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How Women Can Master the Art of “Respectful Truth-Telling” In The Workplace

It’s time for professional women to stop glossing over their feelings at work and tell the truth, assertively. Senior healthcare executive and speaker Jackie Gaines, M.S., R.N. shares tips to help women find their voices through “respectful truth-telling.”

What woman hasn’t suppressed her true feelings to avoid conflict at work? We’ve all headed off disagreements by bending our standards or biting our tongues once in a while (or maybe more often than we would care to admit). After all, we don’t want to be labeled the “A” word, aggressive. But Jackie Gaines says you can make yourself heard and influence your organization without being loud, rude, arrogant, or disrespectful.

“Many women truly believe they have a smaller range of acceptable behaviors than men,” says Gaines, author of Wearing the Yellow Suit: A Guide for Women in Leadership (Huron|Studer Group Publishing, 2020, ISBN: 978-1-62218-110-0, $24.00). “If they are too nice, they will be seen as weak or manipulative. If they are too aggressive, they will be judged as acting like men. The solution is to work on the skill of being assertive. Assertiveness enables us to think for ourselves, ask for what we need, and speak up.”

With assertiveness skills in their toolbox, women can learn how to better handle just about any situation that comes up—without seeming either shy or pushy. One such skill is “respectful-truth telling,” which simply means expressing your feelings and needs in a direct, honest way.

“When you need to have a difficult conversation with someone, it’s best to be prepared,” says Gaines. “Having an idea of the actual words you plan to use ahead of time makes the experience easier and will help you feel calm and in control during the discussion.”

Below are four examples of “respectful truth-telling” that you can add to your assertiveness toolbox. Once you have some experience speaking your mind while still being respectful to the other person or people, you will find your own words to use. But for now, here is some language to get you started.

Situation: How to say “no”
Respectful Truth-Telling:

  • No, but thanks for thinking of me.
  • I am not comfortable with that.
  • Your timing is not good; maybe another time.
  • Thank you for this opportunity, but this really does not work for me right now.
  • This is not the right direction for me. Thanks anyway.

Situation: Asking for what you want
Respectful Truth-Telling:

  • I am confused. Can you help me understand?
  • Excuse me, can I have ______?
  • I could really use your support in ______.
  • Can we talk about an area where I need some additional support or resources?

Situation: Response when you are put down in front of other people
Respectful Truth-Telling:

  • (Privately) Can we discuss what happened in the meeting today? When you said ______, it made me feel ______. (Remember to discuss only how their remarks made you feel. No one can take that away from you.) I would have appreciated if it could have been said to me in private if you are concerned with my performance. Thank you for listening and allowing me to share.

Situation: Seeking common ground
Respectful Truth-Telling:

  • I can see why you believe the way you do. I am concerned about that too. I want the same things as you do. My solutions are difficult from yours because I came to believe something new from these particular experiences.

“Assertiveness is an art form that you can utilize and refine throughout your career,” concludes Gaines. “Although you might still be judged negatively by some for being direct and bold at any time, when you are diplomatically assertive, you are more likely to get what you want.”

About the Author:
Jackie Gaines is the author of Wearing the Yellow Suit: A Guide for Women in Leadership. (Huron|Studer Group Publishing, 2020, ISBN: 978-1-62218-110-0, $24.00) is available directly from the publisher at, at bookstores nationwide, and from major online booksellers.

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