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Four Steps of Assertiveness

Being assertive is essential for those who want to learn how to stand up for themselves in different situations, such as responding to put-downs, speaking up to a co-worker, asking for a raise, changing the behavior of a direct report, etc.

Recently, a client who is Director of Human Resources complained about a staff member who was blatantly ignoring time card rules. “She just refuses to cooperate with me,” he said.

I asked him if he had tried the four-step assertiveness process with her and he replied, “What’s that?”

Here is the process I described for him:

  • Describe how you view the situation—the behavior that is causing you a problem—rather than criticizing the person.
  • Express how you feel. Let the other person know how you feel, using “I” statements. For example, “I feel frustrated and disrespected.”
  • Identify how the person’s behavior affects you and/or others. For example, “When you ignore rules it makes people angry.”
  • Ask for the behavior change you think is necessary. Without judging the person, make a clear statement of your need.

Using our Director of HR scenario above as an example, he could say, “When team members ignore important rules and processes, I feel frustrated and disrespected. We have time reports that I am responsible for, but I have not gotten your cooperation in completing them. This makes my job much harder and puts the organization in the position of violating employment law. In the future, I need you to get all time reports to me on time. What would get in the way of you doing that?”

A culture of assertiveness is healthy at work when all members of the team understand what it is and how it improves communication and decreases stress.

There is one important distinction, however: assertive behavior is not passive and not aggressive.

  • Passive: You are uncomfortable expressing yourself honestly. You feel you don’t have the right to be heard. You back down easily to avoid conflict.
  • Aggressive: You force your point of view, even at the expense of another’s. You want your way and use strategies like loud talking, sarcasm, desk-pounding, and forcefulness to get it.
  • Assertive: You are comfortable expressing your thoughts and feelings. You can put forth your views without compromising your own needs or provoking others. You aim for a win-win solution. You ask for what you want, while showing respect for the other person.

People who are not able to ask for what they need candidly may fear reprisals, want everyone to like them, or lack self-confidence. Whatever the reason, they end up frustrated much of the time, and may spend excessive time commiserating with other people about a situation instead of addressing it with the person causing the problem.

Here are some more pointers on how to be assertive:

  • Assertiveness is a communication skill that takes practice. Rehearse scenarios in front of a mirror or with a friend. Pay attention to your body language as well as to the words you say. Role-play problem situations with a friend or, if that isn’t possible, simply imagine interacting assertively. Start with low-risk situations and work up to more challenging ones. Act confident, even if you aren’t feeling it.
  • Describe behavior not people.  For example, saying “you don’t understand all the work I’m doing around here” is a judgment on the person and most of the time will make others defensive. Whereas, “I would like to review my job duties with you so I can better understand how I might improve my compensation package” is not an attack on the person but a statement of your need.
  • Take control of what you say. Using “you” statements makes the other person responsible for the need you are expressing and, will often put them on the defensive. For example, instead of “You did not send me the document you were supposed to” try… “I needed this document from you yesterday and did not get it. Did you meet with any problem? What can I do to make this happen as I need to send this out today.”
  • Be clear and specific. Don’t say, “I hate sarcasm.” Instead say, “Calling a fellow team member ‘Bubblehead’ makes me uncomfortable. Can we call each other by our names and nothing else?” The more you can be specific, the better.
  • Think win-win. Expressing ourselves assertively means communicating in ways that respect the other person. Because assertiveness is based on mutual respect, it’s a core communication skill, especially for effective leaders.

Becoming more assertive may seem like a daunting behavior change until we consider that remaining passive—keeping things bottled up inside—can lead to stress, resentment, anger, low self-esteem, and the desire to exact revenge. Assertive communication is speaking up appropriately for yourself while considering the needs, feelings, and rights of others.

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