It was the first day of my new job as executive assistant to an accomplished PR executive. Excited and eager to impress, I was ready to jump onto the already fast-moving press machine in our department. Lucky for me, her former assistant was there to train me. It wasn’t long into my mini-orientation, however, that I learned about some ground rules that were not listed on the job description. Rules such as, getting to the office before my boss each day to open her blinds, being at my desk at exactly 8:45 am in time for her morning call, finding someone to cover her phone line any time I stepped away to use the restroom and bringing my boss’s lunch to her in meetings every day.
As a 24-year old junior employee, I wasn’t sure what to make of these unofficial job responsibilities. Although I believed in paying my dues, I didn’t go to college to be anyone’s doormat. But how would I have a conversation with my boss without coming off as lazy and entitled or like an angry black woman?
Luckily (or maybe unluckily) for me, I have more pride than fear. Within a few weeks into my role, I scheduled a one-on-one with my Vice President boss. I explained that I did not feel comfortable bringing her lunch in meetings because it made me feel like a servant. That still remains one of the toughest conversations I’ve ever had at work. I can still see her eyes widen and her look of being utterly taken aback (maybe even offended). Ultimately, we agreed on a compromise – I would get her her lunch BEFORE meetings (hey, I was still an assistant). And I’m proud that I stood up for myself and set boundaries.
Since then, I have learned a thing or two about having tough conversations without coming off like the angry black woman. Practicing these techniques continue to serve me well:
Address the issue right away
Schedule a meeting to talk to the person you have a conflict with as soon as possible. If you allow the issue to fester you will only grow more incensed.
Take a breath and practice what you’re going to say
Call up the most rational and level-headed friend you know, explain the situation and practice what you want to say. Have your friend give you genuine feedback. This not only helps you to structure your points in a logical way, it also helps to defuse some of your steam. By the time you actually talk to the person, you will be in a much calmer state of mind.
Lead with the positive
No matter what the person said or did to you, find something positive about working together and lead with that. This sets the stage for a constructive conversation structured on how you can both work to solve a problem together. In my case, I let my then boss know how happy I was to be a part of the team and how grateful I was for the role.
Although you should begin the conversation on a positive note, don’t let this deter you from laying the issue out on the table. Be direct about what the issue is and how you can work to solve it. A technique I learned in business school from the book Lift by Robert Quinn, is to ask yourself these four critical questions before you address any conflict:
- What result do you want to create?
- What would my story be if I were living the values I expect of others?
- How do others feel about this situation?
- What are three (or four or five) strategies I could use to accomplish my purpose for this situation?
Propose a solution that works for both of you
No one wants to talk to a person who approaches them to pick a fight. Come to the chat with a proposed solution that considers the other person’s perspective. In my case, I was well aware that my boss was a busy executive who didn’t always have time to grab her own lunch. That said, I felt the door to door delivery service was a bit much. So I proposed that we work out a new system that would still support her schedule but allow me to feel like an assistant not a delivery girl.
It’s never simple to deal with conflict, but it does get easier. I’ve found that taking a breath and practicing each of these tips has helped me to navigate tricky office politics while preserving relationships.