Imagine you are in a roller coaster perched at the edge of the first big drop. You sit back in your seat and feel the harness strapped securely around you. All you can see before you is blue sky. Sitting in your imaginary coaster car, look around. What do you see? While some people have their eyes squeezed shut as they white knuckle the bar in front, others have their hands in the air grinning like a dog with a juicy bone.
How about you? Is your stomach in knots? Are your muscles clenched? Can you hear your pulse racing in your head? Have you broken into a cold sweat? What is your level of stress?
Though this is a little different from the kinds of stress we experience at work, the physical responses can be the same. How much stress we can handle and how we approach it is very personal. While one person seems to embrace stress, another may slip into a corner to cry softly until lunch time.
Regardless, one thing remains true for everyone: when stress levels are at a point we cannot handle, diseases like depression, high blood pressure and heart disease are the result.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines stress as:
“The harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources or needs of the worker.”
It can feel like you are perched at the top of the first drop on the roller coaster with your eyes shut tight.
While a massage on a lovely tropical beach could help keep workplace stress out of your headspace, we’d like to give you a cheaper and more practical way of reducing stress at work on a daily basis: communicating assertively and with honesty.
You may think the easiest route to not getting stressed is to be an easy going, “go with the flow so everyone likes me” kind of person. While this makes everything seem stress free right now, it increases stress in the long term.
When you always go with the group decision to avoid conflict, you send a message that your thoughts and feelings aren’t as important as those of others. You give the group permission to ignore your wants and needs should you happen to express any.
On the other hand, there is such a thing as being too assertive. Aggressive communication projects a feeling of superiority without regard to the needs, feelings or opinions of others. It’s threatening, intimidating and makes you a bully. You may get what you want in the short term but it erodes long term trust and respect.
Instead, aim for a communication style Goldilocks would be proud of: not too laid back, nor too aggressive, but something in the middle that is just right.
Like love, assertive communication is patient and kind. It is not aggressive. It is not mean. It means saying no (with kindness) if the request is something you cannot or do not want to do. It is diplomatic. It shows you respect yourself enough to express your thoughts and feelings. It shows you are willing to work with others and respect their rights. It boosts self-esteem and earns others’ respect.
Here are a few ways to bump up the assertive in your communications:
Use “I” statements. It lets others know what you’re thinking without sounding judgmental. Instead of “You’re wrong.” try, “I disagree.”
Just Say No . . .
If you are a please everyone type who gets hives when you contemplate saying no to a request, try saying, “No, I can’t do that now.” If an explanation is required (most times it is not, you just feel like you need to explain yourself), keep it brief and honest. A simple “No thank you.” can work wonders.
. . . With Tact
Did the boss give you an aggressive deadline you know you cannot meet? Instead of saying yes to make the boss happy, then not delivering and ruining your credibility, try saying, “No, I cannot make this deadline. By the end of the day I will reply with an alternate deadline I know I can meet. Will this work?”
Match Your Body Language
Make sure your non-verbal communication is clear and matches your words. Your posture should be upright and confident. Maintain eye contact and a neutral (or positive) facial expression. Don’t use body language that undermines confidence like slumped shoulders, fidgeting or wringing hands.
Always be clear about what you want. If you just want the report finished by 5pm, that’s great. If you want if back by 5pm stapled, bound and in triplicate, you’d better say so. Eliminate mystery surrounding what you want and don’t expect other people to read your mind. There is comfort in knowing others understand your needs.
Protect Personal Space
Does negative chatter around the water cooler stress you out? Make a clear statement that you will not engage in gossip and hearsay: “That’s interesting but I personally prefer to talk to people and not about them. I understand your point and think you should talk to Mike directly.”
Commit or Decline but Don’t Hedge
Watch out for making soft promises – “Yes, but only if . . .” Soft promises sound good because they begin with yes but in your heart you know it’s a nice way of saying “No.” You hear yourself say hedging words like maybe, soon, possibly, probably and “I’ll try.” Be honest in your response.
When you receive hedging responses from others it reduces stress to realize it is unintentional. They just don’t want to disappoint you by saying “No.” When you hear hedging words in a response, let the other person know honesty is okay.
Assertive communication comes down to you. Only you are accountable for your words. As you practice becoming more assertive in your communication you will begin to express your needs, preferences and true feelings with ease.
Be clear and honest with your communication and reduce the stress that comes with feeling you cannot control your obligations at work. On this roller coaster of life, it’s good to be on the edge grinning from ear to ear.