How to Be More Assertive at Work (Without Being a Jerk)

assertive businesswoman

Be More Assertive

Read any article on winning at life and you’ll see some variation of this advice.

Want to get noticed at work? Be more assertive.

Need a promotion? Be more assertive.

Easier said than done right?

It’s like the oblivious hot guy sharing dating tips: “You want to date that girl out of your league?  Just ask her out.”

Well thanks Reuben, you sexy, blissfully ignorant bastard, but lack of intent isn’t the problem here.

Let’s have a show of hands. Who of us has intentionally declined a promotion or volunteered to remain invisible at work?

Thought so.

Be more assertive might be great advice for the occasionally unmindful professional, otherwise brimming with confidence, but what are the rest of us supposed to do?

You know, we mere mortals who, despite our crippling anxiety, have tried time and again to be clear and concise about our demands, but somehow never clinched the intended effect.

We were brushed off, or we managed to rub people in the wrong way.

But there is good news. Even those confident and oh-so-slick colleagues of yours, who seem to have had their confidence handed down from above, didn’t start out great.

In fact, many of them only got there by using a few rules and techniques of engagement that even you can acquire with a bit of practice.

Intrigued? Let’s dive in.

The 3 C’s

Assertive communication revolves around the 3 C’s, as Mindvalley also emphasizes:

  • Confidence – You believe in yourself, your message, and your ability to handle the situation.
  • Clarity – Your message is clear and easy to understand.
  • Control – You deliver your message in a calm and controlled manner. You are in control of the situation and are monitoring what’s happening

If you ever feel that a conversation has veered away from how you intended it to be, re-iterate the three Cs in your mind. It will help you gain focus, grab the reins, and steer the conversation back on track.

Next up – the Physicalities

Assertive body language

The physical aspects of communication can make or break a conversation. Tone these down and you risk turning yourself into a doormat. Dial these up a notch more and you turn into an aggressive jerk.

The Impact Factory professionals recommend a few physical aspects that you need to keep in mind. Let me walk you through them:

  • Make eye contact with the person you’re talking to; it conveys interest and shows sincerity. It helps you to stay focused on the conversation. The other person also realizes that you care about what they are saying.
  • Make your body language congruent to the message that you want to convey. It will improve the significance of the message.
  • Add appropriate gestures to add emphasis to your message.
  • Last but not the least, your voice. Want to sound convincing without being intimidating? Just keep your voice relaxed, set it to a level and modulated tone, and see the magic happen.

Don’t allow hesitation or harshness to creep into your voice. This will take practice, so don’t get annoyed if you do end up raising your voice or rushing a conversation.

The masters of this craft can keep their voice friendly and calm, even when conversations get tough. They have the uncanny ability to bring balance back to the conversation.

Now you know the fundamentals to keep in mind. Let’s deep-dive and build upon that:

Assertive Communication out in the Wild

The basics are all well and good, but will they be enough to see you through a tough conversation, where emotions are running high?

You and I both know the answer. We have learned it the bitter way before. So what else do you need to know?

Let’s unmuzzle our imagination and let it run wild for a while.

Imagine this monk, this 7th dan black belt from the Songshan Shaolin Temple. But, instead of martial arts, he has been trained in assertive communications.

Still with me? Good.

Now imagine that you are so intrigued (let’s be honest, who wouldn’t be?), that you asked him out for coffee. What kind of mind-dazzling assertive communication tips can you glean out of him over the cup?

These few advice would definitely be there in his list:

Be Self’I’sh

focus on yourself

Keep your statements focussed on yourself – on your thoughts and your feelings. Express them; stick with statements that include ‘I’ in them:

I think this new approach will work. Do you think it sounds reasonable? Then let’s give it a try.

You are presenting new ideas and possibilities and they are always appreciated.

I feel my skills and capabilities are not being used to their full extent.

You are raising a valid concern here. Both you and the organization lose out when your skills and your bandwidth are not utilized.

And for God’s sake, steer clear of aggressive and accusatory sentences :

You always assign extra workload on me, even when you know I’m working at capacity.

You never appreciate my hard work and contributions to the team.

Statements like these never work and only foster bad blood. And if you dissect the sentences, they are not even true.

Was the work “always” assigned to you? Any work that cropped up in your team? Each and every time?

Were you “never” appreciated? None of your efforts ever earned praise? Not even a single pat on the back?

I doubt that.

Stick to “I” statements and they will help you become more assertive.

Order a New Set of Verbs

You might think, that if you sugar-coat your message, it will have a better chance of getting accepted. But that’s not how it works.

It only confuddles your bosses or your colleagues. They don’t immediately realize what you really want from them.

They have to unwrap the sugar-coating to get to the crux of the message. And while getting decoded, your message often loses its original meaning.

Do you really want that?

Instead, send across a clear message. Use verbs that are more definite and emphatic – verbs like “will” instead of “could” or “should,” and “want” instead of “need.”

I have plans for a vacation next week. So I was thinking that it would be great if someone could cover my workload.

I will be going on vacation next week, so I will need someone to cover my workload.

 

I need to attend this training. Would it be possible if I can take some time out for that from my regular schedule?

I want to attend this training because I believe it will help me to progress in my role and my career.

Add your own reason followed by a “because”. Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer has proved, that when you ask for a favor, your rate of success increases from 60% to 93% if you provide a reason followed by a “because” 1.

Leave Your Inner Judge Judy Back Home

don't be judgmental

You want to approach someone about an unwanted behavior – something that you’d like to see changed. How do you go about that?

Elizabeth Scott, MS advises sticking to the facts. Describe what they did and why you didn’t like it. Be accurate about the effects of this behavior.

Feel that urge to exaggerate just a wee little bit? Use some negative labels or adjectives? Throw in a few offhand judgments while you are at it?

Stuff them all down. They might make you feel righteous and give you some momentary satisfaction, but in reality, you are shooting your own foot.

Be honest and tell others how you feel or what you want. Don’t make accusations or try to make them feel guilty (see the first section on using ‘I’ statements).

Your Opponent is not Your Enemy

Now that you have placed your cards on the table, it’s time to be respectful and hear out your colleague with patience.

As per the Better Health Channel,  try to understand the other person’s point of view. Don’t interrupt when they are explaining it to you.

Conflicts of opinion will happen – that’s natural of course. Take a problem-solving approach to conflict. Resist your urge to denounce the other person’s view and declare your own to be correct.

Being assertive means to keep the dialogue open, until the issue gets resolved. Ask more questions, listen more carefully, or get creative and explore more options.

“Always remember, that to argue and win, is to break down the reality of the person you are arguing against. It is painful to lose your reality, so be kind, even if you are right.” – Haruki Murakami

Others won’t Play by the Rules

Okay, so you have followed all the rules.

In a conversation, you are using “I” statements with emphatic verbs, and not being judgemental. You are hearing out the other person’s views and opinions with patience and without judgment.

Now you expect the other person to extend the same courtesy to you; it’s only fair, right?

There’s just one problem…

Even if you play fair, it’s possible that the other person goes for a few below-the-belt hits. Tension may mount up in the process.

If that happens, as Eric Barker also suggests, keep in mind that you can only control yourself and your own behavior. So throw that false expectation out of the window. Do your best to stay calm and measured, if things get tense.

As long as you are being respectful and not violating other’s needs, you have the right to say or do what you want.

Soak up the Feedback you Receive

accept feedback

I get it, okay. Receiving feedback is hard.

It’s not easy to open up to criticisms from others, which may directly hit on our insecurities.

But build up the resilience to bear it anyway. Accept both positive and negative feedback with grace and humility. Don’t let the unhelpful, subjective, or harsh feedback get under your skin.

How do you do that?

Try to be analytical about the feedback and see if you find any nuggets of truth within it. Do that, you will be able to connect powerfully with your opponent. The rewards borne from such a connection are extremely rich.

If you don’t agree with the criticism that you received, then say so. But do that without getting defensive or angry.

If you are rolling your eyes right now, just bear with me here…

You’ll get hurt or even get angry – it’s only natural. And I’m not saying that you eat up the anger. But this is not the place to express it.

Later, when you are alone with your journal – let it flow.

If you can master the art of receiving feedback, it will be a source of powerful learning and insights. It will make you more confident even while you remain grounded in reality.

Use Canned Responses

Do you anticipate that a conversation is going to be difficult?

Then why not prepare a canned response in advance, and stack the odds in your favor?

Create a swipe file of assertions, conversation-enders, templates, and scripts that you can memorize and use. They will save you from that deer-in-the -headlight feeling.

Tired of Being Tongue-tied in Conversations?

Grab these Science-backed Assertiveness Booster Templates and rule conversations today - even if these confrontations make you anxious

Don’t get bit by the Foot-in-the-Mouth Bug

Sometimes, it’s best not to say anything right away. You might be too emotional, or you might not know what it is that you want – yet.

If you choose to continue the conversation in such a state, you may catch a bad case of Foot-in-the-mouth-ivitis. You might regret what you say in such an emotional and mental state (Oh boy, I wish I could follow this bit of advice a little better).

Remember your HR manager’s favorite phrase: “Let me get back to you about that.”

Why not use that to your own benefit?

Be honest and tell the other person that you need a few minutes to compose your thoughts.

Trust your instinct. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t react and say “okay” out of habit. That might be held against you later.

‘No’ is a Reasonable Answer

Seriously no

Protect your time and your workload by saying ‘no’ when necessary. You can’t stop people from asking, but you can say ‘no’.

Sounds scary?

You are not alone there. We all die a little inside when we have to say ‘no’. But you can learn to ease up the dread.

Figure out the reasonable consequences of saying ‘no’. Is your belief reasonable? Are you absolutely sure? Has it ever happened before?

Are you willing to accept the likely consequences?

If you are, then go ahead and say ‘no’. If you’re not, make the choice to say ‘yes’.

And when you do say no, try to find a win-win solution that works for everyone. Try out the “let’s just try it once” reversible trial method a.k.a The Puppy Dog Close 2 .

‘No’ is the word that leads you from doormat-hood to the assertive zone.

‘Now’ O’Clock Live

Last but not least – stay rooted in the present.

But what does that mean?

Give your complete attention to what your colleague is trying to say, not the issues that you had with them in the past.

Fail to do that and your mind will get distracted. You’ll lose the attention of the other person as well.

This single takeaway can alone help you become more assertive and communicate effectively.

Your Office Can Be Your Oyster

assertiveness benefits

If all this sounds like a lot of work, it is. And that’s the reason you will shine through. Because not everyone will do the inner work and put in the mental effort required to become more assertive.

It’s why a very small percentage of professionals become rockstars at work.

But we’re the lucky ones because we now know the secrets of the “blue-eyed boys” at the office.

They’ve done the heavy lifting and trained their minds. They are well-versed in the techniques for a successful assertive conversation.

And you can do the exact same thing.

I won’t guarantee that you’ll become the most talked-about hotshot at work who is next in line for a promotion. That will depend on whether you’ve put in the dues.

But I will guarantee that you’ll become a much more confident and assertive professional – if you follow these simple steps.

You will feel confident to speak your mind at work – in a clear and well-articulated way. Your colleagues and your bosses will better hear and understand what you want and need.

You will be on your way to attain the success you really deserve and be in charge of your destiny.

Do yourself a favor and get started today.

There’s no excuse.

Because you finally know what you need to do to… be more assertive – without being a jerk.

Sources

  1. Cialdini PhD, Robert B. Influence (Collins Business Essentials) (p. 4)
  2. Ferriss, Timothy. The 4-Hour Work Week. Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition

    The Puppy Dog Close in sales is so named because it is based on the pet store sales approach: If someone likes a puppy but is hesitant to make the life-altering purchase, just offer to let them take the pup home and bring it back if they change their minds. Of course, the return seldom happens.

8 thoughts on “How to Be More Assertive at Work (Without Being a Jerk)”

  1. This article is perfectly fit for me and I will try to follow this so that I can become more assertive person.
    Thank you for giving me such a nice thoughts to make my life more progressive.

  2. Great article, Subhajit! I really resonate with the part about using sentences focused on “I” instead of speaking for others and making assumptions. This is also a principle in Nonviolent Communication; after all, everything we experience, perceive or assume is always a reflection of our own point of view, so why not always state it like that anyway? Thanks for such an insightful read!

    1. Thanks Silvia, and I agree with you. To think, that we know what someone else is thinking, is the height of arrogance. Always better to stick to our own point of view.
      Thank you for the reference to Nonviolent Communication as well. I found out their almost exhaustive list of needs and feelings through your recent article.

  3. Emphasising the ‘I’ part is a really good way of defusing situations, although you still have to listen to the other person so as not to come over as me, me, me…..

    Another tactic is to explain that if you do x for this person then you can’t do y for that person. Ask this person if they will go and explain to that person why you wouldn’t be able to help them do their work. All the while, you can sugar coat it with, you know I’d love to help you, but that person did ask first and I would like to be really fair.

    Sound advice here Subhajit – keep it coming!

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