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How to be assertive at work — without overdoing it

Brandi Gratis

Brandi Gratis

September 29, 2023

Practicing assertiveness in the workplace can be tricky. Use too much, and you might strain relationships; use too little, and you might hold back from contributing the best work you have to offer. Without a healthy level of assertiveness in the workplace, communication and teamwork can’t thrive.

Whether you’re communicating your needs to your boss, working through an issue with a coworker, or leading a team, assertiveness is a necessary skill in any collaborative environment.

Luckily, even if you’re naturally a very unassertive person, this craft can be learned, improved, and honed. Here’s how to be assertive at work.

What is assertiveness?

To feel comfortable being assertive, it’s important to first understand what constitutes assertiveness rather than aggression or rudeness.

Assertiveness is the ability to confidently, respectfully, and directly express your thoughts, feelings, and needs. It is NOT the act of being hostile, aggressive, or demanding to get what you want.

Assertiveness isn’t about winning arguments or forcing your opinions on others. It’s a tool for fostering effective communication in which you and your collaborators feel heard, understood, and respected.

What does it take to be assertive?

Learning to be more assertive requires a few key things. First, you need to value yourself and your opinions as much as anyone else’s. If you’re lacking in self-confidence and worried your ideas aren’t as good as other people’s, it will be understandably difficult to assert yourself. That doesn’t mean you should forget about humility or start asserting that all of your ideas are great, but you do need to believe in yourself and your abilities and feel confident in sharing that belief with others.

Second, you need to balance your wants and needs with the rights of others. As we stated previously, assertiveness isn’t just about always getting what you want. Awareness of other’s feelings, desires, and rights is crucial. When you move beyond asserting your values and start infringing on others, you’ve gone too far.

Third, you need to be able to express negative thoughts in an objective, or even positive, way. When you’re using assertiveness to address a negative event or feeling, it’s important that you not let emotion take over. It’s perfectly normal to feel angry, but it’s never okay to take that anger out on others.

Similarly, you need to be receptive to feedback. When others are asserting their opinions and feelings, you need to be able to take them in with understanding and respect. Moreover, you need to use other’s feedback in a constructive way, even if hearing it may make you feel hurt or embarrassed at first.

Finally, you need to say ‘no’ when necessary. You are always in charge of your own boundaries and limits. If someone is doing something or asking something of you that you have good reason to object to, you can and should. Seek out compromises and alternatives when you can.

Why is it important to be assertive?

Assertiveness is a vital skill in the workplace for several compelling reasons:

  1. Effective Communication: Being assertive helps you convey your ideas, opinions, and needs clearly and confidently, leading to better communication with colleagues, superiors, and subordinates.
  2. Conflict Resolution: It allows you to address conflicts and disagreements openly and constructively, fostering resolution and preventing issues from escalating.
  3. Enhanced Collaboration: Assertive individuals often excel in teamwork, as they can actively participate in discussions, share their insights, and contribute to group decisions.
  4. Increased Self-Esteem: Developing assertiveness can boost your self-esteem and self-worth, leading to a more positive self-image.
  5. Career Advancement: Assertive employees tend to stand out and are more likely to be considered for leadership roles and promotions because they can effectively express their ideas and take initiative.

Techniques for assertion

There are a few popular techniques for practicing assertion.

Empathetic assertion requires using empathy to demonstrate your sensitivity to others while conveying your thoughts clearly. It’s a simple two-step process: first, acknowledge the other person’s situation or feelings, then state your needs or opinions. “I know you’ve been taking on a lot of extra work lately, but when you give me information late, it delays the whole project.”

Escalating assertion involves upping your level of assertion over time, starting out empathetic, and getting more firm as time progresses. You may need to introduce consequences should things not change. For example, if the previous request was ignored, you could say, “If you cannot deliver your work on time, we will have to take you off the project.”

Feeling assertion is related to feeling statements; it involves telling the other person how their actions directly affect how you feel. Start by stating the action objectively, then describe the negative effect it has, and close with a feeling statement. For example, “When you interrupt me during meetings, I don’t get to share my opinion with the group, and I feel like my ideas aren’t respected.”

Applying these on your own

If coming up with your own assertive statements is tough at first, don’t worry; it does get easier with practice. You may want to hold off on trying to construct them on the spot. Instead, prepare what you want to say and set up a one-on-one with the person to discuss. This preparation will help you make sure you are clear, respectful, and ready to listen.

Of course, there is always the possibility of a negative or defensive reaction, which is why it’s important that you prepare yourself to stay calm and confident no matter what. You may even want to write down some notes beforehand, such as examples of the thing you want to address. The goal is to be clear and accurate while remaining objective.

If you aren’t sure which technique to use, try writing out a few different kinds of statements. Walk away from them for a while and come back later when you’re not feeling upset or aggravated. Reread them to see which sounds better. If you’re still unsure, you might even ask a friend to read them aloud to you.

If you’re not comfortable using any of the techniques we listed, you can always make your own. There are many ways to be assertive without fitting a single rule.

Speaking up is difficult for a lot of people. But it’s good for everyone when all team members feel heard and respected. If it takes a little assertive practice to get there, that’s a pill worth swallowing.

Examples of assertive behavior in the workplace

If you’re unsure when exactly these tactics might come in handy, here are some examples of when you might need to practice assertive behavior in the workplace:

  1. Expressing Disagreement: When you disagree with a colleague’s idea, you calmly voice your concerns and provide constructive feedback, focusing on the issue, not the person.
  2. Setting Boundaries: If you’re overwhelmed with tasks, you politely communicate your workload limits and request assistance or a realistic deadline extension.
  3. Requesting Feedback: When you seek feedback from your supervisor, you ask specific questions and express your desire for professional growth.
  4. Dealing with Criticism: When receiving criticism, you listen attentively, seek clarification if needed, and respond professionally without becoming defensive.
  5. Negotiating: During negotiations, you confidently state your needs and preferences while considering the other party’s interests to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.

How to develop assertiveness skills

The good news about this soft skill is that it can be developed. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you become more assertive:

  1. Self-Reflection: Reflect on your communication style and identify areas where you’d like to be more assertive. Recognize your self-worth and the importance of expressing your needs.
  2. Effective Communication: Enhance your active listening skills to better understand others’ perspectives. Use “I” statements to express your feelings and needs, and avoid blaming or accusing language.
  3. Practice Empathy: Understand the emotions and viewpoints of others. Empathetic assertion acknowledges their feelings while expressing your needs. For example, “I understand your concerns, but I also need…”
  4. Embrace Feedback: Welcome feedback from others and use it as an opportunity for personal growth. Ensure your responses to feedback remain constructive.
  5. Set Boundaries: Clearly define your boundaries and communicate them respectfully. Learn to say “no” when necessary without feeling guilty.
  6. Manage Emotions: Keep emotions in check, especially during challenging conversations. Stay calm, composed, and focused on the issue at hand.
  7. Role-Playing: Practice assertive communication through role-playing scenarios with a trusted colleague or friend.

How to deal with non-assertive people

On the flip side, you may find that you struggle to communicate with people who dislike or are uncomfortable with assertiveness. Encountering non-assertive individuals is common. Here’s how to interact with them effectively:

  1. Practice Patience: Be patient when communicating with non-assertive individuals, as they may struggle to express themselves.
  2. Encourage Openness: Create a supportive environment where non-assertive individuals feel safe sharing their thoughts and feelings.
  3. Active Listening: Pay close attention to what non-assertive individuals are saying and ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand their perspective.
  4. Avoid Pressure: Refrain from pressuring them to be assertive; instead, offer your assistance and encourage them to speak up when they’re ready.

Now you’re ready to be assertive at work

In summary, assertiveness in the workplace is a vital skill that fosters effective communication, resolves conflicts, and promotes professional growth. Striking the right balance empowers individuals to express their thoughts, feelings, and needs confidently and respectfully. By valuing oneself, empathizing with others, and maintaining receptivity to feedback, assertive skills can be honed and incorporated into both professional and personal life. In this pursuit, having the right team collaboration tools is indispensable, as they facilitate healthy, assertive communication, ensuring that team members are heard, understood, and respected. Embrace assertiveness and these tools to elevate collaboration, productivity, and satisfaction in your work environment.

This post was originally published on July 17, 2018, and updated most recently on September 29, 2023.



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