Assertiveness in practice

 Sep 08, 2016

I spend a lot of my time conducting communication skills programs for employees from a range of different industries. The employees are different in as many ways as they are the same. One area of communication they want to know more about is assertiveness. Some ask "what is it?" while others ask "how can I become better at it?" So I head straight for my whiteboard, but for you as a reader, here’s a taste of what I take them through, enjoy.

I kick-off by dispelling some myths about assertiveness:

  1. Myth number 1: If I assert myself I will get my own way Truth: There are no guarantees. Speak or write your assertive piece, once, twice, maybe a third time, and then let it go.
  2. Myth number 2: Only confident people can be assertive Truth: Everybody has the right to express themselves in a professional manner.
  3. Myth number 3: One can only be assertive verbally Truth: There are many ways to send an assertive message - one’s attire, one’s environment, in writing, non-verbally, the list goes on and on.

I then present the two opposites of assertiveness - passivity and aggressiveness.

Passivity is a dangerous communication mode. If the ‘sender’ does not know how to express themselves assertively, they tend to resort to silence, sarcasm or game playing. This confuses the ‘receiver.’ On the flip side, if the ‘receiver’ does not understand or know how to respond to an assertive message, they don’t agree with or have a different view on; they too can resort to silence or worse still, suppression. Either of these two responses leaves the ‘sender’ at best confused, at worst falsely believing the ‘receiver’ agrees with them.

Another myth about assertive behaviour is that it involves being aggressive. This simply isn’t true. Assertiveness involves clear, calm thinking, professional behaviour and measured speaking. It involves respectful negotiation in a workplace where each person is entitled to their opinion. Whereas aggressive thinking, intimidating behaviour, and speaking loudly bears only a temporary winner. Everyone loses in the end, even the person or party who think they have won, through the course of time, will come to realise they have actually lost.

This discussion helps employees to think about their past interactions back at work, and reflect upon what they will do differently from now on. We then talk about knowing when they are starting to slip into a passive state or when they are about to get crazy.

We do this by firstly by identifying what triggers the change and secondly what actually changes. What changes in their thinking, their behaviour, their language, their voice-tone, and their non-verbal communicators? I emphasise the importance of controlling these changes and returning to an assertive state before it is too late. We then look at assertiveness from the top down. What is it, what it involves, and of course practice makes perfect. Below is a piece I hand out to my participants.

Assertiveness, so what is it? It is an attitude and a method of relating to everyone around you. It comprises of a set of skills that allow for effective communication to take place. I tell my students that in order for them to become truly assertive they must believe they are of worth and therefore, have the right to express themselves. At the same time, knowing they must value and respect others equally, because they also have the right to express themselves.

Here’s a quick insight into what assertiveness involves.

  • Being clear about what you feel, what you need and how it can be achieved
  • Being able to communicate calmly without attacking another person
  • Saying "yes" when you want to, and saying "no" when you mean "no" (rather than agreeing to do something just to please someone else)
  • Deciding on and sticking to clear boundaries – being happy to defend your position, even if it provokes conflict
  • Being confident about handling conflict if it occurs
  • Understanding how to negotiate if two people want different outcomes
  • Being able to talk openly about yourself and being able to listen to others
  • Having confident, open body language
  • Being able to give and receive positive and negative feedback
  • Having a positive, optimistic outlook

In my sessions, we then proceed to analyse a key aspect of assertiveness which of course is communication.

Communication is an important part of assertiveness. Always be clear, concise and direct when stating your view. Indicate your level understanding of the current situation, express how you feel, describe what you need and what you don’t need. Provide your reasons, and if you are negotiating, state what you can trade or what you are able to concede. Finally, use appropriate body language and always respect the rights and point of view of the opposing negotiator(s).

We then discuss how to become better at being assertive, through lots of practice, by taking small steps, a small-dose of courage and large dose of self-belief. We then do some serious practice, because practice makes perfect. Students practice by being assertive in certain business situations, such as refusing to take on additional work, delegating a task, or giving constructive feedback.

I close the session with a couple of finer points.

Point 1: ‘I’ vs ‘We’ In most workplaces there are generally three types of conversations: business conversations, personal conversations, or a combination of both. When you want to be assertive in a business conversation. use ‘we,’ ‘our’ or the name of your organisation. If you want to make it personal, because it is, then use the ‘I’ word.

Point 2: Let's roll... So start by understanding that you are creating a ‘new’ you, know that you are ‘consciously’ trying to say goodbye to passivity and aggressiveness, or both forever.

Once you feel more confident with the assertive skill-set, think through workplace situations where you can apply your new assertive skills, for example, in meetings, training workshops, handling customer complaints, applying for a pay rise, etc., and then go for it.

At first expect to feel a bit vulnerable. Remember, whenever you try something new, be it a new way of thinking, a new look, a new behaviour, a new attitude, even new words, it is going to feel a bit unnatural. See it through, stick with the ‘new’ you until it becomes instinctual and you will enjoy new and better outcomes. Plus, you will never ever go back to the ‘old’ you.

So there you have it, assertiveness in less than 1200 words. It is a critical workplace communication skill and in my experience, one that all good managers want their team members to instinctively demonstrate.

To conclude, every employee has the right to state their opinion, their ideas, and their feelings within their organisation. When they represent their organisation, they are entrusted to present the beliefs and values of their organisation in a calm, clear and objective manner. To learn more about assertiveness and other key communication skills, take a look at New Horizons' training course "Assertiveness at Work".

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About the Author:

Stan Thomas  

Stan has been working in a professional training capacity for over 15 years and possesses a wealth of knowledge in the areas of adult education gained through both formal study and practical training delivery both nationally and internationally. As the Professional Development Manager for New Horizons Melbourne, Stan is responsible for the delivery, quality control and enhancement of existing and new programs at New Horizons.

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