Years ago, I started a brand new job, and I was contracted on terrible project. There was no real work to do, so instead of technical writing — my actual job — I spent my time getting coffee for people and making copies. Rather than ask my boss about this, I kept it to myself. Weeks later, she confronted me, puzzled: “Why didn’t you speak up?”
It’s pretty bad when your boss points out that you need to speak up for yourself more. I cringe to think of all the experiences that were more stressful than they needed to be, simply because I was afraid of confrontation.
For a long time, and even now, to some extent, I’ve been afraid to address another person about an issue — any issue. Here are some examples:
- If a friend did something I didn’t like, I never said anything.
- If I had a question, I wouldn’t ask.
- If I didn’t like a situation at work, or anywhere, really, I wouldn’t say anything.
- I never even considered negotiating my salary.
In short, I was so afraid an interaction might turn into a confrontation, I became a pushover. In recent years, I’ve learnt to work around this fear pretty well. And working around it helped me get past the fear altogether.
Being a Pushover Is a Lot of Work
Inevitably, when I didn’t speak up about stuff, I would bottle it up and worry about it constantly. I spent a lot of unnecessary energy worrying, which turned into resentment and anger, which took even more energy. Meanwhile, the person I should have confronted was blissfully unaware that anything was wrong. Apparently, it was only an issue for me.
Researchers from Columbia University recently conducted a study on pushovers and their lack of self-awareness. The conducted mock negotiations and asked people to rate their level of aggressiveness. Here’s what they found:
many people seen as appropriately assertive by counterparts mistakenly thought they were seen as having been over-assertive, a novel effect we call the line crossing illusion.
In the study, 57 per cent of people thought they were being assertive, while they were actually viewed as underassertive. The point is, many of us are afraid of being too aggressive when no one actually thinks we’re aggressive — or cares, for that matter.
And here’s where it becomes work. This study also found that this obliviousness leads us to feel guilty over the perceived confrontation, so we want to repair the relationship. the subjects who mistakenly thought they were too assertive also felt like they did something wrong. To try to make things better, they accepted a worse negotiation deal. They did this to repair the relationship, but nothing was wrong in the first place.
I realised this in my own way, gradually. For example, when haggling, I’d go with the first number, because I felt bad not paying full price in the first place. But I grew tired of being the only one at the pushover party. I realised that it actually took a lot less energy, overall, to simply speak up for myself.
Silence Is Unfair to Others
It’s not terribly healthy to consider what others think so much, but I had to work with my own mindset. I realised that not only is my indirectness unfair to me, it’s unfair to other people too. This realisation appealed to my natural obliger.
When I don’t ask questions, I fail at my job, and that’s not good for my boss. When I bottle up an issue with a friend, I become angry, resentful and passive-aggressive, and that’s not fair to my friend.
Directness is a better long-picture solution. Even if forcing yourself to speak up does turn into a small confrontation, it’s usually a more favourable outcome than the alternative.
I Forced Myself to Ask Questions
When I realised it was time to be more assertive, I started small. I started with questions. A co-worker said something that stuck with me: “You might look dumb asking questions, but you look dumber when you don’t get it because you failed to ask.” This helped, because asking was easy enough.
I’d keep a list of running questions, and I told myself that anytime I had a meeting or a one-on-one, I’d force myself to ask a question from the list. When I did, I found it was really easy to get to them all in no time. My colleagues never laughed or scoffed at the fact that I didn’t know anything. Once I realised this fear was unfounded, it was a lot easier to keep speaking up. But I had to get over that initial fear. The momentum from that small step — asking a question — helped tremendously.
But if I was too intimidated by even that, if I was too afraid to approach someone about a specific question or concern, I’d send them an email instead. I’d write that, when they had a chance, I needed to ask them about whatever topic. Sending an email is even easier, so this helped ensure I wouldn’t back out. It forced me to later bring up the question or concern.
I Began to See Rejection and Failure as Progress
Part of my fear of confrontation was a fear rejection and failure. If a boss or colleague thought my idea was stupid, that was my worst nightmare. It made me feel like both a reject and a failure.
After a while, I started to see rejection and failure as useful though. In short, I changed my definition of failure. Instead of seeing it as a lack of success, I saw it as a necessary part of success. Did I expect to win anything by not putting myself out there and keeping everything to myself?
Rather than stay defensive about failure, I started to embrace it. If I had an idea, I voiced it. If I wanted a raise, I picked my time, built a case, asked for it. If it didn’t happen, fine. At this point, my main goal was speaking up in the first place, not necessarily the implementation of the idea or the higher salary. So if I forced myself to speak up, it was a success in its own way.
We’ve written about the concept of embracing failure before, but there are a few important things to keep in mind when failure happens:
- Feel and reflect: Don’t just breeze through the failure. Consider it and consider any mistakes you might have made. Otherwise, you won’t make progress.
- Claim appropriate responsibility: Understand where you were at fault, and be aware of your limits.
- Admit and reframe: To move forward, consider how you can do things differently next time.
As afraid as I was of being wrong and failing, I was more afraid of the alternative, keeping my mouth shut and not moving forward in any way. Being wrong is part of being productive, after all.
I Learnt to Be Diplomatic
But it wasn’t just failure and rejection I was afraid of. Another part of my fear of confrontation was disappointing people. I hated telling people things they didn’t want to hear. And worse, I didn’t want to become overassertive. I wanted to speak up for myself, but I didn’t want to become an oblivious, rude jerk either. To combat this fear, I learnt to be diplomatic. A few things helped:
- Approach a discussion as a conversation, not a confrontation: Simply approaching a conversation in a certain way can make a big difference in the tone. We’ve talked about how it’s better to approach a negotiation as joint-problem solving; this works in the same way. Instead of being combative, you’re working on a solution with the other person. Whether it’s telling a friend about something that bothers you, or voicing your opinion at work, it should be less about conflict and more about communicating.
- Be kind: It’s an obvious one, but sometimes you’re so focused on speaking up, you forget to be nice about it, because you’re not comfortable with it. I noticed I did this with customer service reps. I was anxious about speaking up about an issue, so I immediately became cold and unfriendly without even realising it (oblivious jerk?). It wasn’t until someone pointed out that I could be nicer that I realised I was being defensive. I started making an effort to remember to be more kind, and this is much more effective anyway. Actually, it also makes things a lot easier. It’s easier to speak up when you don’t have to worry about the pressure of being so assertive. You can be kind.
- Pick your battles: I had to find balance in not saying anything at all and saying too much. When I first learnt to speak up, it was kind of an exciting milestone. So I spoke up about everything. Someone parked in my space? I asked them why. A friend did something slightly annoying? I told them. I had a simple question I could’ve easily found on my own? I asked my boss anyway. Speaking up was great, but I had to bring it back a little. I hurt my friend’s feelings. I annoyed my boss. Rather than speak up about everything, I’ve now learnt to pick my battles, so to speak. We’ve suggested starting with a simple question: “is the situation so distressing that it needs to be addressed?” If there’s another alternative, or if it’s not that important, I let it go and save my energy for things that matter more.
After all this, I think I’m still a people-pleaser at heart. But by acknowledging that trait, and acknowledging why I’m afraid of confrontation in the first place, I’ve been able to find ways to work around it. It’s not always easy, but it’s a lot easier when I remember each of these points.