What does it mean to be truly assertive?

What does it mean to be truly assertive?

When you think of the word “assertiveness”, who comes to mind? Yourself, your colleague, your boss or maybe your best friend?

What does it actually mean to be assertive?

Once you have imagined that person, what did they do that you would relate to assertive behaviour? The most common definition of assertive behaviour is simply the ability to say “no” to someone. But is that it? Can we say “yes” and be assertive at the same time?

If assertiveness is pushed too far, it turns into aggressive behaviour. The other end of the spectrum is submissive behaviour. Assertiveness is finding the balance between these two ends of the spectrum. In other words, how do we say “no” without being aggressive or how do we say “yes” without being submissive?

1. Empathy

In order to be truly assertive, we need to understand not only our position (what do we want, what do we need) but also the position of our counter-partner (what are their expectations towards us, what do they need). Only by being able to put ourselves in their shoes can we rely on the fact that we will act assertively and not aggressively.

It is rather obvious that there is not enough space for empathy when we talk about aggressive behaviour. People who act aggressively want to determine the outcome; not only for themselves but also to push others to do what is important for them, without asking themselves if there is a win-win situation possible.

When we are being submissive, we are more sensitive to being liked by our partner (boss, colleague) or putting their needs before our own.

2. Respect

The key to assertiveness is expressing your own wishes and needs or saying “no” in such a way that it does not offend the other party. Once we respect others and see their point of view, the chance that we will offend them is small.

But again, as in the case of empathy, it is a double-edged sword. In order not to be perceived as aggressive, we need to respect others. However, in order to not be submissive, we need to respect our own needs and wishes as well.

3. Self-awareness

Which brings me to the third point – self-awareness. We can only be assertive if we know what we actually want. Sometimes, we think that we know, but we don’t. We often want others to like us, so we change our own thoughts and convince ourselves that things are good for us, even if they are clearly not.

Assertiveness is the art of consistently behaving in a way that is in line with our deeper self. And this deeper self is defined by our values, desires, needs and personality. In my previous article, you can find valuable tips on how to identify your own values.

4. Relationship

Although many of us still think that assertiveness is only about caring about your own agenda, I strongly disagree. During one of my recent communication training sessions, the participants role-played many difficult dialogues between themselves and their boss, colleague, subordinate or client. In some of these dialogues, the participants were able to observe the key elements of assertive behaviour.

Next to the points mentioned above, one thing came across very strongly in this workshop, which is that people who are assertive care about their relationship with the other person, but not in a matter of undermining their own needs and position, but in a matter of searching for a win-win solution for a higher good of both parties, the company, the project, etc.

5. Solution

Since we care about our relationship, even when we have to say “no”, the main point is to find potential solutions. Solutions are constructive and bring us allies instead of enemies. Solutions show that we care.

How to execute your assertiveness

Imagine the following situation. Your boss is asking you to work on an additional project and they underline that you are the employee with the most experience in the matter and they really want you onboard.

But you are already involved in a couple of other projects next to your daily job and you’ve decided that for the coming year, you are actually going to care more about your health and work-life balance. How do you say “no”?

1. Empathy

Understand the situation of your boss, put yourself in their shoes for a moment and acknowledge that. So, you could say: “Thanks for presenting me with this opportunity. I truly appreciate it. I understand how important the project is to you.”

2. Respect

Voice your own needs / wishes whilst respecting the perspective of the other person. Talk about your own perspective too. “This year, I have taken on three new projects already and I have promised myself that for now, I won't take on any new projects.”

3. Self-awareness

Think of what is important to you and why. “I feel that in order to be fully involved in any new project, I want to give only my best self (value = excellence / quality), since I have mentioned that I am involved in other projects as well, my time and energy is limited at the moment (value = health / life balance), therefore I need to say “no” to this project.

4. Partnership & solution

Think of a solution, to maintain a good relationship with your boss. “There are two other great colleagues from my team that I would love to recommend for this project. I know that they would be very interested in participating, it would be a great chance for them to gain more experience and they are really motivated to learn something new. And of course, if they have a question during the project, they can always ask me. What are your thoughts on this?”

Not a walk in the park

Assertive behaviour is definitely not a walk in a park and requires work on oneself, insight and willingness to take a risk. There is no guarantee that once you say “no” to your boss it won't backfire, but there is a certainty that if you always say “yes”, you eventually will lose yourself. This will impact your relationship with your boss, as you will most probably withdraw yourself from the relationship or become bitter.

So, now back to you. Do you find it easy to be assertive? What do you value about assertive behaviour? Feel free to share in the comments above.

Dorota Klop-Sowinska


Dorota Klop-Sowinska

Official Member of Forbes Coaches Council. I specialize in international career and expat coaching. I am the author of the book Career Jump! How to Successfully Change Your Professional Path...

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