Assert without aggression

Saumya Bhattacharya        Print Edition: November 15, 2009

Have you ever been in a situation at your workplace when you had the opportunity to speak up for yourself, but didn’t? Were you ever faced with unreasonable requests from your manager, but couldn’t muster up the courage to express your discomfort? The antidote to such situations: Learn how to be assertive — but not aggressive — at your workplace.

According to behavioural experts Ken and Kate Back, “assretive behaviour means standing up for your own rights in a way that you do not violate other person’s rights and at the same time, expressing your needs, wants, opinions, feeling and beliefs in direct, honest and appropriate ways.”

People are often wary of being assertive at work lest they be seen as rude or disrespectful. Others mistake aggressiveness for assertiveness where winning is key, even if it comes at the expense of others. Truth is, neither tactic will get you very far in your career. True assertiveness, on the other hand, will. Being assertive hinges on the belief that in any situation, others as well as yourself have both needs and rights.

Changes in behaviour come in small steps. For some, acquiring a skill like assertiveness requires overcoming psychological traits such as extreme passivity, sensitivity to criticism, and low self-esteem. Therefore, start being assertive in short interactions with fairly straightforward outcomes. For example, while making a request at work, be direct and keep it short. Don’t “sell” your request with flattery or tempting benefits. And do not take a refusal personally. Conveying disagreements can be tricky since aggressiveness can stoke conflict. Assertiveness in such a situation means acknowledging that opinions are not necessarily right or wrong, but merely different.

Cultivating assertiveness can be complicated. On the one hand, as organisations become flatter and less hierarchical, individuals are expected to take greater responsibility for their personal development and make an impact. On the other hand, they are asked to fit seamlessly into the organisation. The ability to do both while standing up for yourself will help your career grow a long way.

Choose the right way to disagree

  • State disagreements clearly: “I see it differently…”
  • Express doubts in a constructive way: “I see difficulty in that approach…”
  • Spell out what parts you agree and disagree with in a situation.
  • Recognise other people’s points of view.

Be assertive beyond words

  • Keep your voice firm and steady, never wobbly or sarcastic.
  • Keep your facial expression steady.
  • Make firm eye contact. Don’t be evasive and don’t try to stare down and dominate.
  • Hand-wringing, hunching shoulders, fist thumping and finger pointing are complete no-nos.

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