Career & Jobs

Speak Up: How to Ask for What you Want Like a Boss

Speaking up in the workplace is a crucial leadership skill. Whether you’re advocating for your opinions in a meeting, negotiating an offer with a candidate, or managing up, you have to know how to get your ideas heard and stand your ground with tact and professionalism. In other words, you have to be assertive.

Assertiveness often gets a bad reputation, being equated to pushiness. But being assertive is a way to stand your ground and say what you think with both conviction and compassion. It’s about finding the middle ground between the two extremes of aggressive and passive communication and involves: 

  • Standing your ground. Projecting confidence, taking up space, and pushing back when you need to requires that you value yourself enough to put forth your ideas, even at the risk that others won’t like them. 
  • Approaching situations with objectivity and respect for others’ viewpoints. Speaking up for yourself clearly and concisely means that you can work through disagreements in a low-stress, no-drama way that keeps your Emotionality and Thoughtfulness well balanced. 
  • Finding win-wins where possible. Act with integrity and in accordance with your values, regardless of whether you get your way or not.

How to Be More Assertive at Work

Speaking and acting with assertiveness takes practice, awareness, and regular readjusting, but once you find the balance that works for you, you take another step toward commanding respect in almost any situation. 

Here’s a three-part model you can use to deliver your message calmly, clearly, and straightforwardly. 

WHAT YOU DO (THE ACTIONS YOU TAKE

  • Take initiative. Address problems before they get out of hand and offer forward-looking solutions. 
  • Make explicit requests. State what you want, ask for what you need, and don’t expect others to read your mind.
  •  Listen with an open mind. Summarize and clarify to check your understanding (i.e., What I hear you saying is . . . and Is that right?). 
  • Praise and highlight positive behaviors. Remember to tell people what they’re doing right and notice when things are going well. 

 

 

WHAT YOU SAY (THE CONTENT OF YOUR MESSAGE) 

  • Write down five key points in advance. Write down headlines that represent the progression of the conversation you want to have to guide it without scripting it word-for-word. 
  • Take ownership. Use first-person I statements like, I feel unappreciated when…, My reaction was one of…, and What I thought was…
  • Speak definitively and concisely. Fewer words strengthen your message, so lead with your main point and trim away excess detail or unnecessary explanation. 
  • Drop prefaces and qualifiers. Phrases like, “This may not be important, but…, I know this sounds silly… I may be wrong …, and I hope you won’t be upset…” all undermine your message. 

 

HOW YOU SAY IT (YOUR BODY LANGUAGE AND DELIVERY) 

  • Keep a calm tone and level cadence to your voice. Speak loudly enough for people to hear. Use silence to pause, organize your thoughts, and give the other person a chance to absorb what you’re saying and respond.
  •  Stand or sit in a balanced, upright position. Pretend there is a string above your head, hold your arms open or relaxed downward (no crossed arms or hair twirling), and maintain good eye contact. 
  • Be attuned to what’s happening. Watch for changes in the other person’s body language and look for inconsistencies. For example, does the person seem surprised by what you’re saying? Or are they telling you yes while shaking their head no? 
  • Make wise choices around context. Consider the time of day and medium through which you choose to deliver the message (i.e., email, face-to-face, phone, direct messaging). 

At its core, assertiveness is about respecting and trusting yourself. Every time you’re willing to express what’s important to you, you reinforce to your brain that your ideas, opinions, and preferences are important and valuable.

Using Assertive Language at Work

Below is a set of shortcuts to help you speak up, and say what you mean in a direct, but not aggressive way:

Speak Up Shortcuts—Say this—not that

Adapted from Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work by Melody Wilding. Published by Chronicle Prism, an imprint of Chronicle Books. Copyright © 2021 by Melody Wilding.

Melody Wilding, LMSW is an executive coach and author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work.



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