Not a doormat
February 14, 2012 6:41 PM   Subscribe

How can I, a quiet, late-20's woman, be more assertive at work?

I could write a few paragraphs detailing a complicated work situation, but the upshot is that for months I have been disrespected, sidelined, and treated as inferior and I've had enough of it. I do good work, and I do a lot of it, but I am not an extrovert and never will be. This has hurt me professionally. I am quiet and I often find it difficult to assert myself. Speaking in front of a group often makes me nervous, and the long-term situation at work undermines my confidence or alternately infuriates me to a point that makes it difficult to talk about. Even people who respect me/my work and get along with me tend to talk over me and for me. I want it to stop. But I won't ever be a "loud" person. I suppose my outward persona (quiet, shrinking, etc.) is terribly at odds with how I actually feel and think about situations. How can I be both quiet and confident? How can I project an attitude that results in people taking me seriously?

Some relevant details: I work in a pretty toxic white collar office environment with a heavy workload where a lot of people are looking for new work (including me), but this particular issue is specific to me. The workload is not what bothers me, and I'm not terribly worried about finding work elsewhere - my skills are in demand. But I'm absolutely disgusted with this situation and I want to know how to avoid it again in the future. I have never felt this much sustained anger in my life.

I'm looking for small things I can start to do or practice immediately, perspectives that will change how I think and act, long-term strategies, any other good resources.
posted by scribbler to Work & Money (16 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I have a friend who is a late-20s, very quiet, small woman, but (at least after the initial surface impression) has no problems being assertive. Here are a few things she does:

1. Most importantly, her eye contact and body language shout "I am confident" and "I know what I am doing." She makes eye contact and holds it. She holds herself upright, shoulders back. She does not let taller or louder people physically impose themselves in front of her. She is not shy about using her physical space.

2. If she disagrees with something, she speaks up. Quietly, of course, but firmly, and she doesn't back down without good reason.

3. If somebody won't let her speak, she interposes herself physically first (e.g., raising a hand, slightly stepping forward, etc). She keeps doing this until it is obvious to everyone in the room that the person not letting her speak is a jerk, or she has a chance to give it a go.

Bottom line, she acts like she knows she's competent, and she expects people to know it too.

Hope that helps. Sounds like a difficult situation to be in - many sympathies.
posted by forza at 6:56 PM on February 14, 2012 [19 favorites]

Best answer: I have been in much the same position before, and what I've found that works for me is dressing up. I don't know what kind of office you're in or what the culture is, but if you can (if you have the money to do so), look nicer than everyone else there. If you don't wear makeup, start. If you don't wear accessories, buy some. If you wear flats, start wearing heels (even low ones). It's fine if you're introverted and quiet, but even if you feel like what you're wearing is a bit over the top -- that's the point. You want to make yourself more of a presence.

At least for me, doing these things made me appear outwardly more confident and, for lack of a better word, more "threatening" to the people around me. Even if I didn't necessarily feel that way inside, by looking like it on the outside, I got the respect and the authority I deserved.

You can absolutely be both quiet and confident. And I think most people are scared of the quiet and confident people because they're never sure what you're thinking (or, maybe, when you're going to snap). Use that to your advantage.
posted by darksong at 7:05 PM on February 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Being an introvert is not the same as being a doormat. You should make sure that your physical presentation says "professional"--heels, grooming, posture, eye contact, etc. If you have a high voice, practice lowering it (hire a coach, get a friend to record you, and so.) Before you go to bed, write down three things that you caused to happen, improve, etc. during the day. Make a list of what you want to work on, as well.
Fake it 'til you make it.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:13 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Contrarian thought here - are you really a doormat or are you surrounded by jerks? There's a difference. Do you have these problems in other contexts, or is it this work environment that does it to you? I'm a pretty confident person in situations where people are acting professionally, but in a prison exercise yard I'm pretty certain I'd just be kind of standing in the corner over here, thanks.

You've mentioned that you can change jobs if you put your mind to it - might that be where your energy needs to be directed?

That said, the advice above about asserting your physical space and dressing better than those around you is good.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:46 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I do tend to have these problems in other contexts. But it is particularly bad here, and yes, this environment certainly has something to do with it (so yes, I am surrounded by jerks). But this is starting to make me feel like I will inevitably be a failure in any office environment I work in, no matter the quality of my work.
posted by scribbler at 8:00 PM on February 14, 2012

Be as good at your job as you possibly can. Excellence often brings a certain authority, and if you know that you are better than those assholes, you can assert yourself more.
posted by Danf at 8:08 PM on February 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

Act like a lawyer. Take notes of what people said--this is useful in general, especially if you're in a place with a lot of blame-dodging and "I never said that!"ing--and then jot a quick rebuttal or point you want to make, then speak up when there's a break in the conversation. I've found having a "script" to work from, even if it's a written note, takes some of the edge off when you get that "literally everyone in the room is staring at you waiting for you to speak" going.

And assuming you don't have something like social anxiety, try a group like Toastmasters where you can practice getting up in front of people and speaking in a spot that's not your toxic professional environment.

One thing I've found is it's not just about volume. I worked with a woman who was frequently loud and tended to get crazy about minor things. People would just talk around her because she was always in the middle of freaking out about something and nobody wanted to listen to whatever her latest freak out was. By contrast, a friend of mine was a quiet sort of person, but could command the attention of everyone in the room by projecting complete confidence and always having something interesting to say. Another friend got a reputation as a comedy god. He wasn't always telling jokes. In fact, he seldom did. But every time he did, it was the perfect joke for the situation and brought the house down. He was like a Zen monk of comedy, spending years in silence only to deliver a perfect one-liner that broke up the entire room.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:28 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I feel your pain.

One thing that's helped me a LOT recently, even though it sounds small, it to use less words but construct them more carefully. This includes emails, IMs, and face to face interactions.

Drop the qualifiers and make sure you're not speaking in questions.

Example: I need this from you today NOT Can you please try to get this to me soon because a,b,c

It makes a difference.

And if you know that you are going to be in a high-pressure situation and are afraid that your voice won't be heard, plan ahead as much as possible and come up with several CLEAR and CONCISE talking points (as well as potential arguments and rebuttals if necessary)
posted by sarahnicolesays at 8:50 PM on February 14, 2012 [7 favorites]

I am a small woman who is more on the quiet, introverted side. Something that has helped me appear more assertive and confident is consciously curbing my tendency to smile when nervous. I sit on several relatively formal committees that deal with contentious issues, and in these situations, I jot down notes on what I am going to say, sit up straight, and speak without smiling (not frowning, just a neutral expression).

When others are responding, I then listen while making eye contact and observing their response, again without smiling. I have noticed that people who are trying to bullshit or intimidate me seem to get the most rattled by this kind of watchful, quiet, unsmiling response, because it sends the message that I know what they're up to and it isn't going to work. People who aren't trying to bullshit me or intimidate me just seem to appreciate that I'm taking them seriously, and they tend to respond in kind.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:01 PM on February 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

Nthing dressing up. It *really* boosts my confidence to see myself in a well-pressed suit, matching blouse, slacks, heels, etc. "Fake it till you make it", and one day you won't have to think twice about it.

Also, two of my favorite quotes:

“it's just business nothing personal...”
-Mario Puzo

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
-Eleanor Roosevelt
posted by invisible ink at 9:01 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lots of women inadvertently devalue their own own contributions by apologizing before they speak. Do you ever say any of these?

"I'm sorry, but..."
"Maybe this is a stupid idea..."
"Call me crazy, but..."
"You've probably already thought of this..."

If you do any of that, stop.

Also, if your statements end in your voice getting higher, they may sound like you're unsure of your own opinion. And it's terribly common in younger women.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 12:15 AM on February 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am not your lawyer, or therapist.

Document things, specific things by date and time, that threaten you. Print and keep any relevant emails, etc.

Don't work in a toxic work environment, it can literally kill you.

Find another job. Planning and working on this will boost your self-esteem and allow you to mentally withdraw from your current position.

The minute you accept that other job, quit. If there is a break between quitting and starting the new job, apply for unemployment - it's yours and you paid for it. Winning the unemployment case can boost your self-esteem, even if you receive just one unemployment check for one week.

After you start the new job, seal up those things you documented and unemployment paperwork if any, in an envelope, and keep it but keep it outside your home. Have a friend or family hold it. You can burn it with delight in a few years.

I would bet that the toxic environment is causing you to withdraw, or in other words, "clam up".

You're better than they are. Get out of there. Good luck.
posted by caclwmr4 at 5:09 AM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Two more small things:

Make eye contact.
Rid yourself of the floppy girly-girl handshake, if you have one. Dear god I hate that, and it makes me (a woman) lose respect for the women who do it. Shake hands "like a man".
posted by kestrel251 at 6:57 AM on February 15, 2012

Joining Toastmasters helped me feel much more comfortable addressing groups of people and speaking up in meetings.
posted by cadge at 8:11 AM on February 15, 2012

You may find, for the long-term, the book Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office to be helpful. It looks at ways which women use negatively-regarded gendered communication and actions that hold them back from business success. Women aren't taught to be assertive, necessarily, and so a lot of the book talks about how to avoid falling into the 'meek and mild' trap.
posted by librarylis at 6:23 PM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't disagree with some of the advice in this thread, to dress professionally (though I very much disagree that that has to include bad-for-your-posture-and-spine heels), stop apologizing, make eye contact, etc.

But. It seems to me that the more salient point here is that these people are jerks, and that you need to get yourself away from this den of jerks, rather than contorting yourself to try to not be abused by them.

I know that the conventional wisdom is to keep the job you have, no matter how heinous, until you find another one. But at a certain level of suckiness, keeping the job you have will just drain you, and lead you to present yourself at interviews for other jobs with an aura of stress and resentment about you. I've quit suckiferous jobs before finding a replacement jos, and never regretted it or failed to find another job because of it. I think you might be at the point where leaving now would be your best option, to maintain your self-respect and good humour.
posted by parrot_person at 2:21 AM on February 16, 2012

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