“We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch.
Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”
― E.E. Cummings
We all want to be taken seriously. We want to know that our work matters, and that other people appreciate how much it matters too. We want to be able to walk into a room confidently, feeling like we belong there and that people are listening when we speak.
And often, we do feel that way. But who hasn’t also experienced that moment of hesitation — a split second of self-doubt — before presenting a project or idea, and wondered, “Wait, is this a terrible idea? Are they going to laugh at me?”
I have; lots of times. And often, self-doubt lasts longer than a split second right before a presentation. It happens throughout every workday, when you wonder if you should approach that group of coworkers hanging out in the kitchen, or when you decide not to email your manager that suggestion for a website change.
We all want other people to like us and think we’re good at our jobs. But when we lack confidence in our own abilities, the way we interact with other people usually does little to inspire their confidence in us, no matter how good we are at our jobs. After all, people are people, and good communication matters just as much as good work.
So what’s the secret to walking tall and being someone that other people can take seriously? It’s about having the confidence to act like a leader (no matter what your title) and be someone who inspires good work and good feelings in other people.
Don’t undersell yourself
A common problem — especially among people who are new to the workforce, but many people suffer from it — is assuming in advance that you won’t be taken seriously.
Of course, assuming you won’t be taken seriously is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it changes how you act around your managers and peers. And many people, when feeling insecure about not being taken seriously, react with preemptive self-deprecation in order to soften the blow of rejection they expect to receive.
I used to do this all the time (and still catch myself sometimes). I would enter a meeting with an idea, and immediately start apologizing for my presence. I would think about all the reasons why my idea was stupid, and how my manager had probably already thought of it anyways, and she was going to be mad that I’d wasted her time — so my natural instinct was to apologize and start pre-agreeing with her that what I had to offer was bad, in an attempt to save face.
I’d say, “I know I’m new, and this is probably a dumb idea, but…”, thinking that when she agreed it was a dumb idea, it wouldn’t be so embarrassing.
But this is ridiculous, obviously. When you undersell yourself, you’re telling the other person that even *you* don’t believe in what you’re saying. So why should they?
By presenting yourself as less than you are, or underselling yourself or your ideas, you are eliminating opportunities and lowering your potential for success before you ever get close to them.
Attempting to save face in advance actually does nothing to save face at all. It hurts your reputation in the long run to be seen as the kind of person who can’t just speak up or share a good idea. A long introduction and self-deprecating explanation only works against you, making you seem more insecure and less sure of your ideas.
A lot of people who do this explain the behavior away as being polite or funny, but all it really is is a way of not standing behind your ideas fully. You’re undervaluing yourself, and therefore priming the other person to undervalue you and your ideas as well — and this kind of impression lasts.
If you really care about something, act like it. The more you believe in it, the more likely you are to convince the other person to believe in it too.
Use clear, appropriate communication
Who hasn’t sent an email (or a text, or an IM) in an effort to avoid an uncomfortable face-to-face conversation? I have. And it sucks.
Almost every situation in which you try to avoid an unpleasant conversation by skirting the issue or passively sending written communication when verbal communication is really necessary, usually just results in the conversation taking longer, and being more unpleasant, than it would have been before.
So why do we keep doing it? Because confronting people face to face is scary. Telling people things directly is scary too. It takes confidence to look someone in the eye and tell them exactly what they need to hear (even when it’s slightly uncomfortable) so many of us are all to happy to think of “good” excuses for why an email or IM will suffice.
But using an email when a meeting is necessary makes you look weak, and makes it so the other person isn’t getting what they need from you. And if you don’t help them get the information they need, they won’t be able to correct whatever problem it is they’ve been having, which means it will continue — so you’ll be back where you started, only now you’ll have a nagging feeling that you didn’t really do all you could to solve the problem the first time.
Imagine: maybe your boss has asked you to tell a colleague that their process for doing a certain task isn’t aligning with the rest of the team, and you need to train them on how you do it.
Rather than having a brief-but-uncomfortable meeting with your peer, you opt to send them an email.
Here are the problems with that strategy:
Email is notoriously misinterpretable. Without your body language and tone of voice to read, your peer has no idea if this is message is a polite suggestion or a you’re-about-to-be-fired alert. You may inadvertently cause them to panic or not take a situation seriously enough, either of which can hurt their ability to actually make the necessary changes effectively.
It takes way more time than a conversation. It usually takes longer to write this kind of complex information out. You have to explain the whole backstory, plus the reasons why your boss asked you to handle it, and then get into the details of explaining how you do things. What would take 10 minutes to layout and demonstrate in person, can easily take an hour to compose in an email. Do you think your manager wanted you to spend this long on this?
You deny your peer the learning opportunity of a conversation. If your peer doesn’t understand your email or needs more information, they have to either email you back (rather than just asking you a quick question in person) or get a meeting with you in person anyways so you can talk specifics. The odds that you’ll address all the person’s needs without a real conversation are so slim, so you’re doing them a disservice by not giving them an opportunity to talk and learn.
It’s not what your manager asked you to do. Sending an email is a passive route around an uncomfortable face-to-face conversation, and everybody knows what you’re doing when you do it. Not only does it make you look weak, then, but it’s also not complying with the task your manager assigned you. And that’s no good.
You’re making communication harder for the peer you are supposed to be helping, and wasting your own time and theirs. Don’t forget that this peer, if they get frustrated or confused, may go to your manager to see what’s up. Then your boss knows you tried to skirt this assignment, and your reputation is hurt with both the peer and with them.
Your boss now doesn’t take you seriously as someone who can follow through on assignments, and neither does the person you were supposed to train. You left them in the uncomfortable position of having to guess what you wanted them to do, and didn’t provide them with the leadership they needed.
Having a difficult conversation is just that — difficult — but it is by doing that difficult thing that you earn the respect of being taken seriously.
Don’t put obstacles in your own way
There are enough hard situations at work that we have to deal with without putting yourself in your own way too. When we try to avoid embarrassment or uncomfortable situations, we reveal that we’re not up to the regular challenges at work, and make things harder for ourselves — in the short run and the long run.
The real key to being taken seriously is simply to work hard and do good for other people. You can do one or the other and still be relatively successful, but you won’t have the strong, serious reputation that you could have if you combined the two.
By facing hard decisions head on, and communicating what you need to, when you need to, you’re demonstrating to everyone else around you that you are a leader. And a leader is someone who gets taken seriously, whether they’re the CEO or a first-year engineer, because they do the right thing.
I’m serious; you’re serious. :)
How do you know when you’re being taken seriously? What actions to do you take to make sure you’re seen as someone who can be trusted to rise to the occasion?