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Making Your Voice Heard at Work: The Art of Assertiveness

Assertiveness at Work

Recently, I was at a luncheon with a bunch of other strong, independent business women. We all sat at one enormous table where were a number of desserts were being passed around, and, in a moment when there was uncertainty about who ought to receive the circulating dessert next, I said, “I’ll take that!” Someone then said, “That Stacey! She speaks her mind! You always know where she stands.” Laughter erupted, and I got the decadent chocolate torte in record time. Hooray for being assertive!

Yes, I know where I stand—on, dessert, always—and many other, more important matters. I also believe I am not alone; that we all know where we stand, if we are willing to admit it aloud to ourselves, first, and then the other people in the room, without hesitation or hostility.

Unfortunately, some of us have been trained to be quiet, and stuff where we stand in an effort to be "nice", while others have been trained to run over anyone who disagrees with us lest we not get our way. Neither option is healthy for us, or for the groups we are a part of. And it seems these days fewer and fewer of us are learning what healthy assertiveness looks like—so much so, that we think assertiveness is the same as aggressiveness.

I'd like to make an assertion here: you have an obligation to yourself and your coworkers to be more assertive. If you're one of those folks who constantly finds themselves struggling to get what they want out of employees, management, or co-workers, and you're not quite sure how to assert yourself, you've come to the right place.

Assertiveness can empower you to have the conversations that need to be had, keep your focus on shared goals, and lead without dominating or attacking (and yes, get you first crack at some delicious chocolate torte!) In fact, it's the art of honestly, openly, kindly, and unwaveringly standing up for yourself without apology, resentment, or regret.

It has been my experience that many people are hesitant to be assertive for several key reasons:

1. Fear of Confrontation: People are naturally averse to confrontation, as it can be uncomfortable and even anxiety-inducing. They worry that expressing their needs or concerns will lead to conflict or hurt feelings.

2. Social Conditioning: Society often promotes the idea of being polite, accommodating, and avoiding any form of confrontation. This cultural norm can make assertiveness seem abrupt or unkind in comparison.

3. Misinterpretation of Aggression: Many people have witnessed or experienced true aggression, which can involve personal attacks, shouting, and intimidation. Because of this, they mistakenly believe that any form of direct communication, even when polite, falls into the category of aggression.

4. Fear of Rejection: People may worry that asserting themselves will lead to rejection or negative consequences, such as being perceived as difficult to work with or jeopardizing relationships.

5. Lack of Assertiveness Skills: Some individuals simply haven't developed the necessary communication skills to express themselves clearly and confidently while remaining respectful.

Distinguishing Assertiveness from Aggression:

It's crucial to understand the differences between assertiveness and aggression:

  1. Tone and Language: Assertive communication is characterized by a calm, respectful, and non-threatening tone. Aggressive communication often involves a harsh, confrontational tone and may include personal attacks or insults.

  2. Respect for Others: Assertiveness respects the rights and perspectives of others. Aggression disregards or belittles others' viewpoints and feelings.

  3. Conflict Resolution: Assertiveness aims at resolving conflicts and finding mutually beneficial solutions. Aggression tends to escalate conflicts, often leading to a win-lose scenario.

  4. Body Language: Assertive individuals maintain open and relaxed body language. Aggressive individuals may use aggressive postures, gestures, or facial expressions.

  5. Listening: Assertive communicators actively listen to others and show an interest in their perspectives. Aggressive individuals are often more focused on pushing their own agenda.

How to Develop Assertiveness at Work:

  1. Self-Awareness: Understand your needs, boundaries, and emotions. Self-awareness is the first step in assertive communication.

  2. Practice Active Listening: Listen actively to others' perspectives, and show empathy and understanding.

  3. Use "I" Statements: Express your thoughts and feelings using "I" statements to avoid sounding accusatory. For example, say, "I feel concerned about this deadline" rather than "You always set unrealistic deadlines."

  4. Stay Calm and Respectful: Maintain a calm and respectful tone, even when discussing challenging topics.

  5. Set Boundaries: Clearly define your boundaries and communicate them respectfully, but firmly.

  6. Seek Win-Win Solutions: Approach conflicts with the goal of finding solutions that benefit all parties involved.

  7. Practice: Regularly practice assertive communication in various situations to build your skills and confidence.

By distinguishing between assertiveness and aggression and honing your assertiveness skills, you can communicate effectively, stand up for your needs, and maintain positive relationships in both your personal and professional life.

The Passive Plight

Let's start by looking at the passive approach. Those who tend to be passive in the workplace often find themselves in a position where they avoid confrontation at all costs. They may say "yes" to tasks or ideas they don't agree with, nod along in meetings, and ultimately stifle their own opinions and potential contributions. While this may seem like a way to keep the peace, it often leads to unaddressed issues, frustration, and an inability to effect meaningful change.

Picture this: You're at a meeting, and the group is brainstorming ideas for a new project. You have a fantastic idea, but you're afraid to speak up. So you stay quiet, and your idea gets lost in the sea of suggestions. Later, you kick yourself for not asserting your brilliant concept.

Assertive Approach: "I've got an idea I'd like to share regarding this project. It might be a game-changer. Can I have a moment to explain?"

The Passive-Aggressive Paradox

On the flip side, we have the passive-aggressive approach. This style often manifests as subtle jabs, gossip, or going silent and “ghosting” someone when you disagree strongly or feel disrespected. Instead of addressing concerns head-on, passive-aggressive individuals opt for covert methods of expressing their discontent, which only serve to exacerbate tensions and create a toxic work environment.

Now, imagine you're dealing with a co-worker who keeps undermining your projects with snarky remarks, but you never confront them directly. Instead, you resort to eye-rolls and sarcastic comments behind their back. Your office becomes a breeding ground for passive-aggressive pettiness.

Assertive Approach: "I've noticed some comments that seem critical of my work. I'd prefer if we could address any concerns directly and openly so we can work more effectively together."

The Aggressive Antihero

At the other end of the spectrum, there's the aggressive approach, where individuals assert their opinions forcefully, dominate discussions, and may even resort to personal attacks, threats and ultimatums. While this may yield short-term compliance, it often results in strained relationships, outright fear, a lack of communication and collaboration.

Now picture the peer project lead who doesn't take 'no' for an answer. They bulldoze their way through every decision, leaving everyone else feeling steamrolled and silenced. You know they're not winning any popularity contests, but how can you stand up to them without looking like you aren’t a team player?

Assertive Approach: "I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I'd like to ensure everyone's input is considered in this decision. Let's take a moment to hear from others."

Embrace the Power of Assertiveness

The middle ground, assertiveness, is where real progress can be achieved. An assertive person is neither submissive nor combative. They are confident and clear in expressing their thoughts, needs, and boundaries, all while respecting the same from others. This approach involves constructive communication that centers on shared goals and objectives, steering conversations toward productive outcomes.

Acknowledging Differences and Potential Outcomes

Assertiveness does not promise you suddenly will win your preferred outcome every time. Not everyone will agree with your perspective, and not everyone will choose to act on your suggestions. This is a part of the dynamics of any workplace. The key is to recognize that your goal isn't always unanimity but a thorough discussion that informs decision-making.

Your goal is also to use your voice so if no one else in the room agrees, at least you heard yourself. It is possible that by speaking up, you invite someone to share why they don’t agree and perhaps you might learn something new you never would have otherwise, by being aggressive or passive.

By speaking up assertively, you gain valuable insight into your colleagues' positions and the organization's priorities. This information helps you make informed decisions about how best to collaborate or whether a particular working relationship is viable in the long term.

Avoiding Unnecessary Conflict

Here's the kicker – assertiveness is not about causing conflicts; it's about preventing them. By addressing issues as they arise, you prevent them from festering into full-blown battles. One of the misconceptions about assertiveness is that it leads to conflict. However, when done properly, assertiveness can actually prevent conflicts from escalating. Clear, open communication helps identify issues early, so they can be addressed and resolved without festering.

So, if you find yourself struggling to get what you want at work, remember that assertiveness is almost inevitably part of the answer. The power to make your voice heard kindly, respectfully and effectively is always available to you. Grab it, and watch every communication improve almost immediately. And you might just get the biggest piece of cake on the table too!

If you'd like help using your voice assertively, book a Discovery Call now. Speaking up assertively changes all your communications for the better.


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