How to be assertive at work — without overdoing it

Practicing assertiveness in the workplace can be tricky. Use too much and you’ll seem aggressive; use too little you’ll seem meek. But without healthy assertiveness in the workplace, communication and teamwork can’t thrive.

Because this skill is so important, it’s unsurprising to see that Google has about 14 million search results for the query “how to be assertive at work.” Whether you’re communicating your needs to your boss, working through an issue with a coworker, or leading a team, assertiveness is a necessary skill in any collaborative environment.

Luckily, even if you’re naturally a very unassertive person, this craft can be learned, improved, and honed. Here’s how.

What is assertiveness?

To feel comfortable being assertive, it’s important to first understand what constitutes assertiveness, rather than aggression or rudeness.

Assertiveness is the ability to confidently, respectfully, and directly express your thoughts, feelings, and needs. It is NOT the act of being hostile, aggressive, or demanding to get what you want.

Assertiveness isn’t about winning arguments or forcing your opinions on others. It’s a tool for fostering effective communication in which you and your collaborators feel heard, understood, and respected.

What does it take to be assertive?

Learning to be more assertive requires a few key things. First, you need to value yourself and your opinions as much as anyone else’s. If you’re lacking in self-confidence and worried your ideas aren’t as good as other peoples, it will be understandably difficult to assert yourself. That doesn’t mean you should forget about humility or start asserting that all of your ideas are great, but you do need to believe in yourself and your abilities and feel confident in sharing that belief with others.

Second, you need to balance your wants and need with the rights of others. Like we stated previously, assertiveness isn’t just about always getting what you want. Awareness of other’s feelings, desires, and rights is crucial. When you move beyond asserting your values and start infringing on other’s, you’ve gone too far.

Third, you need to be able to express negative thoughts in an objective, or even positive, way. When you’re using assertiveness to address a negative event or feeling, it’s important that you not let emotion take over. It’s perfectly normal to feel angry, but it’s never okay to take that anger out on others.

Similarly, you need to be receptive to feedback. When others are asserting their opinions and feelings, you need to be able to take them in with understanding and respect. Moreover, you need to use other’s feedback in a constructive way, even if hearing it may make you feel hurt or embarrassed at first.

Finally, you need to say ‘no’ when necessary. You are always in charge of your own boundaries and limits. If someone is doing something or asking something of you that you have good reason to object to, you can and should. Seek out compromises and alternatives when you can.

Techniques

There are a few popular techniques for practicing assertion.

Empathetic assertion requires using empathy to demonstrate your sensitivity to others while conveying your thoughts clearly. It’s a simple two-step process: first, acknowledge the other person’s situation or feelings, then state your needs or opinions. “I know you’ve been taking on a lot of extra work lately, but when you give me information late it delays the whole project.”

Escalating assertion involves upping your level of assertion over time, starting out empathetic and getting more firm as time progresses. You may need to introduce consequences should things not change. For example, if the previous request was ignored, you could say, “If you cannot deliver your work on time, we will have to take you off the project.”

Feeling assertion is related to feeling statements; it involves telling the other person how their actions directly affect how you feel. Start by stating the action objectively, then describe the negative effect it has, and close with a feeling statement. For example, “When you interrupt me during meetings, I don’t get to share my opinion with the group, and I feel like my ideas aren’t respected.”

Final thoughts

If coming up with the right assertive statement is tough at first, don’t worry, it does get easier with practice. You may want to hold off on trying to construct them on the spot. Instead, prepare what you want to say and set up a one-on-one with the person to discuss. This preparation will help you make sure you are clear, respectful, and ready to listen.

Of course, there is always the possibility of a negative or defensive reaction, which is why it’s important that you prepare yourself to stay calm and confident no matter what. You may even want to write down some notes beforehand such as examples of the thing you want to address. The goal is to be clear and accurate while remaining as objective.

If you aren’t sure which technique to use, try writing out a few different kinds of statements. Walk away from them for awhile and come back later when you’re not feeling upset or aggravated. Reread them to see which sounds better. If you’re still unsure, you might even ask a friend to read them aloud to you.

If you’re not comfortable using any of the techniques we listed, you can always make your own. There are many ways to be assertive without fitting a single rule.

Speaking up is difficult for a lot of people. But it’s good for everyone when all team members feel heard and respected. If it takes a little assertive practice to get there, that’s a pill worth swallowing.

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