After 25 years of working as the Personal /Executive Assistant to actress Olympia Dukakis, I know a few things for certain. One of those things is that issues of communication can make or break an assistant in our workplace. “Some of the best advice I have ever received regarding building successful relationships in the workplace and in life came from a dear friend who is a psychologist. She said “Do not reward bad behavior and it is important to be accountable and hold others accountable.”

To that end, I believe the single most important thing an assistant can do to improve her quality of life is to learn to speak up. Unresolved relationship and personality issues are the biggest problems that needs to be faced. There is too much bullying in our workplace and too much suffering in silence. Silence is the enemy.

Assistants know that miscommunications and misunderstandings can too easily spiral out of control, especially given the myriad of options that we have to “speak” with one another in our 24/7 virtual world.

In the “Be the Ultimate Assistant” workshops, the issue of speaking up is a hot topic, so much so that I decided to integrate a segment into the workshop that was no different to what each of us had done all those years ago back in school.

The assignment: “Stand up and tell us a work-related story. You have three minutes. Aim to have a beginning, a middle and an end.”

My students are always a diverse group of fascinating and inspiring individuals, each carrying a wealth of experience under their belt, and most, if not all, working with some of the most highly demanding employers. Behind the scenes they work their magic and turn each challenge into a triumph. They are unflappable warriors, and their drive to prevail is relentless.

The room went silent. The color in their cheeks vanished, their eyes dilated, blood pressures rose considerably and within minutes beads of sweat surfaced on their brow. All of a sudden the mood in the room changed. What was once relaxed and calm had been instantly replaced with a thick fog of anxiety and stress.

I can say with conviction, not one single student gave an iota of thought or even care about what topic their neighbor would be reciting. All the students could think of was “What on earth am I going to talk about?” and most likely “What are they going to think of my story?” and definitely “I hope I don’t mess up and look like a fool.”

These warriors all of a sudden lost their weapons of destruction and were thrown into a whole new arena, out of their proverbial comfort zone. If only they knew that their neighbor was feeling no different.

My goal is to break the uncomfortable silences in our workplace that are resulting in assistants quitting their jobs and employers financing a costly revolving door of staff. Speaking up feels like a risk but if done with forethought and planning, you are on your way to nothing short of satisfying professional empowerment. There will be no looking back or feeling like a victim anymore.
Speaking up does not have to be loud or mean or negative. It does have to be direct, specific, unemotional and aptly timed.

What’s the fix?

One of the important solutions we discuss is finding the specific words to say to your employer and co-workers when faced with a difficult or challenging situation.
I understand this problem first-hand both professionally and personally. I know what it feels like to be mute and paralyzed from:
1 not knowing the words to say and
2 fear of saying them out loud

What are we afraid of?
•losing our job
•being yelled at and verbally abused
•being publicly humiliated
•being thought of as stupid
•being thought of as a troublemaker

What are the Magic Words?
Speaking up requires mustering courage. When spoken out loud with sincerity, the following sentences can mend fences, diffuse tension, build strong relationships and open doors. These words communicated with respect and empathy will pave the way towards resolution.
• When the person you are speaking with is out of control, say: “This is clearly not a good time to talk. We can discuss this later.” And then calmly leave the room. Repeat as necessary.

•When there is a problem, say: “I know that we are having some communication problems. Can we set up a time to talk about it?”

•With employers and co-workers:
“Is there something bothering you? Would you like to discuss it?”
“What can I do to help you?”
“I want you to succeed. What do you want to achieve and how can I help you do that?”
“I want to be the best Assistant I can be for you. Let’s talk about what you need from me to help you achieve your goals.”

Assistants are some of the brightest and most resourceful people I know working on this planet. Finding your voice and speaking the words that need to be said transforms you into a leader. I am rooting for you all the way to find yours.

“Taming the Abrasive Manager: How to End Unnecessary Roughness in the Workplace” by Dr Laura Crenshaw, dubbed “The Boss Whisperer”
“Speaking Your Mind in 101 Difficult Situations” by Don Gabor
“Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson website by Gary Scholtz, a Boss Whisperer

Bonnie Low-Kramen is the founder of Ultimate Assistant Training and is one of the most respected thought leaders on workplace issues. She is a TEDx speaker, bestselling author of Be the Ultimate Assistant and Staff Matters, and her work has been featured ... (Read More)

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