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Inspiring others to do great work, and lead their best lives!

Stop Playing Small at Life and Work

12 Tips for Building Confidence and Personal Power
  • Stop apologizing unnecessarily.

People often say they are sorry for things over which they have no control, and for circumstances for which they have little or no responsibility.  Reserve your apologies for large mistakes that have damaged a relationship or an outcome that is important to you.  Be clear and specific about what it is that you are apologizing for, do your best to make amends, make a plan to not make the same mistake again, forgive yourself and let it go.

  • Stop using minimizing and “garbage” words and phrases.

Minimizing and “garbage” words and phrases are often used unconsciously, in an attempt to soften or diminish the impact of what we are saying.  For some, not wanting to be perceived as overly aggressive or “pushy” encourages us to use these types of words and phrases to make ourselves “small” enough to not call unwanted attention to what we have to say or contribute. 

Examples of minimizing and “garbage” words and phrases include the following. . .

  • It’s only my opinion, but. . .
  • This is “just” a thought I had. . .
  • You’ve probably already thought of this, but. . .
  • It really wasn’t anything hard to do. . .
  • I was probably just lucky that it turned out as well as it did. . .
  • Anybody could have done it (whatever “it” was!)
  • Um, you know, like. . . um. . . you know (garbage words, all strung together like Christmas lights)

Talk about this with someone you trust that can be your listening “buddy”.  Ask her or him to pay attention to the language that you use in your everyday communication and to give you feedback on how you sound.  Ask for the feedback to be private, timely, crisp and specific. 

Write down the feedback that you receive.  Work to “back-track” and determine what might have triggered you to use these types of minimizing and garbage words and phrases.  

Practice speaking without the garbage (substitute silence for those ums, you knows, like. . . )

Practice saying what you have to say by beginning with a phrase like these “starters”. . .

  • My idea for addressing this includes. . .
  • The data I have on this problem is xxx. . . Taking that into consideration, I suggest that we xxx. . .
  • It sounds as though you think the problem is xxx (summarize the other person’s viewpoint that has been expressed and check to see if your listening was accurate.  If yes. . . ) I see it differently and this is why. . .
  • I believe the best solution for this problem is xxx, and this is why. . .

Video tape yourself giving a presentation (easy enough with an iPad and a tripod).  Seeing is believing.  And whatever you see and hear, remember that it’s data that you are gathering.  When we are working on development areas, it’s progress, not perfection that we are after.

  • Stop giving a long, winding explanation of why you think the way you do

Take the time you need to determine the main point of what you have to say.  Back up your main point with two or three supporting pieces of information and communicate this info crisply and without using minimizing and garbage words and phrases.  When you are done, stop.  You can also ask for others’ input and feedback; do so without negating or diminishing what you have expressed. 

  • Stop prefacing what you have to say with a question.

Prefacing what you have to say with a question sounds like this. . . Don’t you think the best way to solve this problem is xxx?  That’s a statement masquerading as a question. 

The purpose of asking a question is to find out information that we don’t know, including how another person is thinking or feeling.  When we have already reached a conclusion or are taking a stand on something, prefacing our conclusion with a question feels to others like it’s a “gotcha”.  Sometimes people (particularly women) do this because they’ve been given feedback that they need to not come across so strongly.  They’ve been advised to ask more questions so that others believe that their input is wanted and valued.  Asking questions really is a good way to learn more about what others think, feel and value.  Keep your asking of questions separate from your expression of your own ideas.

  • Stop using “up-speak” – ending your statements as though they are questions.

When we end our statements as though they are questions, it can create a perception to others that we are timid and unsure of ourselves.  I lived and worked in Canada for a number of years.  Within my first year there, I received feedback that people sometimes felt a bit intimidated by me because of my “directness”.  One of the ways I softened what I had to say was by using “up-speak” – culturally, “up-speaking” was part of the Canadian way of communicating for both women and men.  Moving back to the U.S., I then had to un-learn this habit.  As with using minimizing and garbage words and phrases, have your listening buddy pay attention to whether you are ending your statements as though they are questions.  If yes, do your back-tracking to determine what is triggering this speech habit for you, and practice on making your statements as statements, in a clear, crisp and assertive tone of voice.

  • Stop automatically saying “yes” to everything that you are asked to do.

Years ago, I was given advice on this which I took seriously.  A colleague told me that if I was not able to say no when I needed to or wanted to, I would never be able to say yes to anything whole-heartedly.  That was good advice, and I pass it on to you to consider.

Instead of automatically saying “yes” to everything that you are asked to do, try this instead. . .

  • Pause before answering and take at least three deep breaths
  • Negotiate for the time you need and want to check your schedule and assess your ability to do whatever is being asked of you
  • Do that!  Check your schedule and check in with yourself about what you are thinking and feeling about taking on whatever has been asked of you.  When I am in this situation, I ask myself whether I can do what has been asked with a “happy heart”, or whether I’m just afraid to say no (that’s a subject for another time). 
  • Sort out for yourself what (if anything) is negotiable and what is not.  This is called “finding the yes in the no.”
  • Before you talk again with the person who has asked you to do something, consider practicing the conversation you want to have with a friend, “listening buddy” or a coach.
  • Schedule time with the person who has asked you for a “yes” on something.  Summarize your understanding of what was asked to make sure you and the other person are in the same place on the request.  If not, ask clarifying questions and check out your new understanding until you and the other person are in agreement on the scope of what is being asked of you. Once you are both clear on the request, negotiate the yes, the no, or the yes-in-the-no in whatever way is best for you.  With the yes-in-the-no option, things that sometimes become relevant include. . .
    • Pushing out the timeframe for whatever is being asked of you
    • Pushing out other pieces of work so that what you are now being asked to do can be accomplished sooner
    • Working with someone else to take over other things you are working on which could be done by them while you tackle whatever the new request is
    • Working with someone else to accomplish the new “ask” together
  • Whatever the agreement is that you end up with, summarize it and put it in writing so that you and the other person share a common understanding of what has been decided
  • Recognize that this process may be uncomfortable for you initially, and you are likely to not do it as well as you might wish.  It’s OK.  Do your best, stay as transparent, authentic and open as possible, be a learner and keep working to develop confidence and competence with this important skill-set.
  • Stop trying to be “perfect” with everything and everyone.

I believe that most of us get up every day and do our best to get along with others, do our best work and in general, behave as kind, respectful and responsible people.  I also believe it’s a human feature to want to grow and develop.  Most of us are probably working on something related to being a better person, a better employee, a better boss, a better friend, a better partner, a better parent, a better child. . . Some of us take this human feature of wanting to grow and develop to extremes.  No matter what we attempt and accomplish, or how “good” we try to be, our efforts and results fall short of the goals we establish.  Inevitably, even with our good intentions, we sometimes end up letting people down who matter to us.

I am 100% supportive of people working to grow and address their blind spots.  It’s the “trying to be perfect” part that feels problematic to me.   Striving for perfection is an inward-facing activity.  If most of my emotional bandwidth is taken up by trying really hard to be perfect with everything I do and with everyone around me, it doesn’t leave much space for paying attention to anyone but myself.  There’s not much joy in that, for us or for the people with whom we live and work. 

When we are “hooked” on being perfect, I think we may also be strongly attached to a need for approval from others.  It’s a circular problem, and many people get stuck there.  We yearn for approval and try everything we know to get it.  We make mistakes and we let people down.  Then we try harder to be “perfect” in hopes of getting the approval for which we are hungry.  We end up being so focused on ourselves that we lose sight of being there for the other person in an authentic, meaningful way. 

Instead of trying to be perfect with everything and everyone, I suggest taking a learner’s stance.  You’re still responsible for doing your best, but your learner’s stance frees you up to try something, come up short, learn from the experience and try again.  It’s also possible that if you are able to forgive yourself for not being “perfect”, it may free you up to stop judging yourself so harshly when your best intentions and efforts don’t work out so well.  I find that when we stop judging ourselves so harshly, it becomes more difficult to sit in judgment of others.  This is another circular dynamic, but instead of leading to “stuckness”, taking a learner’s stance leads to greater peace of mind and a sense of everything becoming more “workable.”

  • Stop taking everything so personally.

Most of what I’ve learned about taking everything that happens personally comes from the work of Barry Oshry.  Barry’s life work over the last 50 years or so has focused on the power and possibilities for individuals and groups living and working within systems. 

(e.g. families, organizations, communities, churches. . . )

From Barry’s work, I learned about what he calls the Side Show and the Center Ring.  I will give you a short “snippet” of his Side Show/Center Ring ideas here, and suggest you google Barry Oshry and read his books for more enlightenment!

If you think about going to a circus, where do the REALLY BIG things take place – in the side shows or in the center ring?  Center Ring, of course.  The circus side shows are usually the place you find the acts like walking on coals, swallowing a sword, fire eating, etc.  The Center Ring has the high-flying trapeze artists, acrobatics, magic shows, tightrope walking. . . the really big, exciting events. 

For many of us, we spend our time and energy operating in side shows when interacting with other people.  Something happens between us and another person, and instead of trying to understand why he/she is behaving as they are and work to sort things out between us (that would be taking a Center Ring stance), we reflexively move to the Side Show.  From there, we make up a story about the other person.  The story is rarely positive.  Once we have our story created, we blame, judge, whine, complain and find creative ways to emotionally “opt out” of the relationship, feeling like a victim and with no serious consideration of our part in whatever way the situation went off track.

If you recognize yourself in this description of the Side Show, you have lots of company.  All of us go there from time to time.  Here’s what works better.

  • Work on learning to notice when you start making up a story about another person’s actions or behavior.
  • Once you’ve noticed you’re on the way to the Side Show, ask yourself. . .
    • Why might a reasonable person have behaved that way?
    • What might be going on here that I should find out more about?
    • Practice empathy (walking in someone else’s shoes, stretching to see the issue from the other person’s position)
    • Suspend judgment and ask clarifying questions to find out more about what you don’t know
    • Assume positive intentions from the other person and declare your intentions as well
    • Look for how you may have inadvertently (or maybe on purpose) contributed to the problem between you and the other person
    • Take responsibility for your own behavior and actions
    • If you’ve made a mistake, own it, make amends as best you can and move on
    • See it all from a learning perspective and maintain a sense of humor

I promise you that adopting these types of “stands” will make a positive difference in your life and with your relationships with others.  Living in the Center Ring is a powerful place.  It frees you up to not take all that happens so personally, and to bring the best of who you are to every situation and person that your life touches.  Use this power wisely, and with good purpose!

  • Stop assuming you have no power to negotiate for what you want.

The assumption of having no power to negotiate for what you want is a fascinating subject.  Two of the most interesting books that I read this year are Women Don’t Ask and Ask for It, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever.  The books are written specifically for an audience of women readers, but the information about negotiating for what you want is helpful for everyone. The assumption of having no power to negotiate for what you want is closely linked to another important quality – confidence. 

Whether you are a woman or a man, not having the confidence to ask or negotiate for what you want has negative consequences that grow larger over time.  Research indicates that in general, women struggle with confidence more than men do, and for many different reasons.  The Confidence Code, written by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, is an interesting read, with research to back up the idea that women are less self-assured than men, and that to succeed, confidence matters as much as competence.  Why is there such a “confidence gap” for women, and even more important – What can we do about it?  I suggest you pick up and read all three of these books; they are filled with research findings and practical ideas to think about and try that can be life-changing. 

Back to Women Don’t Ask and Ask for It. . .  One piece of the research from these two books provides “clear and consistent evidence that men initiate negotiations to advance their own interests about four times as frequently as women do” (page 4, Ask for It).  Here is just one example (from Ask for It, page 5) of how costly it can be for women to not negotiate their salaries.

“At 22, just out of college, you and a 22-year-old man with the same qualifications are offered the same job for the same salary: $25,000.  You accept the $25,000 while the man negotiates and raises his starting salary to $30,000.  The man deposits the extra $5,000 in a low-earning account, an account that grows about 3% per year.  Throughout your working lives, the two of you both average 3% annual salary increases but of course your salary can’t keep pace with his because he started out higher.  Every year, the man takes the difference between what he would have earned if he’d accepted the $25,000 (what you’re earning) and what he’s actually earning because he negotiated for more, and he adds that amount to the same low-yield account he opened when he was 22.  By the time he’s ready to retire at 65, that account contains $784,192 – over three quarters of a million dollars accumulated simply because he negotiated that one time.  That’s over three-quarters of a million dollars you don’t have because you didn’t negotiate.  If the man puts the money in an account earning 5 or 6 %, his gains would be even higher.”

If you are interested in how to stop assuming you have no power to negotiate for what you want, I suggest that you start doing these things instead. . .

  • Get very clear on what it is that you want.  What you want may be different than what you need, so get clear on any differences between “wants” and “needs” for you.
  • As you start thinking about what you want, think about your personal and your professional life (if you are working) and reflect upon the following questions. . .
    • What is working well for you?
    • What is not working so well?
    • What makes you happy and unhappy?
    • What do you wish was different?
    • What (if anything) is missing from your life personally and professionally?
    • How do you spend your time, and is the way you spend your time consistent with what matters most to you?
    • What DOES matter most to you?
    • What are your five most important values, and is your life and work aligned with those values?  If not, why not?
    • If you were not afraid of being laughed at, ridiculed, or “failing”, what would you be doing that you are not doing now?
    • How are you holding yourself back, and what are you prepared to do to move yourself forward into the life that you wish you were living?
    • Your answers to these types of questions will help you determine what you WANT.  You can then develop action steps to become more confident and competent with the skill-set of negotiating.  Getting clear on what you WANT is a first step, and it’s also fun and a great conversation starter to talk about these questions with your family, friends, and trusted colleagues (your Tribe, whoever that is.)
    • Try it out!


  • Stop taking on responsibility for managing other peoples’ “stuff”.

This is a hard one, as most of us have a strong wish to be helpful to others on all manner of issues.  A problem that sometimes pops up is that we get so busy and focused on trying to help others that we end up managing THEIR “stuff” instead of devoting ourselves to managing OUR “stuff”. 

I’m speaking to this issue as it relates to our relationships with other adults, not with people with whom we have a caretaking role (e.g. with children, adolescents, and perhaps senior citizens in need of our care).

Please consider if you sometimes (or often) end up feeling pushed, pulled, and “torn” by finding yourself in the middle of someone else’s business.  If this is true for you, relax – it is a big club with many members!  By noticing that this behavior creates trouble for you, you are taking the first step toward stepping away from minding other peoples’ business and focusing on better managing your own.  It’s humbling, but workable.

I believe that when we habitually take on responsibility for trying to manage other peoples’ “stuff”, we undermine our confidence and diminish our personal power.  Here’s why.

We cannot make others do or think or feel anything.  The more we try to manage or get others to manage their “stuff” the way we think they should (e.g., their lives, their weight, their drinking, their smoking, their gambling, their online presence, their choices and decisions. . . ), the more likely we are to be critical, judging and self-righteous when our efforts are rebuffed. 

Our good intentions do not usually create the effect we had in mind.  Others end up feeling like we are trying to get them to “shape up.”  As Brene Brown wrote in her powerful book I Thought It Was Just Me But It Isn’t, “you cannot shame or belittle people into changing their behaviors.”  The more we try and fail to manage other peoples’ business, the less confident we feel.  Diminished confidence leads to feeling powerless, which leads to feeling even less confident, and on it goes.  It’s a slippery slope, and the journey down is painful.

We are pretty much powerless over others. Trying to do for others what they need to do for themselves may help you feel needed and powerful and important in the short term, but there is rarely a happy ending.  While you’re busy managing someone else’s “stuff”, who is managing yours? 

If you recognize yourself here, try these things instead. . .

  • When we focus on growing and developing ourselves, the world of possibilities opens up.  We have the opportunity to work with the only person with whom we have a reasonable chance of changing – ourselves.  By directing our energy and attention to managing our own “stuff”, we free others up to make their own choices and decisions and to experience the natural consequences that actions and behaviors provide.  The end result is learning for everyone.
  • Take an honest look at the tangled-up pieces of your life that keep you awake at night and give you heartburn.  What do you think is really going on there?  If you need help with this, try talking about it and sorting things out with a trusted friend, therapist or coach.
  • Develop a habit of noticing what triggers you toward wanting to step in and manage someone else’s “stuff”.  When you are clear on what the trigger is, you can then move on to determining what you can do to catch yourself in the moment, and move back into being in charge of yourself, not others.
  • Recognize that this is a hard habit to break.  When you fall back into managing others’ “stuff”, don’t judge it, just notice it.  You might choose to apologize to the other person.  Take responsibility for your behavior and actions, do your best to let it go, and move on.  Practice really does help, and so does keeping a sense of humor. 
  • Surround yourself with people who are focused on growing personally and professionally and ask for support when you need it. 
  • Stop letting other people take credit for your good ideas.

As a facilitator of meetings, I see this happen more frequently with women, but it’s a problem that could happen for men as well.  Here’s the way it plays out. . .

Sarah has an idea for solving a problem that has been plaguing her team for some time.  At a staff meeting, she throws out her idea for consideration (perhaps prefacing her problem-solving idea with a question or using up-speak or minimizing language).

There is no comment on her idea and Sarah feels silly and stupid and vows to never do that again.


Her idea is criticized, and Sarah feels silly and stupid and vows to never do that again.

Later in the meeting (or maybe the next meeting), someone else throws out Sarah’s idea as their own and upon hearing it, people act as if it’s the greatest thing since divided highways.  Sarah says nothing and vows to find another job, with a group of people who will value her ideas, thoughts and contributions.  As she is looking online that night for other opportunities, she wonders why this happens so frequently to her, and what she might do instead.

If this is your experience, try this.

  • Smile politely and thank the person for supporting your idea which was presented earlier.  You might say something like this. . .
    • Michael, thank you for bringing my idea back to this discussion.  I appreciate your support.  Now that it’s back on the table, let’s talk together as a team about how to strengthen the idea and move it forward. 
  • Work on your assertive communication skills so that you feel competent and confident about your ability to put your thoughts, ideas, and feelings before people in a way most likely to be heard and considered positively.  Practice these skills with your listening “buddy” or a trusted colleague or coach and stay open to their feedback.
  • Stop under-estimating your own gifts, strengths and contributions.

Many people struggle with a need to downplay their gifts, strengths and contributions.  My parents raised me with the message that “nice” people did not “toot their own horn”, and that if I was “good enough” at what I did, people would recognize and reward me accordingly.  How about you?  If you under-estimate your own gifts, strengths and contributions, what is the story you tell yourself about this, and how does your story support you and undermine you in your life today?

I think of this concept as “playing small.”  When I play small. . .

  • I downplay what I know, what I think, what I feel, how I present myself and what I bring to my relationships with others and to my work. 
  • I am very careful and cautious.  Sometimes I pretend to know less than what I know, not wanting to come across as though I am conceited and full of myself. 
  • I usually do so because of feeling uncertain of my place and out of wanting to be liked, accepted and valued by others.  I want to fit in and be included. 

There are real “costs” associated with playing small. . .

  • It diminishes self-confidence and can lead to reluctance to try new things or to take a risk
  • At work, playing small may hold us back from making a strong contribution or of taking leadership when we could or should
  • We are role models for our colleagues, employees and children.  What qualities do we want them to observe about us, and try out for themselves?  

For me, playing small or big is not about titles or wealth or accomplishments, although it’s hard to be successful professionally when playing small.  It’s more about the underlying beliefs and assumptions that support my behavior and actions in the world. 

As Nelson Mandela wrote In a Long Walk to Freedom. . .

“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”

If you recognize now that you play small and under-estimate your own gifts, strengths and contributions, Stop That. 

Try this instead. . .

Consider and reflect upon these questions.

  • What does playing small mean to you?
  • Do you ever play small in order to fit in, be accepted or liked by others?
  • Do you ever play down your strengths, talents and gifts to avoid threatening or intimidating others?
  • If yes, why did you play small and how did you feel about it?
  • If no, what supported your ability to play big?
  • What common themes do you see in your answers?

Consider asking for feedback from people you trust to give you an honest assessment of your gifts, strengths and contributions. 

In a work environment, consider whether you are interested in asking your boss about the possibility of having a 360-degree feedback assessment done for you.  Recognize that if you pursue this option, you are likely to receive feedback which will surprise you, delight you and possibly anger or depress you.  How open and ready are you to take that risk of asking for feedback from your boss, colleagues and clients to pursue growth and development for yourself? 

Consider and reflect upon these ideas.  They are drawn from my learnings from Marsha Clark (my mentor), a speaker at a women’s leadership teleconference I attended several years ago.  I think of them as

Reflections on Playing BIG

  • You can succeed at almost anything if you work at it.
  • We all have setbacks.  Live life in alignment with your values.  Surround yourself with people with high values, not necessarily people similar to or like you.
  • Know what your strengths are and then play to those strengths.
  • Listen to your intuition.
  • When asked to participate, be sure your thoughts are clear and crisp as you offer yourself up.
  • Also be courageous to speak up.  Ask for what you want and what you need.
  • Women (some of us) get results, but not always recognition.  People need to understand the contributions we make.  Women (some of us) tend to deflect and take themselves out of their stories.  When we do this, we give others permission to do the same.  If we don’t believe in ourselves, it gives others pause about believing in us.  The same principle applies to men, but I suspect not to the same degree.
  • Three foundational things that serve me well. . .
    • Sincerity – being absolutely genuine and transparent — admitting what I don’t know
    • Service – using my talents, strengths and gifts serving and supporting the growth and development of others
    • Learning – being a lifelong learner; everything is a learning
  • Daily questions to self
    • What did I do today?
    • What did I learn today?
    • How will it help me going forward?
    • How can I add value today?
  • Everybody has a story and is working on something.  What is your story and how are you playing it out in your life and in your work?
  • Advice. . .
    • Own your own greatness.  Don’t play small in the world, in your life or in your work.
    • Stay true to yourself and support others.
    • Be the best person you can be and live with purpose and passion.

Ginger Ward-Green

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