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Often people think the rules are different for communicating with the boss.  The only difference is that the stakes are higher.  That means you must choose your words carefully.  But the truth is Bev, it is important to choose words with care with everyone to whom we speak. 

Most people who offend or bother us, do so unintentionally – including bosses.  Having worked with hundreds of  managers over the years, I can assure you that they are as concerned about the well being of their people, as they are about results.  

Bosses are human, they know they are imperfect, and like everyone else, they want to grow.  No matter how “difficult” you perceive your boss to be, I can assure you that if their words or actions are creating a negative environment, they would want to know.   

I still recommend using the formula for assertive communication from the previous blog post, and I will add one extra step.  It’s called the “benefit of the doubt” statement.  Here are the 4 steps:

  1. When you…or When people…
  2. I feel…. (because)
  3. I respect the fact that… (or I understand that…) This added step gives them the benefit of the doubt.
  4. State what you want.

Examples:  (use a super calm, neutral voice, neutral face)

“Name, When people yell at me, I feel upset.  I understand that you are angry, and I understand why.  But it’s not necessary to yell at me to get results.” 

“Name, when you tell me to put on “my big girl panties”, I feel offended.  To me that expression is derogatory.  I respect the fact that you meant no harm by it.  My request is that you don’t use that expression with me.”

“Name, may I speak frankly with you?  When you blackberry during our one-on-one’s, I feel bothered.  Because I know that I don’t have your full attention and it’s distracting.  I respect the fact that you are pulled in a million directions with so many priorities on your plate.  However during our one-on-one time, could you please not respond to your blackberry?”

“Name, when you use foul language, I feel bothered.  I am sure that you are not meaning to offend.  However since it does bother me, I am requesting that you refrain from swearing in my presence.”

Now, in the unlikely event the boss responds with a “you’re too sensitive” comment, respond politely with this:  “I don’t see this as an issue of sensitivity, I see this as an issue of respect.”  Then stop talking.  (Tone will be very important here)

So Bev, the key is to be diplomatic, honest, and respectful in all of your communications, and pick your battles wisely (ie don’t point out the boss’ missteps daily.)  Expect that your boss may be surprised, especially if he or she did not intend to offend.  Speak respectfully and the boss will respect what you have to say.  And if the boss has any measure of integrity and character, he or she will thank you for bringing it to their attention.   

Bev, thanks for asking about what so many struggle with.

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Love this question Carol!  So many of my workshop participants struggle with this same problem.  Often ,when someone’s behaviour offends us personally, we lose our composure, and sometimes our emotional control.  In those moments it’s really tough to be eloquent! 

Here’s my recommendation:  Memorize an intro line, that you can just whip out without struggling.  In fact, I strongly recommend you memorize this 3 step formula for asserting yourself on the spot…

  1. The first line – Memorize these 2 words:  “When you…or “When people…”(then describe what they’ve said or done)… 
  2. The second line – Memorize these 2 words:  “I feel…or “I think…”(then share 1 or 2 feelings words that describe the impact  their behaviour has on you)….You can also tag on an optional “Because” statement to explain your position.
  3. Then tell them what you want. “Please do not…”, or “Next time…”,  

I should clarify, that Step 2 – is all about your feeling response to their behaviour.  So the focus is you.  Don’t fall in the trap of saying something like “I feel you’re an idiot!’  or “I feel you don’t respect me.”  No.  This isn’t about them, this is about you.  Only describe your feelings.  And do not use more than 2 feeling words.

Strung together, the formula flows together quickly and easily.  Here are a few examples:

“When you call me that name, I feel offended.  Please do not call me by that name again.”

“When you are late for meetings, I feel annoyed.  Because it is disruptive.  I need you to be on time in future.”

“When you share inappropriate jokes, I feel embarrassed.  Please do not share jokes like this with me in the future.”

“When people speak about women in that way, I think it is disrespectful.  Please do not speak that way in my presence again.”

“When you speak to me in that manner, I feel angry and disrespected.  Please do not speak to me in that manner again.” 

“When you gossip about other people, I feel worried.  Because I wonder what you may be saying about me when I am not present.  Please don’t share this type of information with me again.”  

“When people talk about others behind their back, I worry.  Because I wonder what may be said about me when I am not present.  So I’ve made it my policy not to get involved in this type of discussion.  (same scenario, less direct)

“When you yell at me, I feel angry and defensive, and I stop listening.  Lower your volume, or I will exit the room.”

By the way, consider the “please” in these statements optional.  Omit it, and it will sound firmer.

Now, if you are thinking “this sounds harsh”, let me assure you that being direct is the most appropriate way to stand your ground and set boundaries or rules of conduct.  Assertive communication is direct.  It is firm.  And it is respectful.  And when compared to the alternatives (saying nothing, or exploding), it’s significantly more effective.

When you are speaking, make direct, but not glaring, eye contact.  Lower your tone of voice – a baby voice will weaken your message.  And watch your body language.  Don’t clench your teeth, or your fists, and don’t tense your neck.  These are hostile body movements and they will be perceived as aggressive.  

When you are done speaking – STOP!  Resist the urge to say anything else – it will weaken your message.  Stop and listen to their response if they have one.   If they apologize, accept it graciously – resist the urge to say “it’s OK”  Resist the urge to repeat yourself. 

Hope this helps Carol.

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Jan, let’s examine your guilt.  Have you done something inappropriate, offensive, illegal or immoral?  No.  So what is your guilt about?   Saying “no” to someone else’s priorities so that you can say “yes” to your own priorities?  Isn’t that a good thing?  

Now you may be thinking, “But I feel badly about disappointing them.” 

You’re a caring person, I get that.  As good as you are, you are not responsible for rescuing the world and fixing everyone’s problems.  Nor does anyone expect that of you.  “No’s” are a part of life.

Let me ask you this:

When you consistently say “no” to your priorities so that you can say “yes” to someone else’s priorities, do you feel good?

No.  You feel disappointed for not honouring yourself.   A lifetime of pleasing others means a lifetime of disappointing yourself.

Life is about choices.  The truth is, we have a finite amount of time, and only one life.  If you want a rewarding, fulfilling, authentic life, then you must live your life according to your values and priorities – based upon what will give you the highest emotional and financial rewards, in the time you have.  That means you must choose.

Whenever we say “yes” to something, we have to say “no” to something else and vice versa.  Consider this scenario: at the last minute your boss asks you to stay late because of an important deadline.  But you have promised your son you would watch his little league game.  If you say “yes” to your boss, you have to say “no” to your son.  If you say “yes” to your son, you have to say “no’ to your boss.   How will you choose? 

Your answer will depend upon many factors – most importantly, what will feel most congruent with your values and priorities.  Honour those above all. 

The good news is that people respect other people who uphold their personal values and live with integrity.  Even if it means hearing a “no”.  Will they be disappointed?  Perhaps.  Will they respect you?  Absolutely!

Now, saying “no” doesn’t mean you have to abruptly slam the proverbial door in someone’s face.  There is a gentle way to say no.  Here’s the formula that I use:

  1. Start with an understanding statement to acknowledge the reason for their request.  Could sound like: this sounds important…I see that you are stuck…I understand your situation….I’m complimented that you would ask…Thank you for considering me…
  2. Next, explain your situation.  “Unfortunately, I have other commitments…I’ve promised…I’m choosing…Here’s my situation…
  3. Consider alternatives you could offer this person.  “Can we try…What if….Could you ask…How ’bout I… Here’s what I can do…Are there other options…

This type of gentle, thoughtful “no” preserves relationships, reduces the chances of residual bad feelings, and shows that you still want to offer some level of support.  That’s a win-win! 

Now, to help ease your feelings of guilt, affirm your decision to yourself with this statement: “By saying no to this person, I am honouring myself and what I value most.  And that feels really good.  At the same time, I know and trust that this person is resourceful and will find a solution.”

I hope that helps you Jan. Great question.

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Gossip is an insidious form of communication, and left unchecked it can poison a workplace. First of all Lee, make sure that your behaviour isn’t asking for the very behaviour you want stopped.  If you remain present and say nothing when gossip is shared, you unwittingly send the message that you are listening and that you are interested.  If you want it to stop, then you must take a stand. 

Here’s what you could say privately (tone will be very important):
“When you talk about other people in that way, I feel uncomfortable. Please don’t share this kind of information with me again.”

or if you want to cushion the communication a bit:

“When you talk about other people in that way, I feel uncomfortable.  Because I think people should be given the benefit of the doubt.  I respect the fact that you and I have built a trusting relationship and I’d like that to continue.  However please don’t share gossip with me in the future.”

or:
“It’s my policy not to gossip, and this sounds like gossip to me. I’m going to exit myself now.”   (then leave)

or if you are in a group meeting:
“It’s my policy not to talk about other people when they are not in the room to defend themselves. Let me know when this conversation is over and I will rejoin the meeting.”  (then get up and leave)

When you are speaking, make sure your tone is assertive and neutral.  In other words, speak firmly but be very careful not to come across as hostile or accusatory or judgemental in your tone.   This isn’t about judging, this is about asserting your rights about how people behave in your presence.  

And most importantly, make sure you live up to your own no-gossip policy.  When we take a stand, we hold ourselves accountable to a higher standard.  And that means our behaviour will be scrutinized.   Slip once, and your credibility is damaged.

Thanks for your question Lee …Deb

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Julie, you’ve touched on one of my favourite topics.  Let’s start by clarifying assertive communication. 

Assertive communication is the skill of saying what we need or want, while respecting the needs and rights of other people.  It is being able to communicate appropriately in a direct, open and honest way.

If you think of communication on a continuum, to the far left would be passive communication (I lose/You win), and to the far right would be aggressive communication (You lose / I win).  Assertive communication falls between those two behaviours (win/win).  Assertive communication is often mislabeled as aggressive because it is a firm and direct communication style, but that’s where the comparison ends.  Aggressive communicators focus on the person (anger, blame, hostility).  Assertive communicators focuses on issues, behaviours, and results.

To be a more assertive communicator:

  • maintain eye contact
  • lower your vocal tone (speak from your belly, not your head)
  • speak directly and clearly
  • slow down verbally
  • be concise (the longer you go on, the more passive you become)
  • maintain emotional control (focus on the issues and behaviours, not the person)
  • do not start with an apology, eg “I’m sorry to have to bring this up.”  (it instantly weakens your message)
  • make sure your body language supports your message (good posture, no fidgeting, direct eye contact, don’t clench your fists or make other aggressive movements)
  • use “I” statements (I think, I feel, I need, I want, I request, I require….)
  • listen (remember, assertive communication is two way)

Most importantly Julie, before anyone can speak assertively, they must learn to think assertively.  Assertiveness comes from a place of confidence and mutual respect and the desire to solve issues.  And all of that happens before one opens their mouth. 

Hope that helps Julie …Deb

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