Conventional wisdom is that success requires assertiveness. But especially for introverts (and also for others), craftily laying low can be wise. Here’s why:

We may feel obliged to respond to an assertive, even pushy person, but most of us don’t like to be pushed. So while we may accede to their demand, there usually are many opportunities to otherwise, more enduringly, thwart that person, for example, by keeping them out of the loop, not touting them to others, and subtly or not-so-subtly badmouthing them.

There’s a less obvious reason to embrace craftily laying low. Many Americans embrace cultural values in which humility and making others feel good are lauded, and willfulness and boastfulness, which can make others feel less-than are deprecated.

Of course, you shouldn’t be a milquetoasty doormat. The sweet spot between aggressiveness and undue passivity is what I call craftily laying low.


Make your points understatedly

Today, assertiveness and even being loud-and-proud are urged, especially for women, but my clients of both genders have usually found that to be less effective in the long run than to be understated.

Here’s why. If you suck up most of the energy in a conversation with your loud-and-proud pitch, you leave less room for them to feel ownership in the idea. So, for example, if you think an idea would be good for your client, your organization, whatever, briefly and modestly present it, ending with, “But what do you think?”

A variant: Send a draft of a work product that you’re proud of to someone whose favor you want to curry. Say something like, “This is a draft. I’m a little nervous about it. I value your opinion. What do you honestly think of it?”

Except perhaps with unusually aggressive people, being understated is more likely to engender the other person’s enthusiasm and perhaps willingness to adopt or promote it than if you make a loud-and-proud pronouncement.

Talk less than your share of the time

This is a corollary of the previous suggestion. In a two-person conversation, talk 20% to 40% of the time. In a four-person conversation, 10% to 20%.

Use the one-second pause

Especially if you’re ideationally fluent, there’s a tendency to interrupt a person or to speak the nanosecond the person finishes talking. That conveys that you’re less interested in what they said than in what you have to say — not a good way to gain support. Also, doing that may mean that you haven’t listened carefully enough to the end of their statement, let alone taken a moment to consider your response. If that instant response offers a solution to their problem, it conveys that you think their problem is so easy that you could solve it without even a moment’s reflection. All those can be avoided by getting in the habit of using the one-second pause: Don’t interrupt and when the person finishes; wait a full second before responding.

Be low-maintenance

Today, management and coworkers are likely to say that they value disagreement, openness, and sharing of feelings. But quietly, if you go beyond expressing those very occasionally, you may suffer. A reason is that, despite most people’s statements about caring, sharing, and community, most people, especially if they’re a busy person, are pretty maxed out just taking care of #1. They appreciate people who don’t require much time or effort. They especially appreciate people who make their life easier. Indeed, one of the best questions you can ask a boss or coworker is, “I’ve got a little extra bandwidth. Is there anything I can do to make your life easier?”

Criticize sparingly

This is a corollary of the previous item. Most of us claim to be open to criticism but, in fact, often resent it. No, you shouldn’t be a yes person but recognize that you pay a price when criticizing. Be sure it’s worth it, and couch it in face-saving terms, for example, “I wonder if I might offer a suggestion. (The person almost always says yes.) Then say, “I’m thinking that (insert criticism). Is there something I’m not understanding?”

Hide your opinions

Today, we’re very polarized on political, racial, and gender issues, perhaps even more so than may be apparent. You incur risk even when presenting a view you think the other person agrees with. That’s because many people publicly espouse a popular view but privately hold a different one. So, for example, let’s say you live in San Francisco, where most people espouse legalizing illegal immigrants, and a person says that but doesn’t really believe it. If you say that you agree, quietly that person may like you less and thus be less likely to support you. It’s safer to stay neutral with a response such as “I understand.”

The takeaway

In our ever more competitive world, success gurus, many of whom ironically rarely work in a real-world workplace, are touting ever more assertiveness: from power poses to speaking loud-and-proud. But based on my 5,500 career counseling clients and my own experience having worked in a variety of workplaces, even if you’re assertive by nature, you’d be wise to consider craftily laying low.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

Career and personal coach Dr. Marty Nemko’s 12 books, including Careers for Dummies (Wiley, 2018) are available.

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