How to Speak Up for Yourself More (Without Becoming Unlikable)

A few years ago, I was tasked with creating a standard PowerPoint presentation that my company would use at a variety of events and conferences.

Needless to say, I was really putting my all into it, determined to prove that I could handle an assignment of this size. I was already up to my eyeballs in fonts and statistics when my boss dropped by my desk and said, “Turns out we need this presentation sooner than expected! Can you have it done by the end of the week?”

My internal monologue went a little something like this: “Absolutely not, you crazy person! Unless you expect me to live here, there’s no way I can get this done that far ahead of the original deadline.”

But, what came out of my mouth? Something along the lines of, “Absolutely! Not a problem.”

Following that dishonest exchange, I worked ridiculous hours to get that presentation wrapped up in time. I arrived early, ate lunches and dinners at my desk, and took work home with me late in the evening. It was torture.

Sigh. Can you relate? Have you put yourself in a similar situation because you didn’t want to stand firm and speak your mind?

You’re not alone. It’s tough to speak up and advocate for yourself, even when you know it’s important. None of us want to be viewed as unhelpful, uncooperative, or defiant. So, we grit our teeth and bear it—even when we know we should be standing up and saying something.

Fortunately, there’s a tactic that you can use to voice your concerns, opinions, and even disagreements—without seeming totally unlikable. It’s called “perspective-taking.”

What is Perspective-Taking?

You’ve heard all of the clichés about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. But, that doesn’t change the fact that this is difficult to do, as social psychologist, Adam Galinsky, points out in his TEDx talk.

During his talk, he asks audience members to draw the capital letter “E” on their own foreheads. Go ahead and try it for yourself right now.

Of course, there are two different ways to draw this letter. One method is entirely self-focused, meaning that it looks like an “E” to you. The other is the perspective-taking “E,” as it looks correct to another person.

Which way did you draw your “E”? If you took the self-focused route, don’t feel bad—it’s practically human nature. “We often get self-focused,” says Galinsky, “And we particularly get self-focused in a crisis.”

But, perspective-taking is a way to challenge those natural tendencies. Using this approach, you step outside yourself in order to comprehend something from someone else’s viewpoint—because, as you likely already know too well, context can play a huge role.

Perspective-Taking in Action

To illustrate this point, Galinsky shares an interesting story about a man who threatened to blow up a bank unless the manager gave him $2,000. In that moment, the bank manager took his perspective and realized that he was asking for a very specific sum of money.

When she asked him why he needed that exact amount, he explained that his friend would be evicted unless he helped him get $2,000. At that point, the bank manager was able to state that he didn’t need to rob a bank—he simply needed to take out a loan.

This story might generate a chuckle from the audience, but the point is still clear.

“Now, her quick perspective-taking defused a volatile situation,” Galinsky states, “So when we take someone’s perspective, it allows us to be ambitious and assertive, but still be likable.”

That last part is crucial. Seeing things from both sides gives you the power to stand firm, without seeming stubborn or obstinate.

In hindsight, I should’ve taken my boss’ perspective and inquired about why he needed the presentation by the end of the week. What was happening at that point in time that required this project to be done?

Had I asked these questions, I would’ve realized that he really only required a few slides that contained specific economic impact statistics—meaning I could’ve prioritized that small portion of the presentation and saved myself a lot of stress, time, and tears.

Speaking up and advocating for yourself might never seem like second nature—particularly if you’re used to rolling over.

But, if you take a moment to understand where the other person is coming from, you’ll be much more empowered to voice your opinion in a way that’s constructive, rather than argumentative (switching this one small word can help with that too!).

Give it a try for yourself the next time you need to stand your ground. I’m willing to bet you’ll be pleased with the results!

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About Richard Moy

Richard Moy
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.

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