Advice From an Introvert: How I Learned to be Assertive at Work

If you were to ask my friends about me, they’d tell you I’m ambitious.

In contrast, they’d also tell you I break out in a sweat at the mention of public speaking, and that I’d rather be tucked away in my cubicle than talk during a meeting or approach my boss with an idea for the lifestyle magazine where I work as associate editor. On days when a new intern starts, I get red-faced and fumble over my words as I show them around and give them their first assignments, and because I like to be helpful, half the time I offer to do part of their work for them.

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I think you get the picture: I’m a mess when it comes to speaking up or being assertive in a professional setting. I know this is something other 20-somethings struggle with. For those of us with introverted or accommodating, laid-back personalities, it can be hard to gain professional respect among coworkers, or transform that timid recent college grad into someone with influence. This rift leaves me, at least, feeling exhausted and like I’m not living up to my potential.

Being introverted, it’s often easy to shrug off an idea because I don’t think it’s good enough, or maybe I do, though I’m too afraid or unsure of how to present it. So I’ll stay quiet. I’ll nod meekly.

But having been in a professional setting for a few years now, I’ve finally gotten tired of letting my uncertainties keep me from growing. The realization that I’ll only withdraw more sets me on the path to trying to be more assertive.

For me, what helps is the reminder that I deserve as much of a platform to make my ideas heard in the office as everyone else – to know my value and try to maintain a confident outlook. What I have to say is worth hearing. I tell myself that repeatedly if I have to. If I have an idea, I don’t need to shuffle it to the back of my notes for “next time.” I can speak up in an editorial meeting. My heart may be racing and my face may be red with all eyes on me, but if I want to claim my place at the table, I can’t second-guess myself anymore.

How long do you have to be at a job before you feel comfortable speaking up in a big meeting?

Once that old mindset is adjusted, there are more practical steps to take, too, like speaking articulately and avoiding weak language and timid body language (i.e. shoulders hunched inwardly).
Gaining confidence and becoming assertive doesn’t mean I need to be demanding, of course—being straightforward yet respectful really is the key.

On this journey of challenging myself, I must also remember to be gracious – to myself. As much as I wish it were, it’s not exactly a linear path. Some days I find that I start sinking back to the place where I don’t want be, for absolutely no reason. Yesterday, I felt flustered and my thoughts jumbled when my boss approached me. When our intern asked about a deadline I responded, “If it works for you, how does the 15th sound?” I felt somewhat silly as a result of these encounters and started being really hard on myself. As if I had never really taken the steps to assertiveness at all. But that’s not true; I need to cut myself some slack and then try again.

Because really, every day is an opportunity for growth. Today, I reminded myself of my value to the team and that I don’t need to scuttle around making everyone’s lives perfect. I sat down with my boss and articulately and directly shared a list of ideas, which he then asked me to present at a meeting. I did – red face and all. And guess what? As a result, I’m working on new projects with a heightened sense of responsibility—and respect among my peers.