Speak Up and Don’t Apologize

Learning to be assertive in the workplace.

SpeakUpJue Wong, CEO of skin care company StriVectin since 2012, admits to being less than assertive when she started in the commodities field. Initially she was hesitant to speak up and try to get colleagues’ attention, which she attributes to her Asian upbringing. 
“I had always been told to be respectful and let my seniors speak,” Wong explains. “Learning to be assertive is counterculture for many of us.”

That’s true for many females. Women are often less assertive than men in the workplace and tend to apologize or minimize the importance of what they say when they do speak up—even female executives in meetings with their peers. But being on the defensive appears as a lack of confidence.

Wong quickly learned how to be more assertive. For example, to be taken seriously, she stopped starting sentences with “I think.” Instead she’d say, “From my experience, this is what I have seen.” “When you start with ‘I think,’ people may think you’re trying to be polite, and polite doesn’t cut it in the business world,” she says.

Why is it important for women to be assertive in the workplace? “When the talent and ability of everyone on a team are fully utilized, we have better information and perform better,” says Vikki Pryor, former CEO of insurance company SBLI, who is now a leadership development consultant in New York.

Here’s how to be more assertive and overcome the tendency to apologize.

1. Believe in your self-worth.
Fostering self-respect is the first step in becoming more emphatic in how you present yourself. Pryor calls this doing “self-work.” In her experience, organizations may not always encourage active participation, and some people may have an unconscious bias against certain groups. “But no one in a leadership role is going to say ‘I’m not going to consider that view because it’s coming from a woman,’” she offers. So don’t personalize the situation if your voice is not being heard; instead, give yourself a pep talk.

2. Focus on being respected, not on 
being liked.
It’s natural to want to be liked, but you need to pay more attention to the importance of your contribution. “If you plan on saying something that’s unpopular or innovative, you run the risk of stepping on toes or not having your idea well received, and you may translate that to ‘People aren’t going to like me,’” Pryor says. “That, in turn, may hold you back from speaking up.”

Emily Barnes, a leadership consultant and certified executive coach at Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates in Washington, DC, worked with a woman tapped for a senior executive position in a health organization. In the midst of a crisis relating to the H1N1 influenza virus, the woman couldn’t get her boss’s attention because he was exhausted from working countless hours on the problem. An expert on H1N1, she knew she could contribute, but her boss continuously rejected her offers to help him manage the crisis.

Men are more inclined to jump in and not ask permission. Barnes explained to the woman that she needed to be more assertive and say something like, “Listen, I see that there are five things you’re not able to get to. I’m going to take a stab at two, three, and four unless you have objections, and here’s what I intend to do. If that doesn’t work for you, let me know now.”

3. Prepare for meetings and presentations.
Women who are reluctant to speak up should prepare a crib sheet with buzzwords that will spark them to contribute, Barnes suggests, and be ready to jump in. When the ball is being passed quickly in a meeting, no one is going to stop and say, “Excuse me. Charlotte, did you have something to say?”

Write down what you want to achieve in a meeting or presentation. “If it’s a challenging setting, arrive early and choose your seat before the meeting,” Pryor suggests. “You might talk to one of the meeting attendees beforehand as well so that the person hears your view more fully and you obtain ground-level support. If you’ve been shut down in the past, write down some of the things people have said to you and how you could have responded so you’ll be ready this time.” Barnes reminds women that confidence comes by practicing something over and over until you’re good at it.

4. Learn the language of assertiveness.
It’s generally agreed that men and women communicate differently. Men tend to be direct (you didn’t hand in that analysis), and women tend to soften statements (why didn’t you hand in that analysis?).

If someone is dismissing you, say, “I hear your point, but I want to add something to that.” If time is running out, be persistent. Say, “I do still have something to add and if we don’t have time today, I’d like to put it on the agenda for the next meeting.” Channel Rachel Maddow, who famously stood up on her TV program when frustrated by two talkative men. It got their attention. DW

Pat Olsen is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and other publications.

Understanding Cross-Gender Communication Differences
You have more choices in how to act when you understand differences in cross-gender communication styles in the workplace.

Giving vs. Sharing Information
When men speak in meetings, they often “give a report” to enhance their own power.
Women often share information to help others gain the same level of knowledge as they have to equalize the playing field.

Author Deborah Tannen calls this “report talk” vs. “rapport talk.” In these two styles, men frequently interrupt and compete for airtime; women wait to speak until others are heard.

If your goal is to build relationships and develop rapport, continue to engage in “rapport talk” by letting others share the floor. If your goal is to demonstrate your expertise, engage in “report talk,” which will increase your credibility. Look for opportunities to express yourself rather than waiting for others to talk. If someone interrupts you, make a declarative statement like, “I haven’t finished what I am saying.” No apologies needed.


Men listen to solve problems. Women listen to gain understanding.
Whereas a man will usually offer a solution immediately, a woman may show empathy or ask for more information. Find out from the speaker what she or he wants you to do. Ask your speaker directly, “Do you want me to listen or give you advice?”

Making Decisions
Men tend to make unilateral decisions and are more comfortable giving and taking orders, in particular from higher-level males.

Women tend to seek input and consensus and are more comfortable with giving and taking suggestions from men and women.
When women say, “Do you think we should do this?” it sends confusing signals. Other women will hear this statement as asking for input and taking suggestions. Men, however, will hear this as being wishy-washy and wonder if the speaker lacks confidence. Men usually don’t feel it necessary to check with others before making a decision and taking action. That’s not always true for women.

When making decisions, state that you are gathering input, but clarify that you will be the ultimate decision maker. When seeking consensus, state that goal. Your colleagues will feel more comfortable with making suggestions.

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