When my client Margaret called me, she was in a state of total frustration.
She was a hard working, positive-minded, let’s-get-it-done kind of employee, and had never had performance issues in her career. But after long-term success in a job she loved, she’d just been assigned a new manager who was unlike any other: He gave her the silent treatment, iced her out of conversations, and, overall, was a bit of a bully.
As a result, Margaret, a positively positive and highly effective employee, had turned into a rattled bunch of nerves. She dreaded every interaction with this manager, fearing that in sheer frustration, she’d eventually blurt out “I quit!” without having any kind of backup plan. She wanted to make it work—it was a great job with a wonderful community of colleagues—but she had no idea how she could.
Perhaps, like Margaret, you’ve thought that if you put your nose to the grindstone, do good work, and have a can-do attitude, your career will be smooth sailing. The problem is, many other factors have an impact on your career, too—including the people around you and your relationships with them. And when those people turn into stonewall managers and abrasive colleagues, you’ll need more than a good work ethic and positive attitude to effectively deal with them.
In short, I told Margaret, “You can’t ‘positive think’ your way out of this situation. You need something more.”
That’s why I encourage all professionals to develop one extremely important skill as early in their careers as possible: self-advocacy. This ability to assert what you need (even if that means having difficult and potentially awkward conversations) can be rewarding and confidence-building—and it plays a major part in ensuring that you get what you need to move your career forward.
But, as you can probably guess, it’s not always easy. Read on to learn why this skill is so beneficial and some ways to start developing it in your own career.
Why You Must Learn to Advocate For Yourself
Margaret’s manager probably didn’t know how miserable she was—because she never brought it up. You see, managers and other authority figures will generally presume everything is OK unless you let them know otherwise. For others to become aware that their behavior is unacceptable or that your needs aren’t being met, you need to tell them. Otherwise, you simply reinforce their behavior.
When you embrace the practice of having these difficult conversations, you’ll be able to open up about what you need. Instead of backing off in fear, you’ll learn to handle tough problems while treating people with dignity and respect.
Why it’s So Hard
No matter how long you’ve been in the professional world, you’ve probably seen ample opportunities for difficult conversations. The overbearing boss. The colleague who never meets a deadline. The client who insists on getting more than what was agreed upon in the contract. As much as you’d love to gloss over those issues, you know it’s in the best interest of your career to advocate for yourself and confront the situation head-on.
At the same time, no one relishes the idea of having a difficult conversation; you worry about what you’re going to say, how you’ll be perceived, and what the final outcome of the confrontation will be. In short, something’s at risk, opinions vary, and emotions are a big factor.
If that’s not enough, Roy Lubit, MD, PhD, a forensic psychiatrist based in New York, observes, “Somehow, we are supposed to be experts on dealing with other people and with our own emotions even though these issues were never formally addressed in our education and training.”
Think about it: When do we ever really learn the complex nuances of having difficult conversations and dealing with delicate situations in the workplace? (Hint: Usually, we don’t.)
How to Start
The good news is, with some simple steps and practice, you can get much more comfortable with the idea of speaking up for yourself. Here are the basic steps I taught Margaret about having a conversation with her manager, and how you can apply them to your situation, as well:
Remember that advocating for yourself means being assertive, not aggressive. You can start the process by calling a meeting with the person in question. In Margaret’s case, she made a simple request to her boss: “Tanner, I’d like to get some time on your calendar to discuss how we’re working together. What would be a good time for you?” When you’re sharing what you need in a difficult conversation, stay calm, focused, and unemotional throughout the meeting. You’ll want to focus the conversation on what you need, rather than casting blame or criticizing others.
To start, identify the facts and impact of the situation and summarize them in a few succinct statements. For example, “I’m not always made aware of decisions or commitments made in staff meetings. Since I need that information to design solutions for my customers, that puts me at risk of not meeting customer needs—and an adverse rating from customers could really hurt the department.”
Then, identify specifically what you need to happen to address that situation: “I really need the information about programs and pricing that’s covered in the staff meetings.” (If there are multiple issues, prioritize a list of the most important, and start at the top.)
To ensure that your requests are understood, finish the conversation with questions like, “Based on the current situation and what we need to do to be successful, what can we do to make this happen?” This will engage the other party and help problem solve, rather than block conversation with objections.
If you try these basics and find that nothing has changed, it’s worth checking to see if your HR or training team offers courses focused on navigating difficult conversations. If not, check out online or local community college courses that can get you on the right track.
When you confidently put your needs and views forward, people will listen. And no matter what happens because of that difficult conversation, you’ll know you’ve made your best effort to resolve a difficult and frustrating situation, and you’ll have a much clearer idea of how to move forward.