Share This

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The need to be assertive

Project Management InstituteImage by craig.martell via Flickr


One should be allowed to say ‘no’ and make a stand on an issue without feeling guilty or harassed.

RECENTLY, I met a female friend in Putrajaya who looked upset. I then decided to take her out for coffeee to find out the cause of her worries and stress.

My friend then confessed that she was unable to bring herself to tell a male member of her team that his sexist remarks to female team-mates were hurtful and that he should refrain from doing so.

I told her to be assertive and that she should tell him that such negative remarks should stop immediately.

“I am a woman and women aren’t like that,” she responded.

Since she is of a gentle, passive nature, I offered her some tips on being assertive and how it could help improve confidence and self-esteem.

Assertiveness is about having the confidence to have your say, to live your life without resorting to passive, aggressive or even manipulative behaviour.

It’s also about being not afraid to state your own needs while listening to the views of the other person, which in turn boosts your confidence and self-esteem.

A complicating factor in all this is about an individual’s childhood and culture.

For example, people who grew up with very strict parents and dominant older siblings may be less assertive.

Also, certain cultural values in which stereotypical behaviour of submissiveness, especially amongst girls, is bound to make behaviour at the work place more challenging.

However in some instances, whatever one’s childhood or cultural background, passive or aggressive behaviour may be a means of achieving their desired goals and it comes naturally.

Just observe some men who yell or women who sulk, or vice versa!

Assertiveness is a better option for desired outcomes because unlike the emotional basis of passive or aggressive behaviour, it is rooted in thinking and planning.

It is a savvy assessment of your needs and feelings in the light of practicalities, and the other person’s position. It can be learnt and is appropriate for men and women. It is also sensitive to different cultural values.

Assertiveness is also based on “rights”. They include the treatment of other people as equals, regardless of gender, race, age, disability or status.

Being assertive also means that one is able to to ask for what he wants, and to be listened to seriously. An individual should also be allowed to have this own opinions and to say “no” without feeling guilty and to change his mind and to hold to his own values.

As an exercise in self esteem-building, try saying out loud to your reflection in a mirror that you can do and carry out the tasks that worry you.

Keep telling yourself that, “I can do statistical work” or “I will make a good presentation”.

Do this several times a day. It does help, especially when you support confidence-building with practical steps like reading a book on basic statistics or on presentation skills. Situations that require assertiveness are usually stressful.

Fortunately, there is a simple exercise which will help relieve physical symptoms of stress like a rapidly-beating heart, sweaty palms or even a high-piched voice.

Before meeting the other party, press both palms of your hands together with the fingers pointing upwards and your forearms horizontal, until you feel the pressure in the heels of the palms and under your arms.

Breathe in and out slowly through a slightly open mouth, tightening the muscles between the ribs as you exhale and then relaxing them before you start the inhalation. Do three or four repetitions. It works.

If you read a previous article on body language you will remember that your body cues must match your words.

Adopt a relaxed stance, have good eye contact; hold your arms loosely at your sides or in your lap if seated; face tand lean slightly towards the other person.

Speak at normal conversational volume. Try to end with a smile.

The language of assertiveness is clear, direct and concise. This is about you: what you feel and want.

It is essential to use language appropriate to the person you are talking to, and not fall back on vocabulary, concepts or jargon beyond the other person’s understanding.

Assertiveness is not about superiority or cleverness.

“Should” and “could” are words to be used with caution when you want to be assertive.

“Could you do that for me?” “Could I ask for time off for all that overtime I worked?” “You should stop making sexist remarks!”

They create confusion to the listener about the legitimacy of your request.

The assertive wording would be “Please do that”; “I would like time off ….”; “Stop making….”

“Hope” is another word which interferes with your choices. You chose to work late because you can and want to. “I hope I can work late” implies doubt.

Assertiveness is thinking and speaking positively with confidence. It’s also about an honest evaluation of the situation and the other person and his/her opinions and needs before you even raise an issue. Is compromise possible? Are there personal considerations with the other person that need to be taken into account?

Avoid implied character criticism. “Please do/do not do something” is clear but neutral. “Why can’t you just do/not do…” implies a criticism of a specific character rather than a specific task in hand.

If what you ask for creates strong emotion in the other person, acknowledge this with a defusing statement such as: “I see you are unhappy with what I have just said, but I think it’s important for you to know my position and for us to have an open chat about it”.

Recognising the other person’s opinion is another good way of keeping the situation on an even keel: “I understand what you are saying BUT…..”.

Never use antagonistic phrases like: “Let me repeat”, “Are you listening?” or “Don’t interrupt”. And criticism without suggesting a solution is irrelevant and not at all helpful.

If you are in the position of having to apologise for a mistake, do it once, not repeatedly.

Be specific about why things went wrong. Don’t over-elaborate. Everyone makes a mistake now and then, even the boss.

Criticising a colleague is tough. But it will win you respect in the long run provided you do so in private and are fair, firm and specific.

Try and thank the other person if possible at the end of the conversation.

Thank you for giving me the time to talk about this” or “I’m glad you understand”. Such statement will make both of you feel better.

Assertiveness is a way of life. It won’t always bring you a happy outcome.

However, it will make you comfortable with yourself and generate respect amongst colleagues and friends.

By the way, it may interest you to know that my friend feels a lot better now after being successful in putting an end to the sexist remarks in her office!

Alex Cummins is a trainer with the Professional Development Unit of the Brtish Council in Kuala Lumpur.