Building my Confidence – Step 3: Becoming more assertive and speaking up in meetings

This is the third post in the series about building my confidence:

Step 1: How confidence works
Step 2: Improving my public speaking
Step 3: Becoming more assertive and speaking up in meetings
Step 4: Knowing our own strengths – self-esteem and self-efficacy
Step 5: Facing our Fears
Step 6: Making Confident Decisions
Step 7: Finding my Vocation

We’ve learnt in Step 1 & 2 that our degree of confidence is neither predestined, nor permanent. It’s a skill rooted in a set of behaviours which we can learn, and there are practical steps we can take to build habits which help us become progressively more confident.

Here I describe how we can ask for what we want, express our views more clearly and speak out in meetings. And yes, you can be introvert and still excel at being assertive.

Why we don’t assert ourselves?

Think of a recent situation where you failed to assert yourself. Maybe you were angry with yourself because you failed to challenge a colleague or friend over something, then you became annoyed with yourself for failing to do it, and perhaps your frustrations came out in unexpected ways, like losing your temper. It’s a cycle we all get into from time to time. What often happens next, is that we return to our previous weak, unassertive behaviour, because we don’t want this outburst to happen again. This makes us even more reluctant to speak up next time.

What’s happening here?

  • You were anxious that if you challenged your colleague/friend they’d be upset with you (the primary problem),
  • You see yourself as weak because you don’t challenge people (a secondary problem),
  • You are frustrated because ultimately you lost your temper about something else (another secondary problem).

Asserting yourself

The key here is to tackle the primary problem. How can I make sure that I challenge someone appropriately next time? Try writing down the points you want to make – after all this will feel like a challenging conversation. Rehearse the conversation out loud, and then possibly with someone that you trust. Here’s how I might play out this conversation:

  • Choose the right moment and a safe place for the conversation.
  • Choose a phrase that gives people a heads up that this will be a conversation about something important – “I need to find time to talk with you about …”
  • Describe the behaviour you are having difficulty with, using clear and unapologetic ‘I’ language. “I feel” statements are helpful.
  • Expressing disappointment and annoyance is helpful. Expressing anger and hurt is not.
  • Check your interpretation, invite a response, then state your preference clearly.

By letting others see that we are prepared to say exactly what we’d like to happen, we are signalling that we expect to be treated as a person of worth. This can change how others behave towards us, and it can also affect us internally – changing the way we think and feel about ourselves. Leave the secondary problems – they will take care of themselves once the primary problem is dealt with.

Speaking up in meetings:

Most of us are secretly afraid of speaking up in personal groups and work meetings. All our lives we have had to interact in gatherings – from kids clubs to adult fitness classes and of course the dreaded Teams meeting. There are usually weird dynamics going on, and most of us have been secretly afraid of allowing our voice to be heard.

I often leave a Teams meeting with three feelings: I’m frustrated that it’s the loudest voices who always seem to dominate, I’m sad that I don’t hear from more introverted colleagues who I know have lots to contribute, and I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t step up and say the thing I felt strongly.

Why don’t we speak up? Our anxiety can grow because we are aware that people will turn and look at us. Will they see me blush? Will I lose my train of thought? Will they question my expertise? And so we become expert in using avoidance behaviour, which prevents us from ever finding a breakthrough to this private fear so many of us have.

To release this we need to face the situation and uncover the beliefs behind our procrastination. The ABC model can really help here, where:

A = activating event
B = beliefs and thoughts
about the event
C = emotional consequences

The ABC Model tells us that it is our beliefs and attitudes (B) about the event (A), rather than the event itself which creates most of our emotional consequences (C) and our most counter-productive behaviours.

Now let’s apply this to why we don’t speak up in meetings:

A = activating event – we imagine asking questions or commenting in a meeting instead of keeping silent or saying very little. We imagine people looking at us.
B = beliefs and thoughts – We worry that we’ll blush, get flustered, say the wrong thing or sound stupid.
C = emotional consequences – We experience anxiety before meetings because of what we believe might happen when we speak up.

By allowing our imagination to run through event A, this triggers the feelings of anxiety at C (but does not cause them). So I protect myself from feeling anxious by moderating my behaviour and keeping quiet in meetings.

What can we do?

Block your beliefs: I tell myself that there are hundreds of meetings I’ll attend this year, and that while in most of these I will come across well, there are bound to be a few where I won’t and that’s just fine. Saying this to myself up front brings down the stakes for each individual meeting, and kills my perfectionist mindset.

Visualize and practise the activating event: If we do this, from a safe position – a technique used lots in professional sport – we can work on the feelings it provokes. Begin with less unpleasant feelings and work up to more unpleasant ones, or begin by forcing yourself to ask just one question in a meeting, then build up from here. Aim to get to the point where you can say, “I don’t like it (emotional discomfort), but I can put up with it.”

Write out what you want to say: A practical tool I use a lot in helping me to feel confident enough to speak up and get my voice heard in discussions and meetings is to plan my questions & words before I arrive, or while others are speaking. This gives me confidence that when people turn to look at me, and that dry mouth feeling comes round, I only have to refer to the paper in front of you to surprise yourself and others with incisive ideas.

Make the assertiveness goal yours not theirs: If you are set yourself an ‘assertive goal’, make sure it’s within your own grasp, so, “I want my colleague to take more work on instead of dropping it on me,” might more helpfully be, “I will learn to be more assertive and challenge him about this, so our workloads become fairer.”

Remember the ebb & flow of confidence: Finally, remember that it is perfectly normal for confidence to ebb and flow at work. Changes at work and periods away from work (eg. parental leave) or changes in life (eg. menopause) can often mean that you lose a little confidence. This can leave you feeling that it is harder to be more assertive, and that you can’t push yourself to the front. Or even that you feel like an imposter and can’t do it anymore. It’s good to talk about this with colleagues and plan how you will deal with this feeling (as well as how leaders can support you). And if you are a leader then it is important to anticipate and plan for these moments in peoples’ careers, and that you keep checking in with people.

So, in conclusion:

To help become more assertive and speak up more confidently in meetings:

  • tackle the primary problem
  • Use the ABC model to understand yourself better
  • Make notes to give you a scaffold for what you want to say

And if you’re a leader then look out for people whose confidence appears to be flagging – it may be less a performance issue and much more a personal issue which needs your support.

In the next post I am going to look at how we can know our strengths, articulate them better, consider the two things which sit behind our own confidence: self-esteem and self-efficacy.

3 thoughts on “Building my Confidence – Step 3: Becoming more assertive and speaking up in meetings

  1. Pingback: Building My Confidence – Step 4: Knowing your own strengths | ianfrosteducation

  2. Pingback: Building my Confidence – Step 1: how confidence works | ianfrosteducation

  3. Pingback: Building my Confidence – Step 2: improving my public speaking | ianfrosteducation

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