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Assertiveness: What It Is & How To Be Assertive At Work

by Jennifer Harper

How many times have you sat in a meeting and admired someone who speaks up, clearly states their case and miraculously diffuses disagreements or solves problems? Equally, how many times have you witnessed a team member speak up, cause offence and create disharmony through their contribution?

Here we have two people trying to do the same thing, but one is being ‘assertive’ and the other is coming across as ‘aggressive’. The two approaches frequently get confused.

Aggressive behaviour may come across as stubborn, unwilling to compromise or listen to others’ viewpoints. An aggressive response may also hold resentment if their idea is not accepted.

In contrast, ‘assertiveness’ is a more controlled way of communicating, using a professional, respectful and friendly manner, that takes others’ concerns and positions into consideration but offers a well thought out option. An assertive person will not take offence at their suggestion not being implemented but will try to understand the overall needs of the company/project.

So can you learn how to be more assertive? Yes, here’s how:

Feelings and Emotions

Be aware of your feelings during confrontational situations. Do you start to feel angry? Scared? Or reluctant to speak? Try to understand those feelings and ask ‘are these feelings rational?’ In other words, is this worth getting angry over? What have you got to be scared of? By paying attention to your feelings and emotions you are better equipped to control them and then respond in a different way.

Pick Your Moments

Identify when it is important to be assertive and when it is less critical. For instance, you may feel strongly when advocating for the rights of a client, but feel less inclined to ask for a 12.30 pm lunch break over a 1 pm break. In essence, recognise what really matters and when.

Be Clear

When offering a suggestion, proposal or asking a question, be clear and concise in what you are saying. Do not waffle, and do not try to offer excuses.

Be Positive

Be aware of the language you use. Using ‘I would like’, ‘I will’, ‘I need you to’, ‘I feel’ and ‘I understand’ statements are positive and state what is required. Don’t allow yourself to be pushed into a situation either – repeat your statement if necessary in order to remain positive.

Listen and Empathise

Actively listening to others’ suggestions or needs enables you to empathise with their situation. When dealing with an irate customer, if they recognise that you are taking the time to listen and trying to see their side of an argument, this can help to diffuse the situation. For instance, saying ‘I can see that you are upset, and I recognise your concerns’ followed by ‘at the moment I can do this, however, I will need to speak to my supervisor about…’ is an assertive approach – you are acknowledging their distress. You are diffusing a difficult situation, while taking control, and without compromising the integrity of your company. The same approach can be used in meetings with colleagues.

Recognise Your Worth

Recognising your experience, your abilities and your strengths (commitment, adaptability, enthusiasm, organisational skills etc) can help you to see that your opinions are just as relevant as the next person’s. Understand the role that you play and how your experience and perspective benefits others.

Acknowledge Others’ Efforts

Being assertive is not just about asking for your own needs to be met. It is about standing up for what is right for the team, a client, or a department. This can mean acknowledging when another member of staff has a good idea, but assertiveness is evident when you see how this idea could be developed further.

For instance, ‘I love Jeff’s idea. If we take Jeff’s proposal as the starting point, developing that into a monthly outcome could create essential data to help later decision-making….’ This shows you are recognising a team member’s positive proposal but are able to look at the bigger picture and see its longer-term benefit.

Say ‘No’

Are you that person who everyone dumps lots of work on without asking if you have time? Recognise how long this work will take, and what impact it will have on your other commitments – relay this to the person/boss assertively. For example: ‘I can happily complete this work, however, it will be on Wednesday as my time is taken up with completing the Economic team’s project today and tomorrow.’ Using this approach, you are pleasantly, but clearly, setting out your workload and giving a definite time when you can look at it. The person/boss then has the option of giving this work to someone else if it needs to be completed sooner.

Learning to be assertive can take time. Think about instances at work, or amongst friends, when you could have been more assertive. Practice what you might have said. Consider meetings coming up – what problems might arise? Considering statements or answers in advance can help your confidence and ultimately boost your ability to be assertive.

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