Stop Playing Small at Life and Work 12 Tips for Building Confidence and Personal Power

Updated: Nov 18, 2021

-- By Ginger Ward Green, Coach, Facilitator and Program Developer specializing in Change & Performance Management

1. Stop apologizing unnecessarily.

People often say they are sorry for things over which they have no control, and for circumstances for which they have little or no responsibility. Reserve your apologies for large mistakes that have damaged a relationship or an outcome that is important to you. Be clear and specific about what it is that you are apologizing for, do your best to make amends, make a plan to not make the same mistake again, forgive yourself and let it go.

2. Stop using minimizing and “garbage” words and phrases.

Minimizing and “garbage” words and phrases are often used unconsciously, in an attempt to soften or diminish the impact of what we are saying. For some, not wanting to be perceived as overly aggressive or “pushy” encourages us to use these types of words and phrases to make ourselves “small” enough to not call unwanted attention to what we have to say or contribute.

Examples of minimizing and “garbage” words and phrases include the following. . .

· It’s only my opinion, but. . .

· This is “just” a thought I had. . .

· You’ve probably already thought of this, but. . .

· It really wasn’t anything hard to do. . .

· I was probably just lucky that it turned out as well as it did. . .

· Anybody could have done it (whatever “it” was!)

· Um, you know, like. . . um. . . you know (garbage words, all strung together like Christmas lights)

Talk about this with someone you trust that can be your listening “buddy”. Ask her or him to pay attention to the language that you use in your everyday communication and to give you feedback on how you sound. Ask for the feedback to be private, timely, crisp and specific.

Write down the feedback that you receive. Work to “back-track” and determine what might have triggered you to use these types of minimizing and garbage words and phrases.

Practice speaking without the garbage (substitute silence for those ums, you knows, like. . . )

Practice saying what you have to say by beginning with a phrase like these “starters”. . .

· My idea for addressing this includes. . .

· The data I have on this problem is xxx. . . Taking that into consideration, I suggest that we xxx. . .

· It sounds as though you think the problem is xxx (summarize the other person’s viewpoint that has been expressed and check to see if your listening was accurate. If yes. . . ) I see it differently and this is why. . .

· I believe the best solution for this problem is xxx, and this is why. . .

Video tape yourself giving a presentation (easy enough with an iPad and a tripod). Seeing is believing. And whatever you see and hear, remember that it’s data that you are gathering. When we are working on development areas, it’s progress, not perfection that we are after.

3. Stop giving a long, winding explanation of why you think the way you do

Take the time you need to determine the main point of what you have to say. Back up your main point with two or three supporting pieces of information and communicate this info crisply and without using minimizing and garbage words and phrases. When you are done, stop. You can also ask for others’ input and feedback; do so without negating or diminishing what you have expressed.

4. Stop prefacing what you have to say with a question.

Prefacing what you have to say with a question sounds like this. . . Don’t you think the best way to solve this problem is xxx? That’s a statement masquerading as a question.

The purpose of asking a question is to find out information that we don’t know, including how another person is thinking or feeling. When we have already reached a conclusion or are taking a stand on something, prefacing our conclusion with a question feels to others like it’s a “gotcha”. Sometimes people (particularly women) do this because they’ve been given feedback that they need to not come across so strongly. They’ve been advised to ask more questions so that others believe that their input is wanted and valued. Asking questions really is a good way to learn more about what others think, feel and value. Keep your asking of questions separate from your expression of your own ideas.

5. Stop using “up-speak” – ending your statements as though they are questions.

When we end our statements as though they are questions, it can create a perception to others that we are timid and unsure of ourselves. I lived and worked in Canada for a number of years. Within my first year there, I received feedback that people sometimes felt a bit intimidated by me because of my “directness”. One of the ways I softened what I had to say was by using “up-speak” – culturally, “up-speaking” was part of the Canadian way of communicating for both women and men. Moving back to the U.S., I then had to un-learn this habit. As with using minimizing and garbage words and phrases, have your listening buddy pay attention to whether you are ending your statements as though they are questions. If yes, do your back-tracking to determine what is triggering this speech habit for you, and practice on making your statements as statements, in a clear, crisp and assertive tone of voice.

6. Stop automatically saying “yes” to everything that you are asked to do.

Years ago, I was given advice on this which I took seriously. A colleague told me that if I was not able to say no when I needed to or wanted to, I would never be able to say yes to anything whole-heartedly. That was good advice, and I pass it on to you to consider.

Instead of automatically saying “yes” to everything that you are asked to do, try this instead.

· Pause before answering and take at least three deep breaths

· Negotiate for the time you need and want to check your schedule and assess your ability to do whatever is being asked of you

· Do that! Check your schedule and check in with yourself about what you are thinking and feeling about taking on whatever has been asked of you. When I am in this situation, I ask myself whether I can do what has been asked with a “happy heart”, or whether I’m just afraid to say no (that’s a subject for another time).

· Sort out for yourself what (if anything) is negotiable and what is not. This is called “finding the yes in the no.”

· Before you talk again with the person who has asked you to do something, consider practicing the conversation you want to have with a friend, “listening buddy” or a coach.

· Schedule time with the person who has asked you for a “yes” on something. Summarize your understanding of what was asked to make sure you and the other person are in the same place on the request. If not, ask clarifying questions and check out your new understanding until you and the other person are in agreement on the scope of what is being asked of you. Once you are both clear on the request, negotiate the yes, the no, or the yes-in-the-no in whatever way is best for you. With the yes-in-the-no option, things that sometimes become relevant include. . .

o Pushing out the timeframe for whatever is being asked of you

o Pushing out other pieces of work so that what you are now being asked to do can be accomplished sooner

o Working with someone else to take over other things you are working on which could be done by them while you tackle whatever the new request is

o Working with someone else to accomplish the new “ask” together

· Whatever the agreement is that you end up with, summarize it and put it in writing so that you and the other person share a common understanding of what has been decided

· Recognize that this process may be uncomfortable for you initially, and you are likely to not do it as well as you might wish. It’s OK. Do your best, stay as transparent, authentic and open as possible, be a learner and keep working to develop confidence and competence with this important skill-set.

7. Stop trying to be “perfect” with everything and everyone.

I believe that most of us get up every day and do our best to get along with others, do our best work and in general, behave as kind, respectful and responsible people. I also believe it’s a human feature to want to grow and develop. Most of us are probably working on something related to being a better person, a better employee, a better boss, a better friend, a better partner, a better parent, a better child. . . Some of us take this human feature of wanting to grow and develop to extremes. No matter what we attempt and accomplish, or how “good” we try to be, our efforts and results fall short of the goals we establish. Inevitably, even with our good intentions, we sometimes end up letting people down who matter to us.

I am 100% supportive of people working to grow and address their blind spots. It’s the “trying to be perfect” part that feels problematic to me. Striving for perfection is an inward-facing activity. If most of my emotional bandwidth is taken up by trying really hard to be perfect with everything I do and with everyone around me, it doesn’t leave much space for paying attention to anyone but myself. There’s not much joy in that, for us or for the people with whom we live and work.

When we are “hooked” on being perfect, I think we may also be strongly attached to a need for approval from others. It’s a circular problem, and many people get stuck there. We yearn for approval and try everything we know to get it. We make mistakes and we let people down. Then we try harder to be “perfect” in hopes of getting the approval for which we are hungry. We end up being so focused on ourselves that we lose sight of being there for the other person in an authentic, meaningful way.

Instead of trying to be perfect with everything and everyone, I suggest taking a learner’s stance. You’re still responsible for doing your best, but your learner’s stance frees you up to try something, come up short, learn from the experience and try again. It’s also possible that if you are able to forgive yourself for not being “perfect”, it may free you up to stop judging yourself so harshly when your best intentions and efforts don’t work out so well. I find that when we stop judging ourselves so harshly, it becomes more difficult to sit in judgment of others. This is another circular dynamic, but instead of leading to “stuckness”, taking a learner’s stance leads to greater peace of mind and a sense of everything becoming more “workable.”

8. Stop taking everything so personally.

Most of what I’ve learned about taking everything that happens personally comes from the work of Barry Oshry. Barry’s life work over the last 50 years or so has focused on the power and possibilities for individuals and groups living and working within systems.

(e.g. families, organizations, communities, churches. . . )

From Barry’s work, I learned about what he calls the Side Show and the Center Ring. I will give you a short “snippet” of his Side Show/Center Ring ideas here, and suggest you google Barry Oshry and read his books for more enlightenment!

If you think about going to a circus, where do the REALLY BIG things take place – in the side shows or in the center ring? Center Ring, of course. The circus side shows are usually the place you find the acts like walking on coals, swallowing a sword, fire eating, etc. The Center Ring has the high-flying trapeze artists, acrobatics, magic shows, tightrope walking. . . the really big, exciting events.

For many of us, we spend our time and energy operating in side shows when interacting with other people. Something happens between us and another person, and instead of trying to understand why he/she is behaving as they are and work to sort things out between us (that would be taking a Center Ring stance), we reflexively move to the Side Show. From there, we make up a story about the other person. The story is rarely positive. Once we have our story created, we blame, judge, whine, complain and find creative ways to emotionally “opt out” of the relationship, feeling like a victim and with no serious consideration of our part in whatever way the situation went off track.

If you recognize yourself in this description of the Side Show, you have lots of company. All of us go there from time to time. Here’s what works better.

· Work on learning to notice when you start making up a story about another person’s actions or behavior.

· Once you’ve noticed you’re on the way to the Side Show, ask yourself. . .

o Why might a reasonable person have behaved that way?

o What might be going on here that I should find out more about?

o Practice empathy (walking in someone else’s shoes, stretching to see the issue from the other person’s position)

o Suspend judgment and ask clarifying questions to find out more about what you don’t know

o Assume positive intentions from the other person and declare your intentions as well

o Look for how you may have inadvertently (or maybe on purpose) contributed to the problem between you and the other person