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How To Subtly Encourage Your Colleagues To Be More Confident

Are your coworkers self-sabotaging? Here's how to help them help themselves.

How To Subtly Encourage Your Colleagues To Be More Confident
[Photo: Flickr user Eduardo Otubo]

Have you made an effort to remove "weak" words from your vocabulary?

I have. In the past, I’ve liberally peppered my sentences with "Sorry, but . . . ," "I think," "Correct me if I’m wrong," "just," and other undermining phrases. Now, I try to deliver my opinions with as much confidence as I feel—which means cutting the qualifiers. It’s helped me become a better communicator and better portray myself as the successful, confident, and qualified person I am.

Needless to say, this small step has been a great career move. However, as I’ve made an active effort to improve my own language, I’ve noticed how many people sabotage themselves with their own words. So I made it a goal to help them see the light.

Now, before you accuse me of being selfless, let me assure you—I am not. Recently, I took a fantastic discussion-based class. Almost every single student began his or her contribution with, "I’m probably totally off-base, but . . . " or, "I think I’m reading too much into this, but . . . " or "Please don’t think I’m crazy, but . . . "

Then, they’d go on to voice an insightful, well-backed, eloquent analysis of the literature.

Luckily, the teacher refused to let them self-sabotage. He’d respond kindly yet firmly every single time, with something like, "Nonsense, Eliza, I think you’re right on track!" Or "That’s not silly at all, David, I love where you’re coming from."

There's no better way to put this: My classmates beamed. They'd sit up straighter, talk louder, and deliver their opinions with far more confidence than before. And you could see everyone in the room respond by leaning in and paying attention. The entire discussion would become more productive.

Productivity is good. And it’s the not-so-selfless reason I committed myself to helping others banish this vocabulary from their language.

Ready to do the same?

1. Responding To "I’m Sorry"

If your coworker prefaces a statement with an unnecessary apology, replying is easy. Wait till the person has finished talking, then say, "No need to be sorry," along with the rest of your answer.

When the person is junior to you, you can be even less subtle. Say, "Why would you be sorry? That’s a great point," or "Why apologize for asking a question?" You’re obviously being rhetorical, but to really drive the point home, pause as if you’re genuinely confused and want a response. Just make sure you do this with a smile—you want to be kind yet firm.

2. Responding To "I’m Probably Wrong, But . . . "

Whenever coworkers say they’re probably wrong (and they’re not), make it clear you believe in them and what they’re saying.

There’s a couple different variations on this statement:

  • "[Name], you’re not mistaken at all—your thoughts are 100% in line with [the data, my own thoughts, our experience]."
  • "In fact, [name], your instincts are spot on."
  • "Wow! I’m impressed by how closely your [estimate, opinion, belief] aligns with what I was thinking!"

3. Responding To "Does That Make Sense?"

I used to be a major abuser of "Does that make sense?" Checking in while I explained a difficult concept was helpful, but asking if my listener understood all the time implied I thought I was hard to follow.

Now, I reserve "Does that make sense?" for occasions I really need it. And when colleagues of mine overuse it, I’ve begun answering with:

  • "Oh, completely! I’ll let you know if anything comes up that I don’t get."
  • "[Name], you do a great job of communicating complex ideas with clear language and helpful examples."
  • "It does. I love how you explained [idea] like that; it made me understand right away."

4. Responding To "I’m No Expert"

I hear "I’m no expert" all the time in the office, especially from younger people. No, they’re not experts yet, but no one expects them to be—and adding this phrase to their comments just makes everyone else doubt what comes after before they’ve even heard it.

If you hear one of your colleagues saying, "I’m no expert," or something similar, try responding with:

  • "You’re certainly qualified to make that statement."
  • "If that’s what you come up with as ‘non-expert,’ I’m excited to see what you’ve got a couple years down the line."
  • "You might not be an expert, but I wouldn’t know it from that observation!"

These answers work whether you’re talking to a peer, a junior employee, or even someone slightly above you on the hierarchy. However, when you’re talking to a direct report, you’ve got leeway to say:

"I’ll let you in on a secret: None of us are experts."

Say this with a smile, and he or she will undoubtedly get the hint.

5. Responding To Statements That Are Actually Wrong

The above responses are great when the person is right—but what about when he or she is both insecure and wrong? No need to shoot him or her down. With a tactful, well-crafted answer, you can make him or her more confident without suggesting that, well, the response is right.

Here’s what I’ve been using:

  • "I’d never thought of it that way. Would you mind [walking me through your thought process, showing me how you got there, giving me more context]?"
  • "Oh, intriguing. Let’s go a little deeper: How did you arrive at that conclusion?"
  • "What a unique suggestion. I think you bring up a good point . . . "

Asking people to explain themselves usually lets them discover they’re off-base, so you don’t need to tell them. And when they do realize they’re wrong, you might say:

"No worries! It’s always really helpful to explore the problem from a different angle. In fact, I think you touched on a highly relevant point."

The more I use these responses, the more confident my team members seem to become. Not only that, I’ve started noticing other people adopt the same responses—so we’re all being more supportive of each other. And there are few things better than working collaboratively with people who support you.

This article originally appeared on the Daily Muse and is reprinted with permission.

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