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Three small but powerful ways to transform your career in a year

U.N. negotiation expert Alexandra Carter shares how women can reinvent their professional lives even during the most challenging times.
Alexandra Carter, U.N. negotiator and bestselling author of \"Ask for More,\" breaks down how women can turn their professional lives around, starting with the way they talk to themselves.
Alexandra Carter, U.N. negotiator and bestselling author of "Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything," breaks down how women can turn their professional lives around in times of crisis.Morgan Triska Media

For many women, getting through the last few years has been a serious negotiation. And not just over jobs, bills or even household responsibilities – but in getting up every day and navigating our lives through a difficult time.

Negotiation is so much more than deal-making. It’s the way we steer and direct our relationships.

And the first negotiation in any situation – the first relationship we have to steer – is the one we have with ourselves.

This past year, I’ve been speaking a lot about what I call inside negotiation: the way we talk to ourselves, especially when life gets hard. During times of stress, trauma, uncertainty or change we can find ourselves languishing – approaching burnout – with our dreams and goals on pause. But mastering the art of inside negotiation can help. Here are three ways to start:

Focus on solving the solvable problem.

The last few years have thrown many of us some serious curveballs. On the morning of May 5, 2020, I realized a life-long dream: the publication of my book, “Ask for More.” But that morning, I got a phone call to say my father, already in hospice with dementia, had tested positive for COVID. His care providers were not optimistic about his survival and said that if we wanted to visit, we needed to come soon. My stepmom put on something that resembled a spacesuit and said goodbye to him through a window. The rest of us were too far away. I spent time alternately cancelling the book promotion efforts I had planned and crying with my head on my desk.

I’m far from the only person to lose a parent during the pandemic. Many others I know suffered major losses, too: divorce, illness, a job that ended. During this challenging time, here’s the first lesson I learned: when faced with an unsolvable problem, lean hard into figuring out the problems you can solve. If you can’t take away an illness, or reverse a layoff, what can you do?

Since I couldn’t cure my dad, I focused on the (much smaller) problems I could solve. How could I get more information about what was happening with my dad? What could I do at a distance to say goodbye in a meaningful way? How could I ask others for help with the book, even if I couldn’t do anything myself?

During more normal times, I advise people to zoom out to solve the bigger picture problem. But during really hard, unexpected crises, looking at the big picture can feel overwhelming. Instead, pick off a small, solvable problems and work on that.

Take one step a day. Just one.

When times are tough, but you still have big goals, break it way down for yourself. Just take one step forward every day. During these last few years, I’ve spoken to many people with hard situations – they had a sick relative or were sick themselves. Some of them lost jobs and risked losing their housing, too. They reported taking small steps like calling their landlord, joining a social media group for people in similar situations, or asking a friend to research medical bill relief. These small steps not only helped them feel better in the moment; they added up over time to be quite helpful in addressing the larger problems.

So, if you’re looking for a new job, or new clients? Write to one friend or connection today. Make one call. Fix one thing on your CV. Look at one posting. Working toward a long-delayed promotion? Reach out to one potential ally in the office. Raise your hand in a meeting. Ask to be put on one new project. These small steps add up to huge leaps over time.

A few years ago, I found myself struggling to reach a big goal. I knew I had a book inside me, and I dreamed about writing it, but it felt like life – in the form of work, illness, surgeries and parenting – kept getting in the way.

Alexandra Carter, professor at Columbia Law School and world-renowned negotiation trainer for the United Nations.
Alexandra Carter, professor at Columbia Law School and world-renowned negotiation trainer for the United Nations.Target Marketing Digital/Gonzaga Romero

So, I changed my approach. Instead of trying to start from a “perfect” concept, I told myself I was going to write one sentence a day. That’s it. One thing, 15 minutes max. Sometimes I sat down and all I got was that one sentence. But other times, I could write a paragraph or more. Within five months, I had 55,000 words on the page – all from writing one thing a day! And a year later, I held my book in my hands for the first time.

Do one small thing a day, and in a year, watch – you might reach places you’ve never imagined.

Ask “what” instead of “why.”

During challenging times, we often ask ourselves questions that keep us stuck rather than helping us forward. One of the most ineffective questions people ask when we negotiate with ourselves is why:

“Why haven’t I asked for that promotion?”

“Why couldn’t I speak up in the meeting?”

“Why am I still just talking about writing a book instead of doing it?”

So, what’s wrong with why? Why is a question we tend to use when assigning blame. It keeps us looking backward. Asking other people why in a negotiation (“Why is the report late?”) instinctively puts them on the defensive, leading to self-serving answers that don’t move things forward. The answer to a question like that might well be: “Other people’s reports aren’t always timely either!”

Likewise, when we ask ourselves why (“Why haven’t I asked for that promotion?”) we heap shame on ourselves that only makes it harder to move forward: “I guess I’m just not good at advocating for myself. I don’t really deserve the promotion after all.”

In other words, asking why usually leads to an unhelpful response without getting us the information we need to solve our problem. So how do we fix this?

Instead of asking why, try asking what.

For example, in the conversation with your coworker over the report, you might ask, “What made things challenging this time?” or “What might we try for our next report?” And when we are talking to ourselves about that promotion we didn’t request, instead of saying, “Why can’t I do this?” we might try asking: “What makes this feel hard for me?” or “What support do I need?”

When we move from why to what, we move from blame to diagnosis. We shift our focus from the past to the future. Instead of shutting things down, we can open up, explore information and focus on the search for a solution.

And when we stop asking ourselves why, we get out of the shame game. Asking ourselves what keeps us curious, instead of judgmental, about what we need. It helps us diagnose small, daily steps we can take. And in doing so, it propels us toward our biggest goals – even during the most challenging times.

Alexandra Carter is a professor at Columbia Law School, a world-renowned negotiation trainer for the United Nations, and the Wall Street Journal best-selling author of Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything.