“I need to stop being such a pushover,” my coaching client said.
I looked at the soft-spoken, whip-smart young woman in my office and sighed to myself. I think she’s crazy impressive, and I want her to see that in herself.
“Tell me about a time you were a pushover,” I said.
She described not challenging the talking heads in meetings, not correcting or contradicting her colleagues when their interpretation of the facts was slightly off.
“Do you want to correct people, to challenge people or do you feel like you should?” I asked.
“I guess I feel like I should,” she said. “But I don’t want people to think badly of me.”
I wondered aloud if we were looking at this all wrong. “What if this aspect of your personality is actually a strength?” I asked her. “What if it’s something you could develop, not something you should change?”
She mulled that over. “I don’t have any enemies,” she said thoughtfully. “People like working with me. People go out of their way to help promote my work, and have been quick to forgive when I do step on toes.”
“So, in fact, your behavior is very strategic,” I pointed out. “Having enemies, being in conflict — that can take up an inordinate amount of energy and time. You don’t waste time with any of that. Instead, you build goodwill.”
She agreed, describing stepping around a potentially contentious discussion with a colleague recently because it wasn’t worth the time. There was no upside for her.
“That’s actually very adaptive,” I said.
“Flexible,” she agreed.
“You seem so nice but you’re actually a wily b**** on the inside,” I teased her.
I asked her when it would be strategic to speak up in meetings or conversations. She described opportunities to teach, to expand on a point, to bring in a different perspective or the bigger picture.
“And would people think badly of you if you were to start doing more of this?” I asked.
“Not if it were done right,” she said, conceding that her input would actually be very welcome. She agreed to practice this teaching mindset, like working out a muscle, and would send me an email once a week with a story about how she intentionally expanded on a point during a work discussion.
“I like that we reframed ‘pushover,’” I said as we were wrapping up.
“It’s incredibly empowering,” she said.
She was probably just being nice.