Know How to Say ‘No’

Learning the fine art of workplace assertiveness can lead to a happier and healthier you

Know How to Say ‘No’

Are you the resident doormat on your team — the one who, for whatever reason, just can’t seem to speak up for yourself? Do you always  get saddled with extra work because “no” doesn’t exist in your vocabulary?

If so, it’s time to learn how to be assertive, a valuable workplace skill. People who can confidently and effectively express their points of view while at the same time respecting the viewpoints of others tend to flourish. Those who can’t, don’t — and the ripple effects can cripple both their careers and their health.

For example, people who just can’t say no to extra work or don’t speak up when they’re undermined by colleagues often suffer from stress caused by pent-up frustration and simmering humiliation. The same is true for employees who consistently get passed over for promotions because they lack either the confidence to apply for new positions or ruin their chances by coming across in interviews as pushovers who’d make poor leaders.

In short, appearing indecisive, weak, resentful and victimized is not a recipe for workplace success. The key message you send with passivity is that colleagues’ needs and feelings are more important than yours. That, in turn, openly invites colleagues to disregard those needs and feelings.

But even if you’re shy and reserved, you don’t have to resign yourself to being the doormat on your team. Not by a long shot. While some people are naturally assertive and have no problem asking for a raise, requesting more responsibilities or taking credit for projects, those who aren’t blessed with the assertiveness gene can still learn how to stand up for themselves.

Finding a balance

The benefits from doing so are many. Assertive people exude self-assurance and express themselves firmly and clearly, yet also still remain empathetic. They’re well liked and respected and are good at negotiating the proverbial “win-win” situations.

In addition, they’re also less stressed out and anxious because they’re usually not bullied into doing things they simply don’t have time to do. As such, they’re viewed as great potential managers because colleagues enjoy working with them, experts note.

Speaking of bullies, there’s a thin line between assertive and aggressive. Experts note that being assertive means you’re honest about your needs and feelings, but at the same time, you’re also conscious and empathetic of others’ needs and feelings. Aggressiveness is defined as doing whatever’s necessary to fulfill your own interests, without any regard to what others may feel or need.

One word of warning, however: Research shows that men often are more likely to be rewarded for assertiveness than women. So before you begin working on your personal assertiveness-makeover project, it pays to take into account your workplace culture and values and act accordingly. Some companies truly value when employees are forthright and forceful, while others reward a less confrontational, more persuasive approach.

Taking action

Learning how to become more assertive is a long-term process. To get started, experts suggest taking a step back to assess your workplace behaviors to determine where to start. For example, is it hard to say no when someone asks you to take on more work, even if you’re up to your neck in projects? Or do you find it difficult to stand up for yourself when someone on your team takes credit for your work or steps over you to get a plum assignment?

After some self-assessment about your response patterns, it’s time to think about ways you could tactfully, fairly and effectively respond differently to these situations. Along the way, it’s important to pay attention to the words you use to express yourself. Using “I” statements, for instance, is a good way to assert your thoughts or feelings in a nonaccusatory way.

For instance, “I don’t have enough time to take on another project at this time and do it effectively” conveys something entirely different than “You’re giving me way too much work to do.” Moreover, keep in mind that words matter, too. For example, choosing a verb like “will” instead of “could” makes your message more clear and concise — as opposed to soft-pedaling a request, which makes it easier to refuse.

Consider this request, for instance: “I will definitely need help in order to complete this assignment on time.” It clearly sends a more definite message than something along the lines of, “Do you think I could get some help in order to complete this assignment?”

If you honestly assess yourself, you may discover you also habitually use words that devalue what you’re about to say. For example, when you use the word “just” — as in, “This is just a thought, but…” it may suggest that what you have to say isn’t all that important or relevant. The same is true for phrases such as “Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way, but…”

The bottom line: words matter. As such, use them carefully to firmly state your position, without creating ambiguities that can lead to misinterpretation or undermine your intent.

Also keep in mind that body language should sync up with your verbal messages. Experts suggest maintaining an upright posture and keeping eye contact, perhaps while leaning forward slightly. Crossed arms and legs are a no-no. And don’t let your emotions get in the way, no matter how volatile things might get; try to keep talking evenly and firmly while using appropriate gestures to drive your point home.

Walk before running

It’s important to acknowledge that none of this will happen overnight. Remember that you’re trying to relearn and undo years of behavioral patterns. So like the proverb about how to eat an elephant — one bite at a time — it helps to start with small steps and build from there.

Some experts recommend first writing out what you want to say in a difficult conversation with a manager or colleague, then rehearsing out loud. Others suggest practicing your new skills with a friend or spouse before trying them in the workplace. Like with any other skill, practice makes perfect. Some advise setting a goal, such as having two difficult conversations with colleagues within the next two weeks.

As you get better at asserting yourself, it’s also important to use negotiating skills to reach common ground. For example, if you have to say no to a request to take on more work, at the same time offer to find a win-win solution. This will prevent people from taking advantage of you while at the same time positioning yourself as someone who’s still a team player.

Moreover, if you’re just not prepared to handle a situation where you’re being bullied into doing more than you can, it’s perfectly fine to ask for a timeout to collect your thoughts. Then revisit the issue awhile later with a clearer head and a game plan in mind.

In the end, developing new behaviors takes time and mental discipline. Nothing good comes easily. But after you learn how to speak up and firmly stop people from taking advantage of your goodwill, you’ll be a happier, healthier and more productive employee.


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