Q: I work with someone who is very intimidating. She isn’t my boss, but she leads some projects I’m involved with. I find that I have trouble speaking my mind and behaving with confidence even though I’m the one with expertise. How do I handle this?
A: Establish your inner confidence and understand precisely what behaviors cause you to feel daunted in order to overcome this.
The inner game
Settle into a reflective state of mind, setting aside some time to think this through. Take some deep breaths, and open your mind to think about different possibilities.
Think first about the actual aspects of this individual that give you anxiety. Be specific: “The way she talks” doesn’t give much insight, but “she talks over me” can give you options for setting ground rules. These might not be behaviors: Someone with a more dominant style may be intimidating to someone who tends to a reflective or analytic style. Understanding this may help neutralize some of the emotion in the situation.
Next, consider her possible motivations. Do you think she is really trying to intimidate, or might she just be oblivious to the effect of her style? Some clues may lie in how she treats others, and seems to be perceived by them.
Finally, reflect on the aspects that you can control—your reactions. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, she’s getting under your skin, and it’s affecting your level of professionalism. It’s really up to you to decide whether you’re going to let that continue and, if not, make a plan of action.
The outer game
Actions will fall down a couple of different paths. Your behavior comes first. In situations like this, people can start to feel smaller and smaller; it’s hard, then, to stand up for yourself. One important step is to fully occupy your physical space. Sit and stand tall, breathe fully, speak with an open and full voice. Make direct but non-aggressive eye contact. These physical steps will help you feel more in control, and also send the message to others that you are in control. This matters on phone interactions, as well.
Then, in your next interactions, notice your responses. If you’re retreating, catch yourself, pause, and ask yourself what you need to do to remain solid. For example, if you’re in a meeting to discuss a project plan and she’s taking you off track, firmly but clearly bring the meeting back to the agenda.
The other path is building a better relationship with her. Consider setting a meeting with her to discuss ways you can work together more effectively. Bring specific examples of behaviors, such as interruptions, ignoring comments and using a disrespectful tone. Point out that these make it hard to work well together, and suggest establishing ground rules that eliminate these behaviors. If she’s not a bully, she’ll probably be very contrite and want to change. If she is, she’ll know you’re going to stand up to her. If it doesn’t work and the bullying behavior continues, then it’ll be time to escalate it.
The last word
This isn’t a quick fix, but changing your perspective and addressing her behavior will help.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.