7 Expert Tips to Be More Confident and Assertive At Work

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Art Credit: Shannon Lee Miller

The other day, one of our VPs came into the kitchen as I was making a cup of coffee and said “Hi Teresa.” This would have been exciting … if my name were Teresa. While it caught me off guard, I didn’t want to cause any awkwardness. So I smiled back and returned his hello, but it bothered me all day long. Should I have piped up and corrected him? Did letting it go make me weak?

There is a fine line between being assertive and aggressive, one that women often have a harder time navigating than men. I caught up with career and lifestyle coach Karen Elizaga to get some pointers on how to be more assertive in the workplace.

Cut Down on the Upspeak
We’ve all been there. You have to ask your boss a question and when you approach his or her office you sound nervous, shaky and end all your words in a high pitch. “Hi, AmandA? I was just wondering if you had, um, a chance to check over those briefs I left on your desk this morninG? It’s no big deal if you haven’t?” Recognizing this bad habit is the first step to correcting it.

The second step? Rehearsal. “When preparing for a presentation or a question-and-answer type of situation, I suggest that clients film themselves. They are always so surprised to see that when they’re supposed to be making statements, they are phrasing them like questions,” says Elizaga. “The first step in correcting this is awareness, and the second step is to practice. You want to make strong statements, not ask questions.” While the content of your question or presentation is important, your delivery makes the biggest impression.

Stop Making Apology Statements
Have you ever had a killer idea, brought it up during a meeting, and opened with “This might sound crazy, but…” or concluded with “just a thought?” Elizaga calls this bad habit the "apology statement."

“This is not just a female thing, many men struggle with this too,” she says. “When people or a situation intimidate us, we apologize for ourselves. You undermine your authority and your brilliant thought before you even get the chance to introduce it, making less of an impact on the listener. You need to learn to swallow those words before you speak and just make your statement, no disclaimer."

Dress for Success
People make judgments in less than a nanosecond. Whether you make or do not make an amazing point, they have already assessed your appearance.

Set your sights (and your wardrobe) upward. Look at the employees you admire, whose responsibilities you hope to take on one day, and try to present yourself in a similar fashion. It's best to look one or two levels above you—you're priming for a promotion, not to become CEO tomorrow.

Of course, office attire is subjective and completely dependent on industry. What’s acceptable to wear in a fashion closet or tech startup wouldn’t even pass the casual Friday dress code in a law office. But the easiest way to navigate is to imitate.

Add “Even” to Your Vocabulary
If you’ve been brainstorming a way to make your company more efficient in any way, chances are people will be willing to give you a listen. But it can be nerve-racking, because you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.

“If your boss is presenting an idea that she has been working on for weeks, it isn’t the best time to raise your hand and interject with your personal opinion,” says Elizaga. “Instead, shoot her an email after the presentation saying, “Hi, I loved what you said today, and I was thinking that doing x, y, or z could make your strategy even better. The use of the word "even" completely changes the tone of your suggestion, because it compliments whomever you're speaking with.

Confront In-office Animosity
In the workplace, a little competitive spirit is not only acceptable, it’s also expected. But if someone is often rude or dismissive towards you, it can have an impact on your productivity (I know it has on mine). So how do you deal?

“We are bombarded with all sorts of external feedback, and a lot of times, the words coming out of someone’s mouth have nothing to do with you,” explains Elizaga. “They well may not even be thinking about you that second, they could be dealing with an ailing parent or an argument with their significant other. What I always try to remind people is that whatever someone is saying or doing in a particular moment has nothing to do with you, a majority of the time.”

But, what about the times when a snide comment or remark is deliberate?

“First, don’t call someone out in a group. Ask to grab a cup of coffee or take a calming walk. This way you can let your coworker know that you didn’t appreciate their harsh words or actions (whatever they may have been). Then ask if you can collaborate in a better way and act to avoid running into the same problem. Another important thing to ask is, “Is everything okay? This isn’t how we often conduct business or interact, and I just wanted to check in with you.” Be human, and be understanding.

Ah, the Salary Question
I mean, that is why we’re all here, right? (Just kidding! Work is the best! I love work!) The best way to be confident in this conversation is to know your worth, which comes from market research. But the best way to appear cool, calm, and collected is to rehearse. “By practicing, we can trick our brains into thinking that we’ve been there, done that. Even if the only time you’ve been there, done that is while shampooing and talking to yourself hoping your roommates can’t hear you. The more you practice, the easier it will be for your brain to acess the conversation with ease.”

Talk Highly of Yourself … to Yourself!
If you leave a meeting or a conversation and are thinking about how dumb you sounded, give yourself a break! “So many of us shoot ourselves down and doubt our abilities. Take some time before a big meeting or presentation and write down the value that you bring to your company. So often we compare ourselves to others and don’t take the time to reflect on what good we’re doing.”

The biggest takeaway here is that everything takes practice. Real, live practice. So this morning when the same VP came in and walked past my desk, he said, “Good morning, Teresa.” And I smiled, returning his hello​.​ ​B​ut not without adding, “Actually, it’s Tiffany.”

For more tips on being your best professional self, read Karen Elizaga's new book, Find Your Sweet Spot: A Guide to Personal and Professional Excellenceavailable here.

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