Through years of coaching executive women, I have found that my clients typically fall on opposite ends of a spectrum: on one end are women who need help recognizing the significant value they contribute to their firm and then finding their voice and speaking their truth more often and more assertively. On the other end are women who are confident about their value, have a strong voice and assertively speak their truth, yet find their peer and senior relationships are strained. The latter group’s year-end reviews are filled with words like “aggressive”, “uncollaborative”, “stubborn”, “combative”, and “emotional.”
Both groups of women are striving towards the same goal: to have a meaningfully impact, to make a difference, and to matter at work. Many of my articles focus on helping the former group of women, as I have hesitated to write about the latter group due to the backlash I anticipate will result from my approach. But if I am to be a role model in asserting my voice and speaking my truth, then I need to have the courage to write articles that help both groups of women.
Why do I think writing self-help articles for vocal, assertive women will cause backlash? Because there are questions people can rightly ask to challenge why I am advocating that these women change their behaviors at all:
If this woman was a man, would her behaviors result in strained working relationships? Doesn’t the strain come from her being judged against a different standard than men?
Why do women have to change when they are acting just like men? Why not write about how men should change their attitudes?
It is within these truths that I must help women succeed. As a coach, the only person I can directly impact is the woman I am coaching. I can provide feedback to senior management about the double standards that may exist at their firm, but only if asked, and it is not asked often. So I focus on what I was hired to do: help the woman I am coaching thrive within her current environment.
Coaching assertive women is often challenging because the goal is to change their unproductive behaviors while preserving, or even strengthening, what makes them so extraordinary: their unique voice and the confidence to express it.
Through trial and error, I have established a coaching approach that I have found to be impactful:
After fully listening to my client’s challenges and ensuring I understand them, I acknowledge that her work environment indeed may have a double standard — but I do not label it “sexist.” Once a coach uses that taboo word, she can expect her business prospects to plummet. I listen to her specific frustrations about her work environment and importantly, I validate that she is “allowed” to feel these emotions. This is distinctly different from agreeing with her — there may be some aspects of her work environment that I believe are indeed unfair and others that I believe are fair, but making that distinction is not my role as a coach. My role is to develop a keen understanding of the dynamics of her work environment, and her intentions vs. impact. The key to that understanding is listening and making her feel understood.
Once she feels understood, I ask what she wants to do to improve her working relationships. Often this leads to a discussion about changes she wants to see in others. And the rub there is that her colleagues’ behaviors may never change, or they won’t change unless her behaviors change first. As a coach, I diplomatically contend that I am not coaching others in her firm; I am coaching her. Given all she can truly control is her own behavior, we need to work together to figure out how she will behave differently in order to improve her own work environment.
Next we discuss her values and principles as this allows us to establish the boundaries of her behavior changes. I always commit to my clients that I will not suggest behaviors that go against their values or their principles.
Finally, we discuss behavior changes that will help her strengthen her working relationships while still allowing her to maintain her authentic voice and assert her truth. Then our discussion translates into her practicing new behaviors, in different scenarios, with different people. Along the way, we discuss what worked and what didn’t, and refine behavior changes from there.
My passion is to increase women’s impact in the workplace by helping them be their best selves. And I have chosen a career path that allows me to do that one woman at a time. As I publish articles that provide advice regarding how strong, assertive women can have even more impact, I am hopeful that readers will respect my focus on the only thing over which women have full control: their own behavior.
2 thoughts on “A Coach’s Dilemma: The Assertive Woman”
As always Lori, your articles are so insightful and deal with some challenging inconsistencies facing professionals – women and men alike.
You bring up some great points in this article – notably that whilst it may very well be true that an organization and other individuals within it need to change, at the end of the day, the most important and empowering thing to address is what your client has control over – herself. I think this is true of any type of counseling or coaching – for men and women alike.
I also think your mention of explicitly not using the word ‘sexist’ is very interesting. There is no doubt that the connotations around that word (and others like it) has an immediate and visceral reaction. I have found that this reaction can often cause those we are trying to work with to pull back or away entirely. It is not productive.
I have been trying to find ways to discuss issues of inequality, inconsistency and internal biases without using overly charged words. It is very, very challenging, but the issues themselves need to be addressed from a multi-faceted approach.
Thank you for your insight Lori!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Rachel, I so appreciate your comments and further insight on this topic. Thank you.