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How to Be Assertive

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Learning to Be Assertive in the Workplace

If you're experiencing job dissatisfaction or sense that your career is going nowhere, it may be time to reevaluate your communication skills. Perhaps you are failing to be assertive when it comes to drawing boundaries, communicating needs and pursuing your goals. Learning to assert yourself in the workplace offers many career benefits including:

  • Better time management skills
  • Increased job performance
  • Stronger workplace relationship.
  • Opportunities for career advancement

How Being Assertive Helps Your Career

You are the boss of your career. While your manager can help, it is up to you to be aware of your skills, workload and goals. If you consistently take on projects when you are already low on bandwidth, cower before bullying co-workers or have been passed up for multiple promotions, it's time to take action. Being constantly stressed, overworked and frustrated will eventually impact your job performance and make it difficult to advance within your current company or elsewhere.

Know Your Value

You have value. If you didn't, you wouldn't have a job. When you learn to see your own value, you'll have an easier time being assertive. When you are asked to take on a new project at work or are challenged about an idea that you've proposed, keep your value in mind while formulating a response. As a valuable employee, you are within your rights to set limits on how much time you spend on work projects or to have your opinions respectfully listened to and considered.

Warning

There is a difference between being assertive and being aggressive. Assertiveness is marked by a willingness to identify and express your needs positively and cooperatively. Aggression, on the other hand, is hostile or even angry in tone and carries with it a spoken or unspoken threat of negative consequences for those who disagree with you or won't give you what you want. In the long term, aggression has a negative impact on both your career and your relationships.

Why Some People Have Trouble Asserting Themselves

While being assertive comes naturally to some people, others may find it difficult to stand up for themselves, offer a contrary opinion or pursue a compromise that benefits all parties. Many women, in particular, have been socialized to be agreeable and compliant in personal interactions. While these traits have their benefits in some contexts, they can also make confrontation a challenge.

In addition, some people grew up in homes in which there was little or no healthy conflict. Family members may have simply avoided arguments, just giving into the wants and needs of a dominant family member. Other families instead choose to resolve conflict with aggression and even violence. As a consequence, adults who grew up in these homes may either shy away from conflict entirely or may immediately take an aggressive approach to workplace issues.

Get Help From a Professional

If you grew up in a home where healthy conflict was absent, you might want to seek counseling from an experienced mental health professional. The therapist can help you work through patterns learned in childhood and to develop the emotional and communication tools needed to assert yourself with others.

Watch Your Language

Being aware of your words both written and spoken, as well as your body posture, can help you communicate more assertively. Here are some common ways that you could be undermining your value and authority with the way you speak and act.

  • Avoid weakening your words: Many people minimize the impact of what they say or write by using weak words as modifiers or nouns. For example, avoid using the word "just" before making a proposal. When you say "This is just a thought" or "This is just a suggestion," you undermine your credibility by making your words seem insignificant. Instead, begin your proposal by simply noting that it belongs to you: "I propose that we do XYZ." Then, explain why you think your idea is a good one.
  • Don't apologize unless you've done something wrong: The phrase "I'm sorry." should be reserved for when you are at fault for something and wish to make amends. Never apologize for doing your job, which includes asking questions and offering direct feedback and ideas.
  • Learn to say "no" politely and firmly. Avoid phrases like "I'd rather not" or "I don't think so." If you can't or don't want to do something, say so, and explain why.
  • Be aware of your body language: When in a seated meeting, make sure that your back is straight and feet are planted firmly on the floor. Keep your head up and make appropriate eye contact. If you are speaking to someone while standing, avoid shifting your weight between feet.  

Tip

If you work from home and communicate with your colleagues, clients, or supervisor mostly by phone or email, there are several things you can do to feel more confident during these conversations. Your body language still matters: Use the same assertive body language that you would in a face-to-face meeting, even if the person you are speaking to can't actually see you.

Practice Safely

Being assertive is a skill, one that improves with practice. Find safe ways to practice what you are learning:

  • If standing up to a boss or co-worker is intimidating at first, practice with a friend or family member. If your sister always picks where you go to lunch, say "You know, I've got this restaurant I'd really like to try. Let's go there." If a friend always keeps you too long on the phone, keep an eye on the clock. When 30 minutes (or whatever length of time you choose) is up, end the conversation politely but firmly. 
  • Consider role-playing with a trusted friend or counselor.
  • Propose a new plan or project to a non-work committee or group that you belong to.
  • Some people have found that taking an acting or improv comedy class can be helpful in developing presence and confidence. Many theater groups offer such classes to the public.  

Offer Solutions

After you've presented your concerns and established your boundaries, it's now time to offer solutions. For example, if your supervisor wants you to perform not only your own job but also a coworkers' tasks while she is on medical leave, explain that you don't have the time to do someone else's job well alongside your own. From there, however, move forward to offer constructive solutions. For example, you could suggest that your coworkers' tasks be assigned to multiple people in your division, or even to student interns.

Develop Strong Work Relationships

It can be easier to directly communicate with and challenge others at work if you have good relationships with your colleagues. Getting to know others helps you to develop confidence while also building a history of positive interactions. Colleagues may also be more willing to support you in meetings if they know you personally and value your contributions.