Be assertive

A speedometer with needle pointing to the words You're in Contro

People who’ve mastered the art of assertive communication tend to get more of what they want or need. They possess a skill that helps them resolve matters when things go wrong. And they know that assertiveness works just as well with children and older family members as it does with workplace colleagues.

Communicating assertively means we’re behaving as adults; taking charge of our lives rather than feeling we are merely victims of circumstance. We’re also respecting the recipients of our communications as adults willing to hear our requests and support us; while we accept their response may be a ‘no’. Much of what I’ve been writing about in previous weeks – such as managing our boundaries and creating order in the chaos – depend on assertive communication.

Being assertive is not the same as being aggressive. We’re not demanding and we’re not coming from a place of feeling entitled. Nor is it the passivity of giving in to the demands of others and behaving like martyrs. We’re actively negotiating our own needs and desires while remaining mindful of the needs and desires of others.

As women we always run the risk of being labelled aggressive or difficult: especially when we’re being assertive. In my experience that type of criticism often comes from people who are not themselves behaving as adults and are not treating us as adults either; but are simply playing games.

Nevertheless, in the current circumstances it’s important to remember everyone is under pressure. An initial negative response may simply be a reflection of this. Someone reacts badly because our assertiveness appears to make their life harder. So we’ll need to negotiate.

Choosing to be assertive stops us feeling overwhelmed and can make us more productive. It will help calm our own emotions. It’s hard to focus when we’re feeling angry or frustrated; or that we’re not being heard and supported.

There’s plenty of advice about how to be assertive in person. Being assertive during telephone and video calls can pose more of a challenge. However, the basics remain the same. Tap into your self-confidence, relax, breathe and remain calm and alert. The more we do this, the more even our tone of voice and depth of pitch become. Both of which add to the ‘body language’ of assertiveness.

Remember to keep the conversation focused on your needs and feelings, not on berating the other person because of ‘how they make you feel’. Separate the individual from the behaviour and ask for changes to the latter. Above all, keep in mind that many of us are struggling. We want to do our best and we want to support each other. We may not always get it right but if we start with that basic assumption in mind we’ll succeed more often.

Let’s choose to be both assertive and kind. So we can support each other to rebalance our lives in these challenging times.

Essential skills: Negotiation

Business Success Concept With Partner, Partnership Giving Fist B

Being a proficient negotiator has always been a prerequisite for living a balanced life; and in the current challenging climate negotiation skills have become even more important. The precarious work-life juggle many families had been maintaining has all but collapsed as the rug of support is pulled out from under them. Parents are currently working out how to navigate work while looking after children without the help of grandparents – who may themselves need extra help. I suspect there’s a lot of negotiation going on at present so this week I’m sharing some tips for success.

Have a clear picture of what it is you want to agree

Many of us have suddenly been thrust into an unprecedented and complex situation. We need a creative approach to resolving it. In my book I recommend Solutions Focus (a tool from the positive psychology stable) as the means to identifying your desired destination. Take some time to consider what a balanced future would look like for you and your family.

Allow yourself to daydream about the best possible solution within the current constraints you face. Ignore the logical left brain and trust that your creative right brain will show you a solution. Aim to paint a detailed picture of what it looks like to live that solution. The clearer you are on where you’re trying to get to, the easier it will be to share that vision with others; and to identify the steps you need to take to get there.

Aim for a win-win outcome

It’s always easier to negotiate when you know what’s in it for the other party and work with them to achieve a win-win outcome. If you’re living in a dual parent household it’s likely your partner will also be feeling challenged to find the right balance. There’s plenty of evidence that younger fathers in particular are keen to get more fully involved in family life; so now’s the time to renegotiate what that might look like.

I realise many businesses are struggling, but this is also an apt moment to remind  employers we all have a life outside of work; and we need their help to maintain the juggle. Specifically you may want to ask for clarity on the outputs expected of you at this time; and when your employer needs you to deliver these.

Negotiation is a journey, not a battle

In my work I suggest to clients that they view negotiation as an ongoing conversation, rather than an argument to be resolved on the basis of a single exchange. We’ve all found that things which seem logical in theory don’t always work in practice. As you agree adjustments to working and living arrangements you will learn what works and what doesn’t. And then you’ll need to negotiate further adjustments. In the long run you’ll be more effective; but in the short run there will be a lot of course-correcting going on.

Simplify

Albert Einstein reportedly said: everything should be made as simple as possible but no simpler (although he didn’t exactly use those words!). It’s a great dictum to live by. The simpler the arrangements, the more likely we are to uphold them. Things may change in the future – let go of the need to know all the outcomes in advance. Focus on the present and on making small adjustments as you go.

Many of us are currently facing the challenge of navigating to get our needs met while also meeting the needs of those around us. As we’re forced to re-think the way we live and work we also have an unprecedented opportunity to rebalance our lives.

Ten tips for negotiating a flexible schedule

Funny Baby Girl In Glasses Reading A Book In A Library

Throughout February I’ve been focusing on various aspects of flexible working since it’s a key tool for many in their search for better balance. One of the most complex aspects seems to be negotiating a flexible schedule that suits both you and your employer. In this post as the month closes I’m sharing ten tips for success.

  1. Be very clear on your business case from the outset. Spend some time thinking about the tangible (i.e. costs and time) benefits and the less tangible ones (e.g. improved productivity when you’re living a more balanced life).
  2. Identify the flexible arrangement that’s most suitable for your needs and the type of job you have. If you need help to do this you can download my free workbook. Aim for some flexibility in your thinking rather than being rigid in your requirements from the outset (I recognise this can be difficult if external childcare arrangements are involved). This will give you some ‘wiggle room’ if your manager rejects your initial request as unworkable.
  3. But don’t fall into the trap of being too flexible in your efforts to show how grateful you are that your request has been granted. Without boundaries around your flexible working agreement you risk finding yourself always available for work while your new arrangement slowly erodes beneath you.
  4. Do some research before you start negotiating. In most organisations there’s plenty going on under the radar. Identifying allies who can support you in your quest for flexibility and role models who are pioneering change will make you confident you have a strong case.
  5. Focus on the positive. Your initial request may be met with a negative response. It’s easy to get defensive and the situation quickly spirals downwards. Instead ask positive questions that help you and your manager explore possibilities. What would balanced working look like? Not just for you but also for your entire team and your manager. What would need to happen for that to become a reality?
  6. Keep in mind that any negotiation is a series of small steps. Gradual change with minimal impact on the lives of those around you is easier to implement. Small steps stop you feeling overwhelmed; and mean you can make adjustments as you go along – so you’re always course correcting towards success.
  7. Recognise it’s down to you. The combination of your job role and your life circumstances makes your situation unique. So you’ll have to take charge, figure out what you need, connect with your power and find the confidence to go for it.
  8. Recognise you’re likely to be a pioneer – which may bring up challenges for you. If you’ve lined up those role models and champions; and if you’re clear on your business case you’ll find more confidence to step into this leadership role.
  9. Trust yourself. You’ve got this. You’re a better negotiator than you think you are. Relax, be more playfuland explore the options open to you. Finding balance is a journey not a destination.
  10. Good luck – you’re ready to go. And if you find you need further support from me check out my new VIP day coaching offer.

I trust you’ll find these steps a useful summary. I’ll be writing more on some of these topics in the coming months as we continue our journey to #rebalance 2020.

Navigating “No”

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Many of us can feel uncomfortable both hearing and saying the word no. It can close down a discussion and runs the risk of generating ill-feeling. It’s also a word we must embrace if we are to be Balanced Leaders.

There are of course two sides to no. The first is when it comes as a response to a request we’ve made. The second is when we find ourselves needing to use it.

When it comes to asking for a flexible working arrangement many women start with the assumption the response will be ‘no’. This is disempowering and closes down creative thinking. Instead begin with the assumption that what you want is possible – even if it takes some negotiating; and you start with a better mind set. No can be the start rather than the end of a conversation. As negotiation expert Natalie Reynolds points out:

When a door closes open it again. It’s a door – that’s how they work.

To reopen the door requires preparation. That means getting very clear on what it is you actually want. Rather than falling into the trap of all or nothing thinking consider whether there may be several suitable alternatives. For example: if you want flexibility to spend more time with the family you may realise a range of working options could suit you. The more flexible you are the more likely you will achieve your desired outcome.

Rather than focusing on a specific working arrangement from the start; ask yourself what a workable solution would look like. Do some research to discover what may already be happening under the radar inside your organisation. And who might have the flexible working experience that will reassure your manager.

Be willing to explore your manager’s concerns. Ask what s/he thinks a workable solution would look like. Ask open questions and listen – these are two excellent skills to cultivate for every area of your life.

Mind-set is as important as preparation. Remind yourself that flexible working is not an inconvenient concession your employer might grudgingly make. A well structured arrangement will not only improve your own well-being – and may be the difference between you staying or choosing to leave your job – but will also impact your productivity and engagement. So feel entitled to ask.

The reciprocal side of no comes when we find ourselves needing to use it – often to safeguard the boundaries that support our work-life balance.

Our desire to be liked will tempt us to say yes. Or we may fear a backlash in terms of a lost friendship. If that’s you then this advice from Holly Weeks – writing for the Harvard Business Review – will help you strengthen your resolve:

  • Keep it neutral. Make it clear you’re saying no to the request and not the person.
  • Be clear and decisive to avoid giving the false impression you may change your mind.
  • Be honest about your compelling reason for refusal. Don’t dilute your no with lightweight excuses.
  • Be prepared for pushback; and be realistic. Hearing no is likely to disappoint, or even generate anger.

When all’s said and done those of us who are parents know that our children can be our best teachers in how to navigate no. The skills we develop in dealing with toddler or teenage tantrums will prove invaluable in the workplace. As will the understanding that saying no is all part of the journey; and rarely final.

Just Ask

Thinking Women With Question Marks On White Background

I’ve recently joined a number of Facebook groups established to support working mothers in their search for flexible jobs. It breaks my heart every time I read another post from a skilled professional woman who’s about to downshift her career because she’s unable to work her current job around her family commitments.

It doesn’t have to be like this. It’s the twenty first century and technology has progressed far enough to enable us to integrate work and caring responsibilities in better ways. It’s the key reason why I’m writing my book. Employers are missing out on the skills working mothers have spent so long developing; while the women themselves are likely to miss out on thousands of pounds in lost income. If you’re thinking of discarding your corporate career then I want to urge you – before you do:

Just Ask

The traditional wisdom has been that women don’t ask – at least where salary is concerned. Research has recently blown that theory out of the water. It seems women do ask, but do not receive as often than men do. Since women understand that, it’s likely to make them reticent in asking. But if we don’t ask then nothing will change.

Stereotype threat can make us reluctant to ask. We try to fit in. We pretend we can manage our caring responsibilities while we work hours that were established half a century ago for men with stay at home wives. We struggle to juggle and to find balance. The thing is: if we’re to become Balanced Leaders we need to stand out, make waves, pioneer what we want.

So how can we ask in a way that’s more likely to get us the flexible working arrangement we need?

  1. First of all, feel entitled to ask. If you’re a manager then flexible working is not an inconvenient concession on the part of your employer. It’s a smart business strategy to keep you and women like you in the talent pipeline – and to redress the gender balance in the organisation.
  2. Get very clear on your business case for asking. Identify the knowledge and skills your employer will lose if you leave. Not just the ones that can be replaced by recruiting an external candidate, but all the internal learning that means you know ‘how to get things done around here’; and that makes you so efficient at your job.
  3. Ask with curiosity. If you were to work your preferred arrangement what would be the impact – both positive and negative – on the stakeholders around you? What are your manager’s key concerns and how would your working relationship look if they were eliminated?
  4. Ask who else in the organisation has experience of flexible working at manager levels. Who might act as a source of information or an intermediary in your discussions?
  5. Finally remember that asking is just the start of the negotiation. It may not be resolved immediately. You may need to ask more questions so that you can come up with better solutions.

And if you’re an employer or manager with an employee who is asking please

Just Listen

You may end up agreeing something that’s to your advantage.

The “genius, power and magic” of boldness

IWD 17 Twitter

It’s International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is #BeBoldForChange.

My dictionary defines bold as meaning both (1) confident and courageous; and (2) without feelings of shame, impudent. I suspect I’m not alone believing that bold actions in women are more often seen as the latter than the former.

For example: in their book “Why Women Don’t Ask” Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever point out that women are much less likely to use negotiation to get what they want than are men. They tend to view it as a masculine and competitive strategy. They prefer not to rock the boat. And in my experience, when faced with the work-life balance challenges of being a working mother they prefer to simply “fix” the problem by moving themselves onto the “mommy track”. They don’t want to be seen as asking for concessions because they’re not coping.

The thing is – as I’ve pointed out in previous blog posts – if we don’t ask nothing will change. Our mothers and grandmothers asked. For part-time and term-time work. And women made progress in the corporate world. Then things stalled.

By not asking we become complicit in covering up the fact that existing corporate cultures clash with women’s lives. We give our employers a “get out of jail free” card that allows them to suggest it’s something lacking in women. And the consequence – as revealed by recent Chartered Management Institute research – is half a million women missing from management.

Coaching a junior manager recently she concluded that she lacked the confidence to apply for a middle manager role. It’s a widely held assumption that poor confidence holds women back. But in her case she had a very real concern about being able to spend time with her family if she took on any more work responsibilities. And that’s what’s really holding her back.

With the right tools we’re crafting a job she feels confident she can do: and that makes best use of her skills while enabling a balanced life. It has required her to #BeBoldForChange and in her case this has paid off. Her manager is supportive – recognising and valuing her talents.

Most of us are willing to be bold on behalf of others – particularly family members. But when it comes to working practices we often shy away from asking for what we want. Because it’s not been done before. Because we’re worried about being seen in a negative light; our commitment being questioned. And we worry we’ll be seen as impudent rather than courageous.

So this International Women’s Day consider being bold not just for yourself – but also on behalf of the people around you. In negotiating better balanced working arrangements you’ll be opening up new possibilities for them as well.

I recently heard a working mother say: “I hope things are better for my daughter when she goes out to work”. But hope alone will not change anything.

We must #BeBoldForChange. In the words of Goethe:

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it

The Art of Influence

Becoming a Balanced Leader is a journey. It begins with the decision to reclaim balance in our lives supported by the clarity to know why we want it. Those of us on the journey are pioneers and we’ll be questioned at every turn. That’s human nature. In order to get where we want to be we must become skilled at influencing others.

Women in particular often feel powerless when faced with apparently inflexible corporate cultures and overwhelming social expectations. It’s essential that we remain confident we can exert influence over the way we live our own lives – and in doing so become role models for those around us.

If you’re committed to the Balanced Leader journey I offer some advice – based on things I’ve learnt along the way.

  • First of all, clarity is key. Be clear about what you want, where you’re willing to make concessions and what’s not negotiable. Keep in mind these priorities will shift and change as you navigate your life course. Prepare a robust case for your choices and sell the benefits to those you wish to influence.
  • Speak confidently. Women face a wealth of advice on how to cultivate the necessary gravitas. Don’t let concerns about that tie you up in knots. Aim to be brief but cover all the essentials. The more confidence you have in your new working arrangement, the more likely your colleagues will have confidence you can pull it off.
  • Engage with those you’re aiming to influence. Ask questions rather than giving opinions. Asking questions gets your listener’s brain involved as it seeks answers so it’s a powerful way of engaging others. Wherever possible aim for positive questions such as: “How would my colleagues and clients benefit if I was more refreshed, energised or creative?”
  • Expect to be heard and to get a positive response. Women often fear their voices go unheard in predominantly masculine corporate cultures. My own experience has been that most men do listen – but are less likely to offer confirmatory visual clues than are women. And if you’re asking for better balance you may well be voicing a desire they share.
  • If you find yourself faced with someone who really doesn’t listen – or who may be inclined to argue back – I’ve discovered that putting your case in writing as a precursor to meeting can be very effective. Some people simply hate being surprised or caught on the hop. Your written request will help them feel better prepared for a discussion.

Once you start the journey make yourself visible and be a role model. Then you’ll be influencing by example – and that’s the most powerful influence of all.

The skills you need are the skills you have

Making the decision to be a Balanced Leader will inevitably raise questions. Initially we may ask ourselves what that balance would look like and how we might get there from here. Once we have clarity we may also question whether we have the necessary skills to support us on the journey.

I want to reassure you that many of the skills you’ve already been developing in the course of your working life are the same skills you can deploy to achieve your aims. It’s simply that we need to apply them in a different context.

Let’s consider – for example – the skills of negotiation, influencing and selling. Your initial thoughts may be “I’m not very good at these” or even “these are not the key skills that got me this far in my career”. We may even believe our success is due to our technical expertise alone. But I want to argue that life constantly calls on us to negotiate, influence and sell. We may simply not recognise when we’re doing so.

When it comes to juggling workplace priorities and managing the people around us, most of us are already well versed in the art of negotiation. We understand it’s a process of ‘give and take’ – often over a series of conversations. So when we undertake to agree a more balanced working arrangement we bring this same skill into play. As with any negotiation we prepare by identifying the value we bring to the table and the broader benefits our proposed arrangement offers to co-workers and the wider organisation. We consider what we’re aiming to achieve and what the other party is likely to be looking for in terms of outcomes.

To reach a satisfactory resolution we need to know we can influence both our managers and the organisational processes within which we’re operating. It’s highly likely you’re already better at influencing than you think. It’s a skill you’ve been developing in managing colleagues and clients. And I can almost guarantee your children will have provided you with opportunities to hone your influencing skills to a higher level.

Understanding how to negotiate and how to influence are the key foundations for effective selling. Can you see it’s something you’ve been doing all along? Perhaps you’ve been selling your services to potential clients or perhaps selling your case to your manager when it comes to accessing the resources you need to do your best work. You can draw on these skills to be confident of selling your vision of balanced working and of generating support on the journey.

The courage to ask

In their ground-breaking book “Why Women Don’t Ask” Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever identified the many ways social conditioning discourages women from negotiating; and the devastating impact this can have on a woman’s earning potential throughout her career.

When it comes to asking for flexible working arrangements, a further layer of barriers often comes into play:

  • Working mothers are likely to fall foul of “stereotype threat” – the psychological theory that we have a tendency to play up to negative stereotypes about us. Thus widely held prejudices that women should choose between children and career makes us reluctant to be seen playing into the stereotype and hinders us in asking for support to manage both at once.
  • We’ve bought into a corporate culture that devalues working mothers who – according to research – are widely held to be neither good parents (for abandoning their children to the care of others) nor good employees (for not focusing solely on work and career). And a culture that also frequently devalues less than full time working arrangements

Given these negative perceptions and their impact on self-esteem women often fail to recognise the leadership opportunities in stepping up and asking for more balanced working. All of this adds to the ‘glass ceiling’ and the continuing inability of women to progress to senior levels while juggling caring commitments.

But we’ve come this far in the last fifty years and I believe we’re at the point where we can complete the workplace revolution.

Excellent negotiation skills are an essential part of the Balanced Leader’s toolkit. It’s something we explore in detail over the course of the Balanced Leader Programme. And good negotiators know the importance of preparation. So, before making that request to work flexibly make sure you’ve covered the following points:

  • First: be clear on the arrangement you want, how it will benefit you and your employer, any likely drawbacks; and how you plan to make it succeed. Consider the stakeholders involved both at home and at work and have a strategy for managing them.
  • Second: be clear on the value you bring to your employer and how that will not only remain but could possibly even be enhanced if you work your new arrangement. Remember that while your employer may initially feel he’s making a concession in allowing you to work flexibly you are – in fact – benefitting him by offering a way to retain your skills that supports your wellbeing and avoids heavy replacement costs should you otherwise give up and leave.
  • Finally, focus on the benefits and sell these to all concerned. If you suspect you’ll meet resistance identify the smallest first step you could ask for at this time. The one that will have the biggest impact for you. Once you’ve secured that concession you can move on to the next step – which won’t seem as hard.

See your efforts as an act of courageous leadership (and a way of growing your leadership muscle). At the root of the word courage is the French ‘coeur’ meaning heart. When we act courageously we’re taking heartfelt steps to make life better. Not just for ourselves but for those around us. Not just those we work with, but also our families and above all our children who will grow up with a model of balanced working to guide them.