EPISODE 413: Dr. Paulette Dale Teaches Women in Sales to Maximize Impact with Assertive Communication

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Women in Sales Webinar sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on September 22, 2021. It featured Paulette Dale, PHd, the author of “Did You Say Something, Susan?]

Register for the IES Women in Sales Leadership Forum here.

Find Paulette on LinkedIn here.

PAULETTE’S TIP FOR EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “We have to step out of our comfort zone, ladies. We hear that so much, but it’s not a meaningless platitude. We need to step so far out of our comfort zones that we have trouble finding our way back. If it feels a little uncomfortable, so what? When I started to be assertive, I felt very uncomfortable. But then I started to see the gains and the feelings of liberation I had, and people’s respect for me increased and I liked it. It’s a risk-reward type of thing.”


Gina Stracuzzi: I’m with the guest of the day, Dr. Paulette Dale. Paulette, I’ve been so eager to talk to you. Dr. Dale wrote a book a while ago called, Did You Say Something, Susan? To me, that is the epitome of a lot of the discussions that happen in the forum. Women say that even in the best environment, they’re still getting talked over and either between utter frustration or just having their confidence zapped or whatever the case is, they don’t end up speaking up. I love the tagline that you had, “This is for every woman that ever sat on her tongue” because I think that everyone can relate to that. Welcome, Dr. Dale.

Paulette Dale: Thank you, Gina, it’s a pleasure to be here. Just to clarify, the line I think you’re referring to is, “Did You Say Something, Susan? Is for every woman who has ever kicked herself for what she should have said in a situation.” If that’s what you were referring to, thank you.

Gina Stracuzzi: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got here.

Paulette Dale: Thank you, Gina. My greatest passion is giving women tools and tips and tactics or helping them to empower themselves. Nobody can empower you for you, you’ve got to do it yourself, but we all need coaches and we all need suggestions and counseling. That’s my passion. I was a college professor for 35 years influencing thousands of students going into all different professions. I saw that many of them lacked the confidence and lacked the courage to speak up in any given situation over 35 years in my career as a professor.

What I’m most proud of, Gina, is I was given a shout-out on the floor of the United States Congress, it was documented in the Congressional record by the honorable congresswoman, Carrie Meek who praised me for devoting my life’s experiences to helping empower women, gain courage and confidence through assertive communication. That’s a little bit about me.

Gina Stracuzzi: Congratulations, that’s a nice testament to your work, it must feel good.

Paulette Dale: Yes, it does. Thank you so much.

Gina Stracuzzi: Talk to us a little bit about yourself. Have you always been assertive or is this something that you’ve learned to do throughout your career?

Paulette Dale: Have I always been assertive? The short answer is no [laughs] no one is born assertive. Assertive communication is a learned skill that we can hone and improve with practice. I didn’t always have the confidence to speak up, but I did it anyway. It’s the old dilemma, Gina. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Or in this case, which comes first, feeling confident or speaking up? Do we feel we have to have confidence before we speak up? I learned that speaking up made me feel empowered, liberated and confident. I liked the feeling and I wanted to do more of whatever it was that was going to trigger those feelings in me.

I’d like to just say now that a vast body of psychological research supports the act-as-if strategy. Basically, psychologists recommend that if you want a quality, act as if you already have it. That’s what I did. Little by little, I became the confident, assertive woman that I like to consider myself to be.

Gina Stracuzzi: That really goes back to the ‘fake it until you make it’ mindset which does work. What led you to write your book on assertive communication for women?

Paulette Dale: After years of observing all the women in my life – students, family members, friends, colleagues – I started to see that these brilliant, talented and beautiful women who you would think would have all the confidence in the world didn’t. They didn’t say no to inconvenient or inappropriate requests, they hesitated to speak up for themselves in a variety of situations when they were being taken advantage of. I realized they need some guidance on what to do and how to overcome this. I put that on the back of my head.

One day, I was having breakfast with a dear friend who said to me, “Paulette, why is it that people feel they can insult me, kick me, say inappropriate things to me whenever they want to but they don’t do that to you?” and my answer to my friend was immediate. I said, “Because you let them.” People will treat you the way you teach them to treat you. My friend said to me, “Can you please teach me how to teach people to treat me?” and I said, “I can’t do this over breakfast.” [Laughs] She said, “Why don’t you write a book?” That was the catalyst, and I did.

Gina Stracuzzi: It’s good a reason as any and you are so right, because through the work I do for the Institute, I meet so many talented, brilliant women who, for whatever reason – socialization or maybe the culture in their company or maybe they’ve never learned to say no – they let these things happen to themselves. It’s a hard mirror to look in, but we all need to look into it because a lot of times when we first arrive at the workplace, we don’t even realize we’ve got this conditioning and we let it happen. Then it’s harder to backtrack than to put it into place in the beginning. Do you find that a lot of women will say, “I get accused of being overly-aggressive, pushy or shrill?” Or whatever lovely words that get used to describe women that have an assertive nature.

Paulette Dale: Absolutely. Gina, I wish I had a nickel for every time our polite, appropriate assertiveness has been met with criticism. This criticism might take the form of being called the B word – we all know what the B word is – or being called aggressive, inappropriate. In a way, these types of criticisms are really a form of gaslighting. These people are gaslighting us, these verbal bullies want us to doubt ourselves, they want us to believe the criticism. They want to intimidate or shame us into passivity, they liked us a lot better before when we were silent people-pleasers doing their bidding. What they’re really saying to us, ladies, when they call you the B word or they call you aggressive when you were appropriately assertive is, “I’m intimidated by the fact that you have a strong opinion and I’m not sure how to handle your confidence.” That’s a lot of the reasoning why we’re called this word.

Gina Stracuzzi: I agree, and it’s okay when men are aggressive within the context of work. I often kid that assertive just has a better PR agent than aggressive. It’s really how it’s used and when it’s used and for whatever reason, which goes completely in line with what you’re saying. It’s usually people that feel threatened by an assertive person, male or female, that feels the need to try to put them down or say something to knock the legs out from underneath you. It takes strength, and that’s the practice piece, is keeping that positive attitude and tuning out the bullies so that you can grow that confidence muscle that you were talking about. What would be your advice for women who are struggling with being assertive when they need to, or speaking up in a meeting when people are speaking over them or they just shut them down every time they try?

Paulette Dale: Let me answer that in a moment. I’d like to give some suggestions on how to handle first, which I think you’re also implying in your question, the criticism of being called aggressive when we’re simply being assertive. This piece of advice is we need to refuse to allow anyone to rattle our emotional cages. Remember, bullies win when we’re upset. We can respond assertively and throw the ball back into their court by asking them politely and respectfully to please clarify. You’re called aggressive, “You got to stop being so aggressive” when you politely refused a request, let’s say. You might say something like, “That’s an interesting perception, I’d like to understand better. Why do you say I’m aggressive?” It makes them start to have to analyze it. Generally, they won’t have any response.

We can also use humor, we can smile and chuckle and say something like, “I’m so surprised that you would find a confident woman to be aggressive. Is that threatening to you somehow?” It’s a good one. Generally, you’re met with silence. Those are my favorite responses to when we’re inappropriately called aggressive. So many women, because they don’t want to be called aggressive, they don’t realize it’s a form of gaslighting and they don’t become assertive because they’re afraid of it being construed as being aggressive. So they go too far the other way, they go too far backwards to being yes-people and people-pleasers because they want to be liked by everybody. But being liked and being respected are not mutually exclusive, we can be liked and respected at the same time.

Gina Stracuzzi: Some of what you were saying reminds me of the advice we give our children when they’re dealing with a bully at school. Don’t rise to the occasion, try to engage them otherwise, and it’s the same kind of thinking. If you can do that, and it’s really as you so succinctly pointed out, look them in the eye and say something. I can remember a gentleman once, I was asserting my opinion and I had a solution for the issue and he said, “You’re so aggressive.” “Thank you.” [Laughs] he was stymied because he wasn’t expecting that, he wanted me to shut down and so I just said thank you and I went right on saying what I was saying.

Paulette Dale: He wanted you to become defensive, exactly.

Gina Stracuzzi: Yes, and that’s I think where a lot of women get stuck. They know not to be defensive but then either their spirit is just dampened, death-through-a-thousand-cuts kind of thing or they get concerned about speaking up again. They know what they have to do, but they don’t feel like the environment is hospitable. Let’s talk a little bit about that. What advice do you have for women who might find themselves in a less-than-hospitable environment where there’s a lot of men in the room and maybe just themselves or one other woman? One thing we hear a lot is you say something and everyone just turns, stares and looks at you and nobody says anything. Then they just go on like you never even spoke. Do you have advice for that?

Paulette Dale: I do. You say, “Excuse me, I have a suggestion I’d like to make” or if the meeting leader asks for questions, “Yes, I have a suggestion.” You present your suggestion or your idea, and you get blank stares like you’re talking now and then the meeting leader is ignoring you and says, “Okay, who else has something to say?” Say, “Wait a minute, excuse me. How do you feel, what are your thoughts about my idea?” Try to bring it back, nicely, politely, assertively. “Yes, but before we move on to the next topic, I would really appreciate some feedback on what I just said. Does anyone have anything to add to what I just said or to improve upon in?” Then if you just get stares, you just get stares but you look good. You’ve exerted an executive presence.

Remember, we have no control over other people’s behaviors, we only have control over our own. Even if you don’t get further comments, you have shown that you’re confident, you have courage and you’ve exerted an executive presence. That’s a good thing as opposed to, “Oh, my, nobody liked what I had to say, I just want to fall through a hole in a trap door in the floor and never show my face again.” No.

You had mentioned what do we do about when we’re interrupted, for example, or you know you’re going to be interrupted at a meeting, or certain team members don’t let you get through what you had planned to say. There’s a couple of good strategies for that. If you are in good terms with the meeting leader, you might talk to the meeting leader, whether it’s man or woman, before the meeting and say, “So-and-so have a habit of interrupting me and not letting me finish what I’m saying. I appreciate if you could as the meeting leader say, please hold your comments to later or please let Jane finish what she’s saying before you contribute.” That’s a possibility.

You can speak to the offender if someone is known to be a habitual offender. “Joe, I’d appreciate if you would let me finish what I’m saying before you interject, please don’t interrupt me while I’m speaking.” If you don’t feel comfortable doing either of those or either of those are not appropriate, while you’re speaking, if someone interrupts you while you’re in the middle of expressing an opinion, an idea or even asking questions, you hold up your hand and you go, “Oh.” Smile, always smile. “I know you’re enthusiastic about making your point, I’m looking forward to hearing it. Please let me finish what I’m saying and I will recognize you and ask questions when I’m done. Okay? Thank you, I appreciate it.” And again, eye contact, smiling, “Please let me finish. I will recognize you when I’m finished, thank you so much” and pause. That generally works.

There are times when it won’t, and you know what? You again have shown executive presence. Then the other person looks bad. There’s just so much you can do, and even though assertive communication might not always work – because let’s face it, nothing always works – you know what it always does, Gina? It always leaves you feeling better about yourself. For me, that’s where I get my sense of empowerment from, feeling better about myself.

Gina Stracuzzi: One of the facilitators of the communication session of the forum, she has a strategy too that I quite like. She gets to a meeting a little bit early so that she makes sure that she’s there when people start to come in. For the habitual offender who is always either hogging all the time or talking over people, she will wait until that person comes in and there’s a couple other people in the room. She will say, “Bob, I know how enthusiastic you are and you always have so many great ideas to share. I just wonder how much time you think you’re going to need today, because I have a couple things I want to speak about too.”

She said, almost without fail it works because you’ve put them on notice that you recognize it, and you’ve done it in front of people in a very professional and polite manner. As you say, eye contact, smiling, so it’s not adversarial, and they don’t really have a lot of room to do anything other than grant you your request because otherwise, then they look like a jerk.

Paulette Dale: That’s right, and you were polite. That’s the difference between assertive and aggressive which so many people don’t understand. Assertiveness is when you respect your rights. You’re important and you respect the other person’s rights, they’re important too. Just like you indicated, “Bob, I know you have a lot of valuable information to share and it will be very interesting for us all to hear it.” You’re making them important, you’re respecting them. “And I’d like to know how much time you’re going to need, because I want to be sure you’re going to have the opportunity, and I have a lot of important things to say too.” It’s win-win, I respect you, you’re important, I’m important.

An aggressive communicator would say, “Bob, you’re always interrupting and you’re always so impolite. Can you just keep your mouth shut until I’m done speaking?” [Laughs] that’s pretty aggressive. That makes you the important one and the other person nothing, and that’s what an aggressive message is. “I’m important, you’re nothing.” An assertive message is, “I’m important, you’re important.” A submissive or passive message is, “I’m nothing, you’re the important one.”

Even the world-renowned Mayo Clinic on their health website talks about assertive communication is the healthiest communication style. It has so many health benefits, it reduces stress, it reduces feelings of resentment, it increases your feeling of empowerment – I’m citing from the Mayo Clinic website – of self-esteem, self-respect. I have a section in my book, Did You Say Something, Susan? on research but written in a very one-on-one conversational way on how assertive patients actually get better medical care than non-assertive patients. There’s so many benefits to learning the skills involved in assertive communication.

Gina Stracuzzi: I love that you brought in the health aspect of it, because going back to that analogy of death through a thousand cuts, if we let these little micro aggressions happen to us day in and day out, they weigh on us and they beat us down even if we’re not fully aware of it. That has health implications.

Paulette Dale: Yes, it does. If you go to the Mayo Clinic website and you put in ‘assertive communication’ you’ll get all this great stuff which validates all of us who are communication experts and who encourage this and teach these skills.

Gina Stracuzzi: For younger women that are coming up in the ranks, what advice would you give them to start off on the right foot and put into practice these efforts to be assertive, even if it’s a little bit difficult. The fake-it-till-you-make-it idea.

Paulette Dale: We have to step out of our comfort zone, ladies. We hear that so much, but it’s not a meaningless platitude. We need to step so far out of our comfort zones that we have trouble finding our way back. If it feels a little uncomfortable, so what? When I started to be assertive, I felt very uncomfortable. But then I started to see the gains and the feelings of liberation I had, and people’s respect for me increased and I liked it. It’s a risk-reward type of thing.

If you want to say no to an inconvenient request, say no politely, respectfully. One of my favorite techniques, especially for younger women who want to be liked and feel that they have trouble saying no, I call it the sandwich approach. Top layer, meat, bottom layer. Top layer, thank you so much for asking me to chair the United Way Committee again for the fourth year in a row. I have to thank you, I appreciate it. I have too much on my plate right now, so I must decline – that’s the meat. Then the bottom piece of bread for the sandwich is, but again, I appreciate your thinking of me. Thank you so much and good luck, I’m sure you’ll find someone else to do it.

Whatever it is, thank you so much for asking me to borrow a hundred dollars. I’m unable to make any loans at this time. Again, I do appreciate your thinking of me. You’re polite, you’re respectful, you’re thanking them and you’re saying no. I find that women who tell me they really have trouble saying no can say no when they use the sandwich approach.

Gina Stracuzzi: That is a new analogy. I can safely say I’ve never heard that one before, but I like it very much. We always like to ask our guest for pieces of advice that they can put into place today, ways they can start thinking or activities they can do. What do you have for us?

Paulette Dale: Of course, I recommend a good guide on assertive communication.

Gina Stracuzzi: I can attest to that.

Paulette Dale: Like Did You Say Something, Susan? Which is full of actionable tips and strategies that you can put into practice immediately. With that said, my biggest piece of takeaway advice today is – which I discussed in the response to your original question on if I was always assertive. Don’t wait to feel completely comfortable with the thought of asking questions or speaking up for yourself. Pretend you already feel comfortable and the confidence will come later, it will. Act as if, it worked for me and it will work for you too. Thank you.

Gina Stracuzzi: I will say that I can attest to her book, it’s something that I have put in the forum, highly suggested reading and we highlight it on the LinkedIn post that we do each Thursday where we recommend a book or a webcast or a TED Talk. It has gotten a lot of great feedback, so I highly recommend that. How can people get ahold of you?

Paulette Dale: I’m on LinkedIn, my email is in the book, it’s pwdale@aol.com. I’m there for you, please message me any time. I always respond.

Gina Stracuzzi: It has been an absolute delight to talk to you. From the minute someone suggested your book, I have been eager to have this conversation because as I said, it’s so much of what we address in the forum. I really appreciate the thoroughness to which you’ve covered the topic and all the great advice you’ve given us. I hope that you’ll come back some day and see us again. Until then, thank you and thank you, everyone. Take care, and we’ll see you next week.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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