by Christine Dafter
Throughout the world, it’s the people in organisations who can assert themselves that seem to get what they want easily, and those who can’t who seem to dissolve into the background.
Corporations are always sending their people to courses to become more assertive. As you consider what’s appropriate for your organisation, and your people, consider these questions: what is assertiveness; what is it not; and what are the skills that can be acquired easily? After 13 years of running these courses, let me share some of my insights.
Assertiveness is often not understood
Some people believe that being assertive is about being loud, demanding and uncaring of others. This is the formula for aggressiveness and not like assertiveness at all. It’s important to understand the distinction. Assertiveness is a skill. It is a skill that allows an individual to communicate their thoughts, feelings and opinions clearly and directly.
Assertiveness is midway between being passive and being aggressive. It is the ability to constructively express thoughts and feeling without placing our rights and needs above the listener. Assertive statements are expressed without humiliating, dominating or insulting the other person.
The culture of an organisation often defines what is expected by way of a communication style. If a meeting is held and everyone has something to say, it’s the quiet one that stands out. It’s not that they don’t have something to say. Maybe they are too shy, uncomfortable speaking up in front of peers, or simply do not have the skills.
In assertiveness training, before we talk about specific skills, we explore what genuine assertiveness looks like and sound like.
People are often surprised to learn that it is possible to be both quiet and assertive. A soft spoken “no thanks” is as assertive as and probably more effective than a screaming rant. They learn that assertive behaviour does not require intimidating stances, strong language or angry looks. It simply requires speaking for ourselves and conveying what we want or what our opinion is, clearly and directly.
We don’t need to overcome the enemy, we just have to voice our needs
There are many benefits to assertiveness training. For the quiet one in the meeting, they will finally be heard, empowered and stand up to be counted. For others, they develop the self confidence to say what they are thinking, what they want or what they need.
Since assertiveness is a skill, it can be learned. In order to begin learning the skills, let’s start with a clear definition and understanding of assertiveness.
Assertiveness is about communication at an individual level, clearly and directly. Learning, understanding and using verbal patterns is essential. The most important is the “I” statement. This is also the easiest way to begin implementing assertiveness skills. Practising “I” statements – such as “I need”, “I want”, or “I’m thinking” is the beginning of becoming assertive.
Here’s a model to help when explaining “I” statements:
The blame and justify response is below the line. Above the line you take responsibility for your own actions, thoughts and feelings. By beginning a sentence with “I” instead of “You” an individual is able to state their perspective and be in a position to express what they think, without blaming someone else.
Assertiveness is more than just a communication skill. It is a mindset. The need to believe that they are worthy, and just as important as others, is paramount. To do this, people need to feel good about themselves, and have a healthy self-esteem. Some of us have been taught a life time of things such as “you need to be nice” or “if you aren’t nice to others, they won’t like you”. This can be a major barrier to learning assertiveness skills.
When learning to be more assertive, the first step is often to identify the situations in which you are not assertive. When you can recognise why, then you can recognise the benefits of changing. Digging down to the feelings and beliefs that will stop you from implementing the skills is a critical component. Often, it is dealing with these feelings and beliefs that have stopped a person from becoming more assertive at work in the first place.
One indicator of a change in the mindset to becoming more assertive is the level at which a person explains everything.
“The more you talk, the less assertive you are!”
Think about the last time you had a conversation with someone that went on and on and on. Did you wonder why they did this? Were they doing this for your benefit or theirs? When using the “I” statement it is about getting your thoughts and feelings across clearly and directly. Excessive explanations dilute what is being said and usually make the communication unclear.
Taking personal responsibility is part of being assertive.
Listen to a person who is not being assertive. Are they sounding like they are taking responsibility for what they are saying? I often use the example of deciding where to go for dinner. Is the response “what do you think” or “whatever everyone else wants”? How frustrating is this! This passive behaviour does not allow the person to participate in the decision. They give over all of their power to the person asking the question. Personal responsibility is participating and assertively putting your opinion forward.
Learn to say ‘NO’
Learning to say no is an important part of assertiveness training. This is often the hardest part for people. The image they have in their heads of themselves, saying no to a co-worker or manager, is a scary one. Often they feel intimidated and can’t see themselves doing anything different.
We begin by looking at alternatives. Is it ok to stress yourself out, work till your frazzled, and probably not do a good job at what you are responsible for because you can’t say no? How would you react if someone told you they can’t do something now because they need to finish their work but after that is done, they would be happy to help. This assertive response is perfectly acceptable. They are saying “no” but are doing it in an assertive manner.
Practice makes Permanent
Assertiveness skills require practice. A good manager knows that people will need coaching to implement what they have learned. Without the opportunity to practise the new skills, they will not be adopted.
I encourage people to practise their skills on someone they will likely never see again. For example, return the cold meal the next time you are at a restaurant. Resist the temptation to give in to the urban myth, about what hospitality workers do to customers they don’t like, and assert your right to enjoy a quality meal prepared the way you’ve ordered it.
Practise saying “no” to a shop assistant in a tone of voice that is more assertive than usual. At this point, your understanding of what assertiveness is and feels like begins to grow. When practising it, try one more thing – vary your tone of voice.
We have all heard the statistics before – verbal communication is comprised of 93% nonverbal communication and 7% is the words you choose. Well, 38% of that is expressed with tone, pitch, and pace of voice. By listening to yourself as you practise, you can develop a tone that you are comfortable with, then slowly begin to use this in the work place.
Working with a coach or someone you can trust to help you, is the best way to practise the skills needed to become more assertive. Asking yourself why you don’t speak up and working through the thoughts and feelings, will also help you to develop the assertive mindset, needed to implement assertiveness skills. Remember – practice makes permanent!
Chris is a well credentialed highly skilled learning specialist, who brings to her clients practical work experience translated into an effective learning experience. Chris specialises in all aspects of front line management development, as well as working with people in their personal and professional development.
Chris can be contacted through The Training Link 1300 88 44 33