Assertiveness – what does it really mean and how do we do it?

Posted on Posted in Coaching, Leadership, Learning

There are three types of communication; passive, aggressive, and assertive and in today’s busy work environment, we all need our staff to be productive and collaborative whilst being assertive enough to protect their own time and values.

But what does being assertive really mean and more importantly how can we encourage our staff to be more assertive? We all need to be able to say no, stand up for ourselves and ensure we get the work done, but when we feel frustrated or down-trodden the ability to use assertiveness as a tool really comes into its own in the workplace.

The definition for assertive in the Collins English Dictionary is ‘being confident and direct in dealing with others’, but change this to the definition of the verb and ‘to assert’ becomes to declare forcefully or to insist upon; traits that we identify more with aggression that assertiveness.

So where is the thin line between aggression and assertiveness?  Should we encourage our team leaders to be more aggressive to ensure they get their own way?  Studies show that whilst an aggressive person can potentially achieve initial results, those individuals who express their opinions in a hostile or threatening manner also show little or no consideration for the rights of others.  There may be a transactional change, and the job will get done, but not a transformational change which is the key to better relationships.  Therefore, an aggressive approach in the long term often results in unfavourable consequences building frustration and anger for those on the receiving end.

By contrast, a passive approach can leave individuals feeling that their opinions hold little value and often leads to a build-up of resentment, which can be as damaging as an aggressive attitude. Ironically, this frustration may eventually cause individuals to become over-assertive and aggressive, which is detrimental for the individual and for those around them.

We could visualise this as a see-saw, as it can be a fragile balancing act between aggressive and passive behaviour. The focal pivotal point would be assertiveness, which is the ideal state to be in.  Whilst we may all strive to be assertive, it would be unrealistic to think we could be there 100% of the time. The main aim therefore is to accept that whilst we may occasionally dip our toe into passive or aggressive behaviour the trick is to avoid wild swings from one end of the see-saw to the other.  For example, passive behaviour for too long can result in feelings of disempowerment and a lack of significance and then in trying to regain a semblance of control we may attempt to overly assert ourselves to be heard, but instead veer into aggressive territory, completely by-passing the assertive style and the win/win outcome.

So, if we can help our staff to learn to be more assertive they can learn to collaborative more effectively, control their emotions when in a stressful situation, improve their confidence and self-esteem, and most importantly learn how to say yes or no constructively to achieve a positive outcome.

Assertiveness calls for clear, calm thinking and respectful negotiation within a space where each person is entitled to their opinion.  Giving clear messages, with appropriate eye contact, relaxed, open body language and a firm, warm voice are all good approaches to adopt if you are keen to improve this skill.

According to Professor Albert Mehrabian, when we are in a stressful situation, such as negotiating, and when we are trying to understand significant emotional content, non-verbal communication accounts for 93% of how others perceive us, so learning to embrace our body language and tone of voice is crucial when being assertive. Our non-verbal communication must be congruent to how we are truly feeling for others to trust and work effectively with us.   Our tone of voice can also imply so much; using the appropriate combination of the 4 P’s: pace, power, pitch and pauses is an effective way to ensure that what we say is heard in the way we intended.

From a behavioural perspective, we can learn to be more assertive by realising we each have individual filters that colour and influence how we each see the world, much like our own unique pair of sunglasses. These filters are from our childhood and our education, our experiences and the culture or society that we grew up in, and most significantly from our values and beliefs.  Learning to be more assertive means taking in the wider picture and being mindful that we all see things differently.  Therefore, learning to see something from someone else’s point of view is important when trying to achieve a mutually agreeable outcome.  Those who can recognise this and utilise it when in a workplace situation are usually more able to be successful when dealing with their team or their peers.

One of the tools that Cascade Learning use during their Assertiveness Training is the ASSERT model which encompasses the key principles for assertive communication. For example, having a positive, ‘Towards focus’ on the desired outcome is fundamental to any negotiation and, using their Trinity (1. posture, 2. peripheral vision and 3. breathing) to help ‘Act as if’ is central to assertiveness and overall confidence.  Giving your team the mindtools to use when required are often key to ensuring a smoother organisation with less conflict and a rise in productivity.

So, not only can assertiveness improve productivity, it can also allow an individual to be focussed on the result in mind and achieve this result in a fashion which ensures both parties win, whilst allowing space for constructive compromise. Creating happier staff who can face challenges and who have better negotiation skills will be an asset to any organisation and assertiveness is a fundamental way of achieving this.  It is not about bullying or undermining an individual or indeed by refusing to play a part in deciding on the outcome.  An assertive person will always have a better chance of obtaining the preferred result over those who use these aggressive or passive techniques, and using assertiveness techniques in everyday situations could well be a major factor in contributing to a reduction in stress and anxiety, and an increase in efficiency throughout the workplace.

Jules MacMillan

Cascade Learning