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Don't Be Afraid: Be Assertive

How to voice your wants and needs in the workplace.

Oftentimes in a work situation, especially one where you feel you are being disrespected or misrepresented, someone may tell you to "be assertive." But what exactly is assertiveness, and what does it have to do with the workplace? When does assertiveness cross the line into being overly aggressive? And how can you become more assertive in your communication skills?

ADVANCE spoke with a few workplace and communication experts on how to become more assertive.

What Does It Mean?
What exactly does it mean to be assertive, and why is it so important? "Assertiveness is the ability to communicate clearly and respectfully our wants, needs and desires to others. Assertive communication is communication which respects the rights of all parties involved," explained Pamela Jett, CSP, speaker, author and communication skills expert,

Lethia Owens, a personal branding expert, speaker and author, said assertiveness can be difficult for many people because they may be taught to put others' needs before their own.

"Additionally, we have been repeatedly told we shouldn't make waves or rock the boat if we want to get ahead," Owens said. "Well, I have news for you: the boat is already rocking and the waves are 30 feet high! If you don't learn to assert yourself, you will be engulfed by the ruthless sea of life."

Owens added being assertive can earn you respect from others. "People begin to see you as a person who respects yourself - a person who is worthy of their respect," she noted.

In the Workplace
Being assertive at work is important for success. "Regardless of job description, the ability to clearly state our position, ask for what we need, pitch our ideas and manage our time, tasks and priorities is vital," Jett stressed.

She also said an assertive communicator is able to speak up and participate in meetings in such a way that increases the likelihood their contributions are taken seriously. Additionally, assertive communicators are able to give negative feedback or engage in criticism and discipline without losing their temper or coming across as too "soft" or "weak."

"Assertive communicators can handle the inevitable conflicts of opinions and ideas that occur at work in a way that maintains the quality of relationships," Jett told ADVANCE.

Jett believes assertiveness at work:

  • decreases miscommunication - because people know what is expected of them;

  • increases productivity - because of clear directions and guidelines;

  • improves morale - because people know where they stand and feel respected; and

  • improves employee engagement - because with assertive communicators, others feel freer to participate and share their thoughts and opinions.

Assertive vs. Aggressive
Mimi Donaldson, speaker and author of the upcoming book on assertiveness Necessary Roughness: New Rules for the Contact Sport of Life,, said the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness can be summed up succinctly: "Being assertive is getting what you need and want without hurting other people. Aggressive people don't care if they hurt people."

Owens added being assertive is not emotional and does not place blame, like aggressiveness does. "Individuals with an aggressive communication style frequently put their own thoughts, ideas and desires above those of others," she explained. "Aggressive people are likely to defend their own rights and work to achieve their own goals while disregarding the rights of others."

Jett explained she sees assertiveness being between passiveness and aggressiveness on a continuum. While you don't want to be passive and not stand up for your wants or feelings, you don't want to be aggressive and cram your thoughts and needs down other people's throats.

"Aggressive communicators disrespect the rights of the other party," Jett said. "They often will yell or become intense. They might use foul or colorful language, or directly insult the other party."

What You Can Do
There are conscious skills you can employ to become more assertive. Owens described three key steps to being assertive in the workplace in any situation. First, remember to empathize with the other's person position. Next, state the issue or problem causing you difficulty or dissatisfaction. Finally, state what you want or need, and be specific.

Donaldson gave an example using her "3-A Action Method." Say Tom, an employee, enters your office looking upset. You have a report you need to finish in a half hour. Here's what you do:

Acknowledge: Use 6-second empathy to tell him you understand how he feels and what he wants. "Tom, you look upset - it looks like you need to talk." This calms him, because now he doesn't have to work to make you understand. You have said, in essence, "I understand your priority - and it's important."

Advise: Let him know your priority. You say, "Tom, here's the situation. I have a report to finish for the boss, and it's due in half an hour." You have understood his need, and now you're asking him to understand yours.

Accept or Alter: Accept the interruption with time limits ("I can give you 5 minutes") or suggest an alternative or option ("I'll come to you when I've finished the report").

Don't Be Scared
Now that you know how to be assertive, don't be afraid to follow through. Many people are hesitant to be assertive, but they shouldn't be.

"One of the biggest reasons people struggle with being assertive is they are afraid if they stand up for what they want and what they desire, others will not like them," Jett stated. "That is why it is crucial to understand the difference between wanting to be liked and wanting to be respected.

"While it is true that in the moment, there is a chance others will not like you when you are assertive, in the long run, it helps them respect you. And, for many people, respecting someone is a precursor to genuinely liking them."

Amanda Koehler is associate editor at ADVANCE.

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