By Anne Evenson
If you struggle with complex conversations or interpersonal situations in the workplace, you may need to learn to be more assertive.
“To be passive is to let others decide for you. To be aggressive is to decide for others. To be assertive is to decide for yourself. And to trust that there is enough, that you are enough.”
Edith Eva Eger, Hungarian Jewish psychologist practicing in the United States, Holocaust survivor and author
If you’ve ever negotiated for a higher salary, pitched a new idea or requested a better workspace, you probably considered your approach beforehand to avoid coming across as too overbearing or, conversely, too timid. The happy medium you were likely searching for is an important personality trait in your personal and professional life: assertiveness.
This agreeable but firm disposition can seem like an unattainable superpower for anyone who is conflict-avoidant or easily angered. Yet, while assertiveness can be a challenging skill to cultivate, it’s an attribute you can and should strive to master.
Discover how to effortlessly navigate complicated situations with ease and professionalism without sacrificing your self-respect or trampling on the rights of others.
Learn the Difference Between Assertion and Aggression
In the simplest terms, assertive behavior is the sweet spot between the two extremes of passivity and aggression. Unfortunately, the line between assertive and aggressive behavior can be fuzzy, and people often confuse the two.
Aggression is intimidating behavior designed and intended to dominate. Aggressive people act in their self-interest regardless of the rights, needs or desires of others. They are pushy, selfish and often do or say whatever they want irrespective of anyone else’s feelings.
Assertiveness is all about balance. Assertive people are straightforward about what they need and want while also respecting the rights, needs and wishes of others. Their communication style is direct, firm and confident and promotes empathy, equality and positive outcomes in their interpersonal relationships.
For example, a supervisor who assigns you a large project the afternoon before you go on vacation and insists that you handle it immediately is behaving aggressively. The work may need to be completed; however, they neglect your needs and feelings by unloading it on you at an unsuitable time. When you kindly but firmly inform your supervisor that you will finish the work but only upon your return from your time off, you’ve hit the happy medium between meekly accepting this untimely intrusion (passivity) and being angry, hostile or rude (aggression).
Recognize Your Self-Worth
Now that you understand what assertive behavior looks like, it’s essential to develop a strong belief in your inherent value as a person. High self-esteem is the foundation of confident and assertive behavior.
Many people who grapple with being assertive are really dealing with attribution issues. For instance, someone might attribute their failures to personal flaws (“I’m terrible at this, and I’ll never improve because I’m not smart enough”) and their achievements to luck (“I only succeeded because it was simpler than I thought it would be”). This negative internal dialogue contributes to self-doubt, which can become a barrier to effective, confident communication.
If this sounds familiar, take a moment to suppress any self-criticism and consider your contributions to your organization. Don’t inspect every flaw or analyze your mistakes, as those thoughts can elicit feelings of shame and obscure your capacity to discern your positive attributes. Instead, make a thorough inventory of everything you’ve done at work, focusing on your successes and anything you want to improve. And don’t forget to practice some self-compassion, too. If you fail at something or make an error, talk to yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would use when talking to a dear friend.
If you’re not clear about your values and what’s most important to you, setting and maintaining boundaries can be difficult. However, knowing and respecting your boundaries will help you avoid the stress and frustration that often results from not communicating your needs and desires.
Staying up past your bedtime to respond to work emails or accepting too many assignments will ultimately end in exhaustion and resentment. Don’t shortchange yourself by taking on too much or skimping on a good night’s rest. Instead, consider what anyone can reasonably expect from you and respect your limitations. We are all constrained by things like time, physical necessities and individual capabilities, and it’s unrealistic for anyone to ask you to sacrifice your health or wellbeing for any reason.
When requesting time off, don’t offer multiple reasons like you haven’t been feeling well, or you need to help a friend move, or one of your colleagues just had a vacation. Instead, just firmly and politely ask for the leave that you need. Remember that you always deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. When you stand up for your rights and set boundaries, you stay true to yourself and maintain your integrity.
Prepare & Practice
Just like any other skill you’re trying to develop, learning to be assertive takes preparation and practice. Prepare to be assertive in different circumstances by imagining everyday work situations in the relative safety of your mind, journal or therapy session. Think about how your ideal scenario would play out versus the scenario that frightens you. For example, imagine yourself communicating something difficult to your colleague or manager. Ask yourself questions like: What is my objective? What do I want to say? How would I say it?
Then practice being assertive with a trusted confidant. Try role-playing with a friend or family member in a risk-free situation where you feel comfortable saying aloud what you would like to communicate. Remember to rehearse things that you find most challenging to say, like “No, I can’t do that,” or, “That makes me uncomfortable.” Focus on active listening, so you are considering the needs and feelings of others while you maintain your boundaries. Preparing and practicing will leave you ready to advocate for yourself while remaining calm and polite to elicit a positive response.
Remember to be compassionate with yourself as you transform into a more assertive person. Don’t beat yourself up if you get flustered during a challenging conversation or lose your nerve at the last minute. Learning new ways of thinking and doing things is often complicated and developing a more straightforward communication style is a cumulative process. If being assertive seems especially problematic, try some assertiveness training.
Learning how to be more assertive will earn you the respect and admiration of your colleagues, reduce your stress and give you more confidence. So, take the high road whenever you can, and you’ll always come out on top!
Anne Evenson is a native Austinite and a proud Veteran’s spouse with over 20 years of marketing, communications and program coordination experience in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. She is also a sculptor, jeweler and all-around dabbler in the arts and loves to help military-connected individuals discover their inner creativity.
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