To be passive is to let others decide for you. To be aggressive is to decide for others. To be assertive is to decide for yourself. And to trust that there is enough, that you are enough.
—Edith Eva Eger
If you want to succeed in the business world, you must know how to ask for what you need, how to talk about what you want, and how to speak up when someone is taking advantage of you. You must understand how to navigate situations with confidence and professionalism, no matter the politics or personalities involved. In short, you need to be assertive.
Before we go any further, though, let’s tackle a major misconception: aggressive and assertive are not synonyms. In fact, those terms describe two very different traits. Aggressive people attack or ignore others’ opinions in favor of their own. Assertive people, on the other hand, state their opinions while still being respectful of others. (And passive people don’t state their opinions at all and just sit back while other people call the shots.)
Too often people use the word aggressive to describe someone who’s actually just being assertive. The unfortunate result is that this incorrect nomenclature can (wrongly) make people think that assertive people are going “too far” in their efforts to stand up for themselves. It can also cause people who are trying to be assertive to stand down from their efforts out of fear of being tagged as “one of those people”—as someone who’s too pushy, controlling, demanding . . . that is, all the negative things associated with being aggressive.
So as you embark on your assertiveness training, understand exactly what you are trying to achieve, so you can call people out if they accuse you of something you aren’t doing. Don’t let false accusations of being aggressive derail you! Just set the record straight (“I’m not being aggressive—I am being assertive, which is completely different and means that I am speaking up for myself while respecting what others have to say”) and stay on track.
Why is assertiveness so important?
Once you have a major success with assertiveness, you learn that it’s a much healthier path than being a doormat to the insensitive folks. You gain respect for yourself, have more time for your priorities, and develop authentic and healthier relationships.
In general, assertiveness is a valuable trait to cultivate because it helps you communicate effectively—and “ability to communicate well” is at or near the top of pretty much any life skills list. The more assertive you are, the more positive you’re likely to feel, too.
Being assertive can also help boost your self-esteem and earn others’ respect. This can help with stress management, especially if you tend to take on too many responsibilities because you have a hard time saying no.
Whether you’re on the board of a local nonprofit group, working on a group project for a class or seminar you’re taking, volunteering with the parent–teacher organization at your kid’s school, or in some other situation that requires people to work toward a common goal together, assertiveness is important if you want to interact effectively with those people and have your contributions recognized.
And in the business world, if you’re interested in moving into a leadership position in any organization, you must be able to assert your opinion. After all, if you aren’t able to speak up, how can you lead your fellow employees to accomplish the mission and vision of the company?
It’s especially critical for women to evaluate and improve their own assertiveness, because the workplace is not a level playing field, with men historically commanding the better salaries, the most prestigious roles, and the greatest influence in much of the business world. Fortunately, some of those longtime trends are shifting toward more equal treatment, but we aren’t quite there yet. Therefore women in particular (and especially those who serve as role models to other women, as their mentors, managers, and colleagues) must be mindful of the need to value themselves and to be unafraid to speak up.
How to be assertive in the workplace
If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.
First and foremost, make sure that your assertiveness is always “on.” Whenever you walk into a room, everything about you—your words, your behavior, your body language—should immediately send a clear message that you know how to communicate your opinions directly (yet respectfully) and aren’t afraid to speak up and hold your ground. (Note that this doesn’t mean you won’t ever change your opinion. You might very well choose to do so, but only when presented with a persuasive argument and not because you’ve been bullied or pressured into abandoning your own point of view.)
When you’re interacting with other people, keeping in mind the following guidelines can help you improve your assertiveness:
- Listen attentively to what others say so you can respond appropriately and add value to the conversation.
- Because nervousness can make people ramble when they speak (we’ve all experienced this!), try to get your point across quickly and succinctly. Writing down in advance what you want to say (especially if you use a structure such as an executive summary or a bulleted list, for example) can help you focus your thoughts.
- Use strong, confident language to convey your ideas, and steer clear of hesitation words (such as “um” and “uh”) and language that expresses self-doubt and undermines your own argument (such as “I could be wrong” or “this is just an idea”).
- Let a trusted colleague or mentor know that you want to build your confidence and become more assertive, and ask that person to observe you and give you feedback to help you reach your goals.
- If you have an idea that you’re afraid to bring up to a group, first get feedback on it from someone you trust and tweak it until you feel more confident about it. Then commit to introducing it with at least one comment during a meeting.
- Unless you’ve accidentally spilled your coffee on someone, don’t say “I’m sorry” during a meeting. Not even once.
- If you want a figurative seat at the table, you first need a literal seat at the table. So take a chair (and sit up straight in it!) where the action is, and don’t put yourself in a corner or let anyone else put you there.
- Focus on facts, not emotions. You’ll be more confident (and others will have more confidence in what you’re saying) if you support your argument with facts and statistics and avoid relying on emotional appeals.
- Pay attention to your physical presence. A deeper voice can often command more attention (and to some people connotes greater strength), for example. Likewise, straight posture, appropriate attire, and a calm demeanor (without fidgeting) can all help you convey confidence. (Getting feedback from people you trust and watching video recordings of yourself can help you address these issues.)
- Stop waiting until you or your idea are “ready.” Take a cue from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s declaration “Do the thing, and you will have the power” and create your confidence by taking action.
- Practice makes perfect, so work on being assertive in all aspects of your life. Being more assertive in your personal life can help you get better at being more assertive in the workplace (and vice versa!).
Assertiveness is not what you do, it’s who you are!
If you’re still unsure whether you have what it takes, take the time to do some serious introspection. Ask yourself these questions:
- What do I believe?
- Why do I believe it?
- What is what I have to say worth the effort to overcome my nervousness?
- Who is helped when I raise my hand to speak up?
- Whom will I inspire?
By figuring out the answers to these questions, you define your voice. Once you know the value of your contribution, then you’ll be more prepared to share it—and to stand up for it.
Your company is paying you for your skill sets, so if you weren’t capable of doing the job, chances are you wouldn’t have it. If you know what you’re doing, then act like it. If you aren’t sure about what you’re doing, then “fake it until you make it”—and take the opportunity to cultivate your assertiveness skills at the same time so that by the time you feel ready confident in what you’re doing, you can fully own it!
Assertiveness is a necessary skill for leaders at all positions within a company. The people who get the promotions and opportunities are generally those who speak up for themselves and act confidently. So if you want that brass ring, you need to reach for it! (And if you start working toward it now, you’ll be prepared for when that vice president or CEO position opens up!)