How to Speak Up for Yourself

Overwhelmed at work? The typical response is to bite your tongue and press onward. Occasionally, however, stress gets the best of you and your defensive tongue, which doesn’t bode well for relationships with your coworkers and boss.

You don’t want to serve as a doormat for the rest of your career while others take advantage of you. Sometimes, in the rush of getting business done, coworkers fail to see each other’s perspectives on time, responsibility and commitment. Here’s how to speak up for yourself with grace and without griping.

Forget Self-Sacrifice: Practice Enlightened Self-Regard

You’re stuck in a holding pattern when you’re tempted to take one too many personal sanity days. You’ve formed a habit of self-sacrifice at work that leads to stress. In time, it may affect your productivity and work relationships by leading to avoidance, resentment, anxiety, depression and burnout.

Saying “no” can be empowering and informative when done with grace, as can saying “yes” when you obtain a greater perspective than your current one. Priorities differ and situations arise where deadlines shift for pertinent reasons. When your desires conflict with another’s, there’s a temptation to give in and self-sacrifice too much. Why not practice enlightened self-regard, instead?

Enlightened self-regard is a positive form of selfishness in which you are accountable for your shifting workload, yes, but more importantly, you pay attention to your health and energy levels while honoring commitments. The first item on your to-do list is to lose the focus on self-sacrifice and embolden your ability to speak up for your wants, pressing needs and limitations. People like to say you are as good as your word, but it’s unfair to both parties for you to agree to something when you don’t have all the information.

Here are five ways to correctly practice self-regard.

  1. Ask Questions

Discuss projects and needs at length, outlining specifics and deadlines. Are there any missing elements that may delay the project? Asking questions now gets everyone on the same page from the start.

Be honest about how sudden shifts in deadline or requests will affect the quality of your work. State when other priorities will need to be shifted. Do you need to get approval? Get it first, if you can or want to follow through on a rush request. If not, hand over what you have without qualms. You’ve done everything within your power.

  1. Ditch Lazy Coworkers

Some coworkers try to pass their priorities to you. Sometimes, it’s because they feel lost. It’s a rite of passage to help less experienced coworkers gain their foothold with a little encouragement and a few pointers now and again.

Other times, however, coworkers rely on you as their personal worker bee because they know you’ll say yes every time they appeal to your good nature. Asking questions helps discern their motives and prepares you to ditch lazy coworkers. Redirect them to a more relevant department. State with a positive and enthusiastic tone that you believe they’ve got it under control now and you know they can do it. If they won’t take the hint, it’s time to bring in management.

  1. Keep It to Yourself in a Whole New Way

For most of your life, you’ve been told to keep it to yourself or risk being a troublemaker, pot stirrer or tattletale. Speaking up doesn’t mean you’re crying wolf, but a deeper process needs to occur inside of you before you let words fly.

Keep it to yourself in a whole new way by starting with listening to yourself and how you feel. For example, you might say to yourself: “I feel frustrated and overwhelmed that my boss always piles on extra responsibilities without asking how current projects are going.”  It doesn’t even have to be that complicated or defined. Own up to it when you feel sad or stressed out, and honor your statements. Do something on your own behalf to destress. Talk to yourself to regain power over your personal perspective and consider another side.

Emotions bubble up, and you need to say something — anything — to get them out. They risk tension and worse between you and the other parties. Have a conversation in your mind with the person stressing you. Let the anxiety of their objections and accusations go, if and when you’re to say “no.” Look at them with empathy, and say what’s on your mind and heart objectively. This technique may be effective on its own, or it may prepare you to talk with the other party. It also informs you where your boundaries lie and how to stand up for them.

  1. Listen

Actively listen to the speaker to make the most of your communication, which is composed of body language in addition to words. Repeating back to the speaker their words as you understood them is helpful to develop trust. Listening also means paying attention to how your body is responding to their perspective.

Are you tensing up? Does that hold you back from truly listening? You may have coercion sensitivity if you’re uncomfortable hearing delegations from a supervisor, don’t like being directed or feel like you’re not valued beyond worker bee status. A fear of criticism may lead you to get defensive, or you may feel mistrust toward a coworker. Listen with your mind and body, and try not to assume anything — listening will give you the right information.

  1. Respond

Your coworkers and boss aren’t mind readers. Staying silent will only leave you where you already are — where you have been — and you’ll remain there as a result. A positive “no” opens doors and can lead to the “yes” you’ve long desired in a reciprocal professional relationship. Use your body language and voice to respond in an empathetic and empowered way.

Express empathy toward their position. Use “I feel” statements, and speak objectively. Have a few stock responses prepared for when you get stuck, such as “I’m afraid that’s not my area of expertise. You may want to check with the head of marketing.” Another idea is to state what specific goal you’re focused on now, showing you can’t attend to this last-minute request.

Saying “no” reinforces your boundaries and opens doors to honest communication when done in an empathetic and transparent way. Don’t risk losing yourself and professional relationships to resentment or burnout. You can speak up for yourself without sounding like you’re complaining. In fact, you’re being accountable to yourself and others by sharing your voice and standing up for your values and boundaries — you’re practicing enlightened self-regard.

For more tips on speaking up and empowering your career path, subscribe to Punched Clocks. Keep the conversation going by commenting and sharing.


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Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks.

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