Jane wants to ask the partner she works with about raising her salary, but she is afraid to initiate the conversation.
John works with a disorganized partner who is a last-minute delegator. John has ideas about how he can better support the partner but doesn’t know how to raise the subject.
Why is it that speaking up and making requests can be so hard to do? Why does self-advocacy raise so many fears?
The difficulty in speaking up is often about the tension between exercising personal power and tending to our relationships.
It can seem like communicating about what’s important puts relationships in jeopardy.
The remedy for this seeming collision of objectives is assertive communication.
Assertiveness is about communicating clearly and directly in a manner that considers others and is respectful.
To develop your assertive communication skills, try out some or all of the following steps next time there is something important to communicate.
Start with the end in mind.
What do you want? How can you frame this as a set of options rather than one desired outcome?
Options help you to be flexible in a negotiation.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
- How does this impact them?
- What matters to them?
- How does it potentially benefit them?
Reflect on how your personal and professional strengths potentially give you some leverage in the situation.
- Conduct a strength assessment.
- Understand your value in the market.
- Talk to trusted colleagues to explore this.
- Are there benchmarks that support your request? Precedents?
- Examples of best practices?
Seek out your blind spots.
- What assumptions are you making?
- Do you lack clarity?
- Are you missing any information?
Fill in the blanks or bring some of these questions to the bargaining table.
Decide how you want to frame the discussion.
- With a salary negotiation, the frame can be appreciation for the firm and a desire to be a profitable contributing member who is fairly compensated.
- For a discussion about ideas to improve delegation, the frame can be an exploration of how to support the partner better.
Determine when you want to have the conversation and where.
- Will you meet with them in person or over a video call, or on the phone?
- Face-to-face meetings whether in person or over video is always better than phone.
- Do not use email. It is too easy for messages to be misunderstood and tone misread in email. It also takes away your ability to engage with the person and respond in the moment.
- Contact the person in advance to schedule a meeting and give them an idea about what you want to discuss.
Plan and prepare:
- Prepare your opening remarks to frame the request.
- Prepare questions to ask to help steer the conversation. Or to get clarity on any missing information.
- Prepare your request with options for consideration and how you want to present any supporting information.
- If you need to, get help from a trusted colleague or advisor.
Finally, remember the importance of silence.
Carrie Gallant writes in her article Silence is the Golden Ticket:
“When you fill the silence after you ask, you risk doing two things.
First, you take up space they may need to process your ask, to think about it. You may have surprised them, and they need a moment to craft their response. If you fill the silence, you may deny them an opportunity to come to your side on their own.
Second, you inadvertently dilute your ask. What if it’s good enough on its own? By rushing in and filling the silence, you could signal that you don’t believe in it yourself! That you are justifying your ask out loud because you don’t really believe you deserve it or trust that it is possible for them to give.”
Make the request and follow this with quiet.
From my discussions with junior associates in my coaching practice and the AMP (Associate Mentoring Plus) program, I have learned just how many conversations aren’t happening. Opening up discussions about sensitive subjects can feel dangerous especially when you are a newly called associate with concerns about job security.
To make the conversation safer and give yourself the courage to speak up, try some or all of the above steps and try out your assertive communication skills. Practice makes better.
As my friend counselor Bena Stock says, “if you don’t ask, the answer is already No.”
In the words of leadership coach Carrie Gallant: “Grab a bit of courage and go ahead and ask!
And as I like to say, in law firms, receiving a No answer means No today. Tomorrow could bring a different reply. Sometimes it takes three Nos to get to a Yes. Get started on building towards Yes today!