Being assertive in the workplace is a frequently misunderstood concept as there are many of us who confuse assertiveness with being aggressive and domineering. Everyone wants to feel acknowledged and empowered in his or her workplace, but research states most people feel powerless and subjugated. This is because they are unable to express themselves with clarity and confidence. This keeps getting worse as you climb up the ranks and do not find solutions earlier in your career.
To understand this phenomenon better, I am going to take you through the kinds of communication styles regularly used. We use different communication styles with different people and in different situations, especially authority figures. There are 4 distinct patterns in communication styles:
- Passive: A passive communicator goes out of their way to avoid conflict and tend to put their needs last. They apologize a lot and often are taken advantage of. They tend to think of themselves as a peacekeeper but in reality send out a message that their feelings and opinions are not as important as the others.
- Aggressive: An aggressive communicator comes across as a self-righteous bully, dismissive of others opinions and feelings. They use criticism, intimidation, and humiliation to dominate others.
- Passive- Aggressive: This is a style of communication often seen in corporate situations, when one feels powerless. The behavior exhibits a mixture of agreement and resistance where you are easygoing and cooperative on the outside and resenting the authority on the inside. Uncomfortable with conflict or confrontation of any sort, people exhibiting this behavior often resort to manipulation, sarcasm and playing games with others to exert power or subvert authority.
- Assertive: Assertiveness is said to be a balance between passive and aggressive. Being assertive is communicating your perspective and opinions, while being respectful of others. Assertive people communicate their opinions without apology and in turn allow others their say. They are not pushovers as they recognize the limits to which they can bend.
Have you identified which style you tend to lean to? The healthiest communications style everyone aspires for and generally the most underused is assertiveness.
If we look around in our workplace, there are those who are overlooked and viewed as uncertain, indecisive and weak because of their ‘passive communication’. Then, they are also those who trying to be assertive accidentally veer off into “aggressive” territory who are overlooked as not being a team player.
Assertiveness is particularly a difficult issue to address for working women. Daniel Ames, a professor at Columbia Business School says, “The range of latitude for women is smaller for what they can get away with”. Women have to deal with societal perceptions of being too pushy or of being a pushover. Their traditional roles of being peacekeepers and of keeping harmony in their environment leads to passive behavior that in turns results in missed opportunities or being overlooked.
So, what are the parameters of assertive behavior one should look at? The best answer I found was according to Caroline Miller, author of Creating Your Best life who says that the three keys to assertive behavior is “knowing what you want, believing you have a right to it, and finding the courage to express it.”
Tips for being assertive in the workplace
- READING PATTERNS. Recognize situations when you are unable to express your opinion or are taken advantage of or equally, when you have been aggressive. Once you recognize your response pattern, think about an effective, tactful, fair and assertive response to a specific situation. Then, start reacting in mildly tense situations like speaking in a group meeting and move on to expressing yourself in tougher situations like negotiating with your boss.
- SYNCHRONIZING YOUR VERBAL AND NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION.
- Non-Verbal. Observe how your body language is reiterating your communication. The key non-verbal keys of assertive communication are “eye contact, non-intimidating body posture, appropriate gestures, a well-modulated voice and good timing, which will all, maximize the impact of your message.”
- Verbal. In a critical situation when you are aware you have to speak, make a note of what you want to say, either in your head or on a sheet of paper to build coherence. It is often you find that speaking is quite different from simply thinking, as what is clear in your head might not be clear when you speak.
One of the common devaluing techniques is using language that reduces the importance of what you’re saying. For example, the word “just” implies that something is insignificant: “I just thought…” or “This is just an idea…” It’s like they’re giving the listener a warning that what’s to come is trivial and irrelevant. Another devaluing technique is prefacing words with phrases like: “I could be wrong but…” or “This might sound crazy but…”. A third way is putting a question mark sound at the end of your sentences makes it sound like you’re questioning yourself. And hey, if you’re not sure about what you’re saying, why would anyone else be?
- PICK YOUR BATTLES. Conflicts are inevitable when people work closely together. The two things that generally happen in such situations: you either end up fighting over every little thing or push everything under the carpet by avoiding any conflict altogether so the issue and the resentment stay exactly where it is. Instead, make a list of conflict points and focus on a couple of important points that would impact your performance or the team goal. If the issue is on a specific point, table the issue in front of the team and ask for a democratic solution, everyone agrees to. If the issue is with a colleague, ask for a meeting in a informal environment, make a list of issues both of you are facing and discuss. Don’t say ‘yes’ just to please someone, when you really mean ‘no’. Be clear and specific about what you want to say – stick to the point and don’t make it personal. Acknowledge the non-negotiable points for the both of you and work out a compromise so both of you end up feeling empowered.
While being assertive is a great thing, make sure you are not overcompensating and going into the aggressive zone. Don’t just hear your voice in your head; consider others in the situation. Secondly, do not try to imitate somebody else you believe to be assertive. Thirdly, don’t settle for situations where you are unhappy for not speaking out. Go back and speak up even if it is after the context has passed by. It is critical that someone knows exactly what you opine and feel. More so when you’re in senior management jobs!