining control of the conversation and using any non-professional language weakens your position. Keep cool and if someone is on a long yelling rant, remember the exact word you want to start with when you continue; nothing keeps you in control more than continuing as if you were never interrupted in the first place after someone has been yelling for a minute straight. Anyone who’s yelling has to take a breath eventually and that’s when you calmly continue without batting an eye.
As with everything in life, practice makes perfect. That said, you may not be able to directly practice these elements of assertiveness outside of meetings, which is why having these “conversations” with just yourself in the shower or in the car when you’re alone can help you get the wording the right. Think about the last time someone made you stumble over your words and consider what you would have said if you had more time. Actually say these words and imagine the conversation again. It may sound odd to talk aloud to yourself, but the more you’re able to speak aloud without getting tongue-tied on your own, the more likely you’ll be able to do it live.
Also, never forget the power of silence and simply saying “One moment.” In saying that you need a moment to collect your thoughts, it’s key that you do not ASK for permission to pause. It’s not “could I have a moment?” You must state this as if it were a command from a queen to her servant. State “one moment”; don’t mention needing a moment “to think” and don’t add any upward inflection indicating a question. One moment. If someone seems determined to deprive you of your moment, revert to saying their name and then repeating it. “Steve. One moment.” You are in control of the conversation and if someone is asking you a question, they can wait for an answer.
The Last Resorts
The last piece of assertiveness causes me to revert to the types of behavior that both helped and stunted me growing up. Drawing back to that bold, arrogant pride, there is great simplicity in not caring at all what others think of you. It can come down to something as simple as entering every conversation with the mindset of “Who is he that he should speak to me like that?” and also “What’s he going to do? Fire me?!”
So, this group of people find you a bit difficult? So what? YOU’RE right and you have something valid to add! There is an inherent problem with this mindset, however, because a) this could very well get you fired and b) when used to o often, it may close more doors than open. The key to using the “Who are you to me?” mindset is using that tone and often that expression only on those who would use it on you. It’s useful to fully read individuals in a conversation and utilize this mindset when nothing else works. The very wealthy, the entitled, and many of those of bred in large cities are the ones who would react best to this bold tone. Again, I can’t help but reiterate that this should be used very sparingly because this tone runs close and parallel to the line of rudeness. It’s easy to cross that line and plain rudeness can easily backfire in the worst moments.