For some of us, assertiveness comes naturally. You may be able to think of a colleague who seems able to navigate challenging situations with ease and professionalism, no matter the politics and personalities involved. Conversely, you may have experiences where you find it difficult to express yourself in the right way, don’t get the result you want or hold back on what you would really like to say.
This may be down to your communication style. Your style may be so ingrained that you're not even aware of what it is. Assertiveness is a great skill to develop and whilst it takes time to cultivate it’s a quality we should aspire to master.
What is assertiveness?
Assertiveness is based on mutual respect, it's an effective method of communication in which we can deliver what we want to say in a calm, confident and measured way. When we’re being assertive our point of view is being heard, we’re stating our ideas clearly and we’re also listening to others and taking on board their ideas. Our body language will be open and our eye contact will be positive. We’re relaxed, interested and we’re happy to give others the opportunity to speak.
Non-assertive and aggressive behaviour
If our style is passive or non-assertive, we may seem to be shy or overly easy-going. We may not speak up as much as assertive colleagues. We may routinely say things such as "I'll just go with whatever you/the group decides." We tend to avoid conflict and might regularly say yes, leading to over commitment! Passive body language often involves looking down or making less eye contact, our body language may be less open, we’re hunched, and we may cover our mouth when we speak.
When we’re being aggressive, our emotions are coming to the surface. We may start to use clenched fists or pointing fingers. Our eyes will be glaring. We may lean in, invade personal space and stare down others. When we speak we might not let others get a word in. We perhaps dominate the conversation, raise our voice or become sarcastic. Such behaviour can be intimidating to others.
How to be assertive
We all have the potential to display any of the above behaviours in any given situation. As we experience new and challenging situations we’re ever more tested and we may find our assertive behaviour slips in to passive or aggressive, dependent on the circumstances. As such it’s useful to remind ourselves of the basics of assertiveness.
Adjust your body language: Albert Mehrabian's research findings showed that a large proportion of our impact, when communicating with others, comes from our body language (55%) and our tone of voice (38%). The words we use only account for 7% of our impact. Consider your body language, keep open, show a relaxed and confident posture and maintain positive eye contact. Practise what you want to say to ensure your voice delivers your message in a calm, sincere and steady manner.
Actively Listen: Next time someone asks for a favour, pay attention to what they are saying and what they are asking for. Ask questions rather than reacting immediately. Using open questions in particular will help you learn more. If you’re able to listen, you’ll build a clearer picture of what the other person is thinking and you’ll have clearer insights in to what would help the conversation next.
Use an assertive frame: Use ‘I’ instead of you to be less confrontational. DESC is also a useful structure to use when you’re putting a point across – Describe the situation, Express the impact, Specify what you would like to happen and share the Consequences (which could be positive or negative.)
Graciously say no – if you need to say no, explain why you can’t help and either suggest an alternative solution you can provide or re-direct your colleague to someone else who is better suited to helping them.
Use positive words and phrases: When communicating with others, in general, some words will have a positive impact while others will have a negative impact. Use words that show you believe in the points you are making and how they will create a win-win for you and your colleague.
Assertiveness takes practise and with a bit of work it's something we're all capable of achieving.
One should use assertiveness simply to secure equality for themselves, and never to take away from someone else.