Assertiveness: A much maligned term

1 March 2014

So you want to say no, or want someone else to say yes, and you feel you have right on your side. You don’t want to be a doormat but neither do you want to be seen as bossy or demanding. Communications specialist ROBYN WALSHE shares some tips on how to assertively – not aggressively – put your case.

Assertiveness is a very misunderstood word – and it has bad press. When someone is described as being “assertive”, there’s often a suggestion that it is a euphemism for bossy, demanding, or even bitchy. I believe the word needs some clarifying.

Assertiveness is more than an attitude – it’s a head space, and it starts with mutual respect. When you regard the other party involved as also having rights, unmet needs, and wanting opportunities to voice those – you are coming together as equals (i.e. a win-win situation). And it matters not whether you are the supervisor, nurse, colleague, parent, patient, or volunteer.

By contrast, being passive (lose-win) is when you readily give up your own rights, unmet needs, and voice. Aggressiveness (win-lose) is when you demand those rights. The hardest space is dealing with others who respond passively or aggressively. So while you may have the intention is to work it out together – assertively – the other party prefers to cave in, or bully their way through.

Your approach and response is what matters. So how do you manage this space?

Know what you want and why you want it

Principled-based stands are far more effective than those that are ego-based. If the reason you’re holding your ground is because you need to win, look good, or hit back at the other party, then think about that and ask yourself “Why?”. What exactly are you afraid of that means you prefer to play this game? (Deep questions that need to be addressed before you can make an authentic stand.)

Focus first on listening

If you can understand the real need the other party has, you know what you’re dealing with. (And yes, it may be that their needs are ego-based. Fine. At least you know what’s really going on.) You’ll establish a level of respect from the other by working to first understand.

Ask clarifying questions

There’s always something that needs checking: for example, the resources available, the background context, the deadline, and who else needs to know or be involved.

Outline your position

State what areas you have in common and what the points of difference might be.

“BUT”…avoid this dangerous three-letter word

It always infers a defensive position and builds barriers, not bridges. Pause. Begin your response with something like this: “I think I understand where you’re coming from. This is how I’m seeing it.”

”SORRY”…another word to watch

It infers a level of responsibility for what’s not working or for the emotion that’s surfacing. Try this instead: “I’m disappointed that you feel that way.” Or “I’m disappointed that today’s schedule won’t make that possible.” Or “I need to say no. I know you’ll be disappointed in that response.”

Offer solutions

“What else might we try here?” “Is there someone else we could ask?” “I can help you with that tomorrow. Today is difficult.” Note the use of ‘we’. It evokes a level of cooperation and support for solving the issue at hand.

Eye contact, lower voice tones and volume

These all reinforce a genuine interest in connecting positively. (Start by breathing well and they’ll happen naturally).

About the author: Robyn Walshe BA PGDip DipTch MBA leads Davidson Kemp Consultancy, which focuses on building competence and capability in organisations and their people including the health sector.

The case for assertiveness

Here are some fresh ways of looking at the value of being assertive:

  • If we don’t tell others how their behaviour affects us, we’re denying them the opportunity to change.
  • We have a right to express ourselves as long as we don’t violate the rights of others.
  • When we are assertive, we teach people how we would like them to behave towards us.
  • By standing up for our rights, we respect ourselves and get others’ respect.
  • Not letting others know how we feel is a form of controlling them.
  • Sacrificing our rights can result in training others to mistreat us.
  • When we do what is right for us, we feel better about ourselves and have more authentic and satisfying relationships with others.
  • Everyone has the right to courtesy and respect.

Assertive people:

  • Are effective listeners
  • Give and get respect
  • Receive compliments
  • Give compliments
  • Are fair and ask for fairness
  • Are able to refuse a request
  • Can change the topic of conversation
  • Report good news about themselves
  • Ask for help when they need it
  • Aim for win-win situations
  • State their needs, wants and preferences
  • Don’t allow themselves to be interrupted without good reason
  • Can tell someone they don’t want advice
  • Are able to tell others when something really bothers them
  • Can openly discuss another’s criticism of themselves
  • Can express a different opinion
  • Leave space for compromise when their needs and rights conflict with another person’s.