Whether you're a boss, an independent contractor, or a cubicle-dweller, you will be challenged at work.
A co-worker or manager may take issue with your performance, your methods, or even your political beliefs. On the flip side, you might be the one throwing down the gloves. Either way, you survive and thrive in these charged interactions by knowing how to hold your ground.
But let's be clear — assertiveness isn't about you being right and everyone else being wrong. Far from it. As this Lifehacker article puts it, holding your ground "is about respecting yourself enough to make your ideas heard while also respecting the person you're talking to." In other words, you don't want to be so meek no one listens and you don't want to be a jerk. You simply want to hold your ground.
Once you're clear that assertiveness is called for, then you actually have to be…assertive. The hard part!
Here are five techniques that can help you stay strong without veering into arrogance or over-accommodation.
- Know when to hold and when to let it go. Discernment is the first step in assertiveness. When someone attacks your beliefs or work performance or feedback, ask yourself, "Is holding my ground worth it?"
OfficeNinjas recommends first determining if the challenge is "precedent setting or part of a larger issue." For example, say a co-worker is razzing you over who you voted for. You don't take it personally, but perhaps it leaves you uneasy. Is his teasing limited to this one area? Or does his behavior toward you help create an office culture of mockery and bullying? If so, that's a larger issue very much worthy of your time.
- Don't go in hungry. Whether the challenge is sudden or a long-planned, difficult conversation with an employee, only respond when you are well-fed, says meQuilibrium CEO Jan Bruce in Forbes. Don't engage in a confrontation when you are hungry — for food, "for sleep, for approval, you name it," Bruce explains. "Do a self-check of where you are emotionally, because if you're feeling particularly down or bad, it could cloud your ability to respond well to the other person."
- Breathe. In the Harvard Business Review, Jean-Francois Manzoni, professor of human resources and organizational development at INSEAD, recommends making calm, focused breathing a habit throughout the day — every day. "Mindful breathing…gives you capacity to absorb any blows that come your way," he says. This technique also works for sudden challenges. If a colleague confronts you on the way to the copier, first excuse yourself, step outside or grab some coffee, breathe and collect your thoughts, and then return.
- Speak clearly, over and over. In a heated moment, your throat may tighten or tongue feel thick. First, breathe, as noted above, and then remember that you don't need to say much. "You just need to say what you feel needs to be said. Take a deep breath and get the words out as clearly as you can," writes Lifehacker. Then, keep saying it, like these White House staffers did when they were being ignored in meetings.
- Fog them up. "Fogging" is an actual term for handling especially heated confrontations. If someone comes at you with strong emotion, surprise them by agreeing, even if they are criticizing you. (Here's an example.) You disarm the other person with your agreement, giving them less ammunition to hurt you emotionally and establishing your strength. Once the temperature falls a bit, you can address whatever real issues are at play.
Of course, it's possible that merely holding your ground will inspire folks to call you "shrill" or "bossy" or "witch-but-with-a-b." That's the unfortunate reality for many in the workplace. But with practice, you will come to know that your assertiveness is grounded in confidence, accuracy, and respect. You'll know what ground is yours to hold.