Many people suffer from powerlessness in the workplace.
Maybe you’re on a video call and you don’t feel able to share your ideas in an inspired way. Perhaps you’re dealing with a difficult colleague and your voice gets stifled, even stuck. Maybe you find yourself rushing, rambling or even saying something you don’t mean. Or perhaps, as we return to offices, we remember how little we actually felt heard. There are simply too many loud voices competing for airtime and you can’t get your point out amidst the noise.
Corporate environments only serve to exacerbate our personal difficulties. We’re expected to perform, meet increasing expectations, work extensive hours and subject ourselves to challenging emotional situations without the specific skills to handle them. Top-down communication is often unclear, indirect and confusing. No wonder we suffer anxiety.
Not to mention the increased bullying, passive-aggression and verbal mistreatment. According to a recent study by Monster.com, narcissistic behaviour in business is sadly on the rise. It’s hardly surprising that many people feel tactically paralysed in its wake.
We need to arm ourselves with the right strategies to not only handle tricky people and conversations, but to transform every difficult scenario into an opportunity to strengthen our voice and increase personal power. Ultimately, this is about finding your leadership voice; the voice that puts you in the driving seat of your working life.
Here are several techniques I’ve personally used over the years:
Remind yourself that your voice matters. Many people understandably worry about confrontation or disagreement and thus repress their voice. Even a whiff of conflict can trigger us profoundly in unhelpful ways. We flounder, freeze, go blank or even waffle to fill the silence with our anxieties. In some cases, we get defensive and make a situation worse. Far better to remind ourselves that because our voice matters, we must give ourseves the time and space to express it – no matter how imperfectly. If we don’t advocate for ourselves, we’ll be lucky if anyone else will, especially in the cut-throat world of business. So, take a very deep breath and encourage yourself to express your ideas calmly and with the respect your message deserves. Communicate that you are worth listening to by putting the energy of this conviction into your voice. Because the more you respect yourself, the more others will too. It’s important to note that just because our voice matters doesn’t mean we always have to express it. Silence is power and listening to others is the key to winning trust. We can also strategise our next response if we pay attention to what others say and do. But, we can only think this strategically if we remain focussed on understanding the other person over second-guessing our own performance or drowning the airwaves with our incessant sound. The loudest person in the room is often the weakest.
Physiologically, it’s incredibly hard to assert our voice when our nervous system is triggered. Let’s say you’re about to deliver an important pitch and you really want to win the deal. You’ve told yourself that your message matters and that this is your moment. But, as soon as you start speaking, your nervous system floods the body with hormones that prime you for survival in the face of percieved threat: your breath catches, your body tightens, your thoughts race and you can’t think, let alone think of something impressive to say. You’re stuck in the fight-flight-freeze response, also known as the F3 response, which is an anathema to your personal power. Punching someone (fight), running away (flight) or transforming into a deer in headlights (freeze) are not the best tactical responses when under pressure. If we’re to become assertive, powerful and exciting, we must become aware of the F3 trigger fast. As soon as you realise you’re anxious, breathe. Then, take a few more deep belly breaths. In fact, take the time you need to calm your racing thoughts. You can even shrug your shoulders a few times or flick your hands, as if to literally shake off the disempowering F3 force. If someone is pressuring you to hurry with an answer, don’t react. They can wait. The reality is that you have authority over your own pace and have no need to respond to outside pressure. When we jump to the beat of someone else’s drum, we lose personal power. Besides, nothing creative can ever be achieved with someone breathing down our necks. So, take a pause to regulate your emotions and watch how your mind miraclulously returns to constructive thought. You’ll now be able to structure your ideas and say exactly what you mean without rushing frantically ahead in a flurry of self-doubt. You’ll look and sound stronger. You’ll own yourself. And, should anyone attempt to hijack your moment of pause, calmly interrupt back.
Vocal tone also matters if we’re to be taken seriously. Two people can say the exact same words, but we listen to one person over the other. Why is that? Often it’s down to the sound of each person’s voice. One may sound assertive while the other may sound under-energised, passive or demure. According to one Harvard study, the tone of our voice accounts for over 33 % of how others perceive us. Which is why it’s paramount to strengthen and deepen your sound so that you convey leadership and presence. Practice speaking whilst you physically push against a wall and use the force of your physicality to energise your words. I sometimes get CEOs to deliver their entire presentations whilst pushing against an immovable object and we witness a dramatic change in their sound. They shift from tentative to assertive in a matter of moments. But of course we don’t want to be projecting our voices incessantly and thus annoying all who unfortunately happen to be in our proximity. The most inviting voices are fluid with range. They can be loud and projected when needed, but also quiet and warm depending on the needs of the situation. If you feel your voice is stuck in one predictable mode, you should aim to expand your range. Add softer edges to a hard voice to avoid sounding pushy, or work for harder tones if you’re concerned your voice isn’t being taken seriously enough. Ultimately, the most powerful voice is the one that is the most open, relaxed and supported by the body. As we breathe deeply and move out of F3, the throat naturally opens and our tone automatically lowers. We sound more confident, free from angst and able to take on any situation. A voice can convey so much, which is why it’s imperative to pay attention to your sound if you truly want to become a magentic force in your life.
4. BODY LANGUAGE
Now that we’re feeling calmer with a stronger voice, we must not undo all our good work with lousy body language. It’s crucial that you stand or sit tall, minimize fidgets and convey an air of self-respect. Whether on a Zoom call or in a real-life meeting, take your space no matter how nervous you might feel. Never shrink or play small by physically collapsing the spine, hunching over or keeping your body and voice rigid. People often tense up and freeze over in a misguided attempt to be taken seriously. But all this does is signal fear and implies that we don’t think highly of our own message. And sadly, when we communicate submission, we invite subtle attacks from those who want to steal power away. So, shoulders back, spine tall and chest open. Relax your body and signal supreme confidence, never fear. Raise your physical status in this way and watch how people start responding to you differently. Some may not like this stronger new you, but they will most certainly respect you. Again, balance is key. We don’t want to overstate confidence by unnaturally puffing out our chests, overly spreading our gait, peakocking our presence and invading the space of others. All this does is express the insecurity we seek to hide. Attempts at grandiosity are obvious… and desperate.
5. READ THE ROOM
The more you can calm the nervous system, relax your mind and settle your body, the more you’ll be able to do what others can’t – pay attention. Most people are far too self-involved to notice much around them. They’re too busy obsessing over the minutia of their own performance to even see you. Armed with this knowledge, don’t waste time worrying about yourself and instead observe others more closely. Learn to become an investigator of everyone else’s body language. As soon as you walk into a meeting, start reading the signals straight away. Listen to what others say – every single word – but also to what they don’t say. Pay attention to the quality of their eye contact and to the sound of their voice. Do they sound sure or uncertain? Do they talk too fast, aggressively or passively? Are they covering up their insecurity with bluster and bravado? Do they use big words in long rambly confusing sentences or do they speak frankly, honestly and directly? Take close note of all their subconscious ticks and non-verbal micro-expressions. These are the subtle facial signals that last less than 0.5 of a second but say so much about a person without them realising. Even those who have mastered poker face will bleed information from another part of their body. Look for these tiny movements, a tapping foot here or a scratch of a head there – and make a mental note. Because the more you pay attention, the quicker you’ll read these signs and the better you’ll become at discerning what’s driving the other person. Over time, you’ll develop the skill to know whether the other person is being constructive or destructive and manipulative. You’ll then be able to adapt your response to best match the situation and your own values. And, should you discover that someone is working against your well-being, you can either call it out, change your strategy or decide to walk away. But you can only do this if you pay attention.
Simplicity is crucial to being taken seriously. Once you’ve read the room and decided how to approach the situation, remember to slow yourself down so you can think things through and chose the simplest way of phrasing yourself. Aim to express yourself with fewer words and allow yourself to become more direct. Many meetings are wasted as people waffle and repeat themselves, often hiding behind confusing language, but never getting to any meaningful point. Don’t let yourself be that person. Silence is your most powerful weapon. It indicates that you are listening and not wasting anyone’s time unless you have something useful to contribute. And be wary of the need to people-please and over-complicate. Whether you’re giving a pitch to time-poor executives, asking for a raise from a demanding boss or pushing back on an unreasonable expectation, you don’t ever have to “perform” to negotiate what you want. You simply need to speak with precision and assurance. Express your thoughts calmly and plainly. Simplicity is powerful – and persuasive. And the truth doesn’t ever need to be sold. If some people respond to your honesty by acting up or throwing their weight around, don’t react. See their behaviour for what it is – fear. That doesn’t mean we have to tolerate disrespect. But it does mean we remain unaffected by another’s bluster. We stop taking their bait. Also, learn to differentiate between disrespect and healthy disagreement. There’s a difference.
Our ultimate power lies in our refusal to take anyone personally. How others treat us is simply a reflection of their own evolution and has nothing to do with who we are. If we remember this, we’ll keep our wits about us in the heat of the moment, remain untriggered and make wiser judgement calls. When we take the emotion out the game, we become far more powerful and effective.
I personally have wasted precious years caring about the opinions of others, letting them get under my skin, reacting emotionally and doubting myself unnecessarily. But, if you’re anything like me, we have forgotten that the only opinion that ever really matters is our own. How we see ourselves is everything.
So, respect yourself regardless of what others think, say or do. Know who you are, stand up for your personal values, put your voice out there when you need to and never let another determine your worth. The more you can do this, the more you’ll realise that you had the power all along – you just forgot.
Neo: What are you telling me? That I can dodge bullets?
Morpheus: No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.