I have to be honest, and you may not believe me, but this is one of the hardest skills I am in the works of learning. Perhaps it's my 8-person family, puritan upbringing, and as a middle child I just went along with what the group wanted, but assertiveness has never been a strength of mine.
I believe in a give, give, give, ask method of forward movement (in marketing, sales, strategy, people, etc.), however sometimes I recognize the ask has to come a little bit sooner.
Assertiveness is not being tough or arrogant. It’s actually a very humble and thoughtful dance. It is recognizing that we have value and we sometimes need to put up boundaries for others to recognize our value.
Last week, I received an email with a complaint about something I had done (not as uncommon as you would believe). There was some truth to it, but also falsehoods too. As I read the email the person that had written, the email took a swift, left turn right in the middle and the person added an irrelevant, cheap jab at me personally.
(Pause and context: You have to know I probably output 50-100 emails a day and in my various positions I can exercise my public voice along with the strength of my organization and position, or because I get so many emails, all with opinions, I can also just let it slide. As I practice assertiveness it has been important for me to find where and when to do both exercises.)
As I wrote back to the person I apologized for the miscommunication, how they felt, but I stopped at that. I then wrote to the person (in a separate paragraph all by itself) that I took offense at what the person had wrote about that specific personal thing and that I thought it was unnecessary to rest of the person’s legitimate issues. That was it. I didn’t need to “take them out back,” show them my wit or blast them publicly. It was just a boundary on a professional email that had been overstepped. It was about dignity and integrity - for both parties!
Sometimes people don’t know they’re being difficult, asking for too much, or that the sarcasm doesn’t work for you. Sometimes they have to be reminded (maybe by you?). Here’s a way to frame it in your mind that might help you swallow the assertive pill a bit better (it works for me). If you’re like me, I combine my assertiveness with empathy (putting yourself in their shoes and trying to understand). I know one of my core values is helping people. I also know one of my strength/weaknesses is people pleasing and making sure everyone’s happy. Alas, that’s where my assertiveness struggles. What has helped me is to view my assertiveness as helping a person to see their misstep and hopefully, provide them with some constructive feedback. Helping them to avoid doing something similar in the future to a person who won’t be as kind as me or you, is the win.
I also believe that tools can help to. According to Sharon Anthony Bower and Gordon Bower in their book, Asserting Yourself: A Practical Guide for Positive Change, assertiveness is the product of a set of learned attitudes and communication skills that can be changed for the better.
Here’s where they suggest you focus your assertiveness time:
1. Pick a less or medium threatening situation. Figure out where you are at in your response and raise the bar a bit. Start in the easy situations and practice being assertive. Gain confidence and self-esteem. By all means, don’t start out with the big, threatening issue. Build your skills over time.
2. Focus on exhibiting assertive non-verbal body language. Assume a vertical body position, straight on chin position and upright posture with shoulders back. Make relaxed and fluid movements with little or no tension. Use natural, open and relaxed gestures and hand positions. Give frequent eye contact with occasional horizontal glances away. Use appropriate facial expressions for emotions, normal calm expression with little tension. Tone of voice is warm and well-modulated, with normal volume. Flow of words is even and conversational, without rushing or hesitating. Clothing, hairstyle, glasses, tidiness and so on are all expressions of your preferences and personality.
3. Practice giving your opinion. Be willing to express your opinion whether or not you have been asked to do so. Take ownership. Only change your mind if others provide new information that you haven’t considered.
4. Learn to receive positive feedback. Many people say receiving negative feedback is hard, however I have watched many a people squirm in their discomfort to receive praise. Thank the person for offering the compliment. Do not narrow it down, apologize or return another compliment. Accept it as a gift to be received.
5. Learn to say “no.” As Dr. Paterson puts it, “If you cannot say no, you are not in charge of your own life.”
6. Be open to receiving negative feedback. Thank the person for bringing his or her concerns to you. Paraphrase what you hear and ask specific questions to gain clarity around the problem. I’d suggest you write down what you hear exactly as you hear it as your emotions may have kicked in and it will be difficult to remember what exactly was said later on when you review the feedback. Tell the person you need time to think about his/her concerns. If appropriate, set up a future time to get together to continue the discussion.
7. Learn to surface problems. When something or someone has upset you, be diligent in working through your feelings and gaining an understanding of what has occurred and what you want to do about it. We use the 5 I’s as a surefire method of gaining clarity around any conflict situation and as a way to surface the problem with others. Click here to download the 5 Is model.
Remember, assertiveness is all about finding your own, personal voice – expressing what you think and feel and asking for what you need. Dr. Randy Paterson in his book The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and in Relationships, expresses it well, “To be there. Not to be perfect. To expose our flaws, our irrational emotions and opinions, our strange preferences, our incomprehensible dreams, our unaccountable tastes, and our all-too-human selves to others. To be there. Not so that others will bow down to us or hide themselves from us, but in a way that invites others to be there as well. A way that acknowledges the right of everyone to be every bit as irrational, flawed, and human as we are. Assertiveness is all about being there.”