How to stand up for yourself – six steps to courage

Published by Peter on

When my clients are worried about a meeting coming up, I often advise them to channel their inner politician.

Not in all those bad ways you’re probably thinking about. I’m not saying they should be disingenuous, or untruthful, or manipulative, or evasive, or narcissistic.

I’m saying they should focus on staying on message. All the most effective politicians are very, very good at staying on message. They know what they want their audience to hear, and everything they do is focused on that one goal.

This doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not just that they’re naturally good at it. They work hard to hone that skill.

Anyone can do it, but mostly we just give in to our fears and limiting beliefs:

“I’m not good at standing up for myself.”

“I get distracted easily.”

“I miss the opportunity to say it, and then the opportunity is gone.”

“I’m scared I’ll get flustered and say it all wrong.”

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Whether it’s a team meeting, a “we have to talk” discussion, a job interview, a performance review, or a presidential debate, it feels terrible to come out of it having failed yourself.

Here is how you can do better next time. It has nothing to do with beating yourself up and telling yourself to be more courageous or focused next time. Instead, it has to do with taking steps to set yourself up for success.

1. Pick one single main point

What is the one thing you must accomplish, resolve, or say in this meeting? Don’t pick three, or two. Pick one.

The agenda may be many items, and if you do things right you can accomplish all of them. But one way intentions get derailed is by letting the secondary priorities take up all the time, leaving the top priority undone.

It’s just so much easier and less scary to tackle the simple things first, isn’t it? That may be one reason the priority keeps getting kicked down the calendar to the next meeting.

Especially once discussion gets going. Secondary priorities have a way of filling available time. A five minute topic uses up 10 minutes when it’s put ahead of something more difficult.

So pick the one thing you must accomplish.

2. Articulate your thoughts in clear, plain terms

If you aren’t clear in your own thoughts, you won’t be clear in talking about them. Just as I say that sloppy writing exposes sloppy thinking, a muddled presentation represents muddled thoughts.

Well before the meeting, take time to articulate your thoughts for yourself.

  • Write down your primary goal.
    “I am not feeling respected” is not a goal. “I want to be included in strategy sessions” is a goal. “I’m burned out” is not a goal. “I need to offload Project A so I can focus on Project B” is a goal.
  • What’s your minimum threshold for success?
    If you don’t get everything you need in this meeting, what would be good enough? Sometimes it’s enough to raise a previously unasked question. Sometimes you need action. This is not your new goal! Aim high, but understand what would be sufficient.
  • What are the main points that support your position?
    Separate emotion from fact when articulating your arguments. Both emotion and facts are important and true, but when you mix them together they create a confusing mess. Write down both the emotion-based points and fact-based points.
Literally write this stuff down.
  • What are the main points against your position?
    Again, separate emotion from fact as you anticipate any arguments you may face. Don’t be lazy here; treat potential arguments as valid in order to examine them, understand them, and decide how to respond to them.
  • What will move others to agreement or action in your favor?
    A lot of people fail to connect the dots for others. They throw all the dots into the conversation and assume everyone will draw the same conclusions they do. How do you need to connect the dots for the other people so they will act? Don’t do 90% of the work when 10% more would achieve your goal.
  • What’s the worst that can happen?
    If you fear negative consequences, what is the true likelihood of those consequences, and does the possibility of those imagined consequences outweigh your desire for the goal? If you can imagine surviving the worst, then everything else becomes less scary.

Over time, the more you do this with intention, the more it will come naturally.

3. Signal your intention in advance

No one likes to be blindsided with a difficult topic or question they didn’t know was coming. Dropping one of those on someone in a meeting, especially in front of an audience, is a sure way to build badwill and negativity.

Let people know in advance that you really want to talk about your main topic. How you do that will depend on a lot of different factors including sensitivity of the topic, privacy concerns, cultural concerns, timing, and much more.

The goal is to make sure that everyone who needs to know will show up ready for the topic. Yes, this gives them time to formulate their own arguments if they’re against you, but if you have done your own homework, you’ll be prepared for that.

One of my clients knew she needed to deliver some hard budget news, and that it would reflect badly on two of the other people on the leadership team. She sent those two people the information in advance, in addition to how she intended to talk about it. She was worried they would be mad about the information and feel betrayed she was going to present it, but instead they appreciated the heads-up.

4. Create allies in the audience

While it’s not always possible to do, setting up allies in advance can help. One of my clients was part of a leadership team that never got past halfway on their meeting agendas. The CEO would get stuck on the first or second topic and eat up most of the meeting grilling that leader on minute details.

Everyone else in the meeting would simply wait until the CEO had finished with the leader they were grilling. No one wanted to be the one to call the CEO out and get the meeting back on track.

After each meeting, my client a couple others would complain to each other about this. Either they were the one on the hot seat that week, or their important topics went undiscussed.

Instead of complaining after the fact, these leaders could exhibit actual leadership and help each other out by asking to get back on track instead of sitting idle while the CEO spun off topic.

Who are the allies you can turn to for help in situations like this, if things go sideways? How can you help others in their difficult situations?

5. Rehearse re-centering yourself

For many of my clients, getting flustered, distracted, or thrown off topic is one of their biggest problems. Another is giving in to fear.

Courage, like staying on message, requires practice. You can (and perhaps should) rehearse various ways of saying what you need to say. Practice that with other people, or in front of the mirror, or on a zoom call with yourself. Get comfortable with the words and the way you like to say it.

Then practice re-centering yourself. When things start going sideways in the discussion—and you know they will because they always have done—you need to be able to re-center yourself so you can bring the meeting back to your key message.

Re-centering yourself in a difficult moment is like any developed skill: you need to practice it. Make a personal practice of doing several micro-meditations throughout the day, especially when you are already feeling relaxed.

Take just a few moments—even 30 seconds will be enough—to empty your mind of everything except what you are physically feeling in the moment. Observe the feeling of the air on your skin, the sounds and smells around you, the colors and patterns of a particular object, or the way light and shadow texture your surroundings. While you observe these physical feelings, focus on relaxing your body and emptying your mind. Set a timer for one or two minutes if that helps you detach.

This is a skill you will call on in those difficult moments when your emotions start to carry you away and it feels like you’re losing control of the conversation. Interrupt that thought, re-center yourself, and return your mind to your primary goal.

6. Carry a physical reminder

Don’t be afraid to use notes if necessary. Many people think that it signals weakness, or a lack of conviction, to refer to notes. Simply tell everyone that this topic is so important, and you feel so strongly about it, that you wanted to make sure you cover everything. Perhaps they will feel a bit foolish, like they came to the meeting unprepared and underdressed.

Notes can remind you of your goal, your topic, and your facts and arguments. But how do you remind yourself to stay calm and collected?

You may consider carrying another type of physical reminder, a totem or touchstone that will remind you to re-center yourself and reconnect to your primary intention.

One of my clients wore a favorite ring when she needed confidence. She would simply touch the ring to remind herself of everything she had practiced and the intentions she had set, and that would be enough to help her regain her focus and control.

Another client who had trouble staying engaged and upbeat in online meetings put figurines of two cartoon characters next to her screen, to remind her to be more like Tigger and less like Piglet.

Or it could be a favorite coffee mug.

Set yourself up for success

People aren’t born with courage, and people aren’t born without courage. For some, standing up for themselves comes easier than for others. But it’s a skill that can be learned, practiced, and mastered.

It’s a lot easier to act courageously when you are well prepared, clear in your own mind, and ready to adapt to the situation as it unfolds. By doing the things above with honest intention, you can build those skills to help you tap in to your own courage.

Over time, those skills will become second nature, and one day you will realize that you’ve gently nudged the edges of your comfort zone so often, that things you once thought terrifying have become routine.

I can help

Looking to be a better leader? Contemplating a career change? Struggling with a big life question? Want to write or publish a book? Thinking about retirement?

I can help. Hit me up for a free coaching session now.


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