It can be daunting to express assertiveness in the workplace, especially if you’re afraid that it will be read as aggressiveness. But learning how to communicate your thoughts and opinions in a firm but respectful manner could mean the difference between success and stalling in the same position for years.
“It’s a balancing act,” says Dr. Jennifer Short, an Alberta-based psychologist and consultant with the Achieve Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance. “You can become passive if you don’t put your own needs out there. Whereas aggression goes to the other extreme where you’re pushing your opinions through, regardless of what others need.”
Being assertive in the workplace is counterintuitive, says Randy Paterson, a psychologist in Vancouver and author of The Assertiveness Workbook.
“Assertiveness is about controlling yourself and not controlling other people,” he says. “You have to let go of the need to control others.”
Below, the experts offer some key tips on being assertive in the workplace without being construed as aggressive.
#1 Fine tune your self-talk
The first step in asserting yourself is telling yourself that your opinions and needs matter.
“You want to go into a conversation with the goal of being heard, but you should also be curious about the other person’s perspective,” Short says. This links back to her point about striking a balance between having your needs met and being aware of the needs of others.
She also says it’s important to know when to psych yourself up.
“Be aware of the conversations where it will be difficult to be assertive. If you’re uncomfortable saying no to a request, prepare yourself ahead of time, and collect your thoughts so you’re clear and direct.”
#2 Figure out what you want
People who have difficulty asserting themselves at work often cave in to others’ requests, whether that’s done resentfully or passive aggressively. That’s why it’s important to know what outcome you’d like to have before piping up.
“One of the mistakes people make when they’re attempting to assert themselves is to start talking about what’s stressing them out or what’s making them unhappy,” Paterson says. “But they haven’t decided what it is that they’re asking for. Communication always has a goal, so figure out what you want before you start talking.”
#3 Watch your body language
The jury is out on how much body language actually supersedes verbal communication — one scholar believes that only seven per cent of communication occurs through words, while others are more conservative and say that body and verbal language are split 60/40. Regardless, it’s clear to see that body language speaks fairly loudly. For this reason, Short says, it’s important to keep it in check.
“You don’t want to have a posture where you look aggressive or are getting into a person’s face,” she says. “Keep calm, hold a comfortable posture and use an even tone of voice.”
Remaining calm is paramount to getting your point across and actually being heard.
“The more stressed you get and the more you emote anger, the more you will incite a stress response in the person you’re speaking to, thus reducing the likelihood of solving the problem,” Paterson says.
#4 Be precise
Chances are if you’ve been quiet for a long time and have been bottling up your frustrations, there’s a lot to release. But, Paterson warns, there’s no point in dwelling on the past.
“A lot of people confronting someone will go into a recitation about things that have happened over the last five years, but you can only change your situation now, not the past. Stay in the present and stay on topic,” he says.
#5 Managers: Use praise and criticism wisely
Managers in particular need to be careful about how they get their message across, Paterson says. Don’t stress out your employee, or you’ll risk activating their fight or flight response. With that in mind, he says to remember the rule to praise publicly and correct privately.
“Try to go for at least a two-to-one ratio of positive to negative feedback. Studies have shown that criticism is twice as powerful as praise and most people will walk away from a discussion only remembering the criticism. As a result, managers need to do something they’re not used to doing: managing what’s going well,” he says.
In addition, Paterson warns against criticizing personal traits over behaviours. Telling an employee that you’d like them to be more respectful or more responsible is vague and it’s an attack on their character. Instead, be precise about the behaviours you’d like to see changed. Asking them to speak more kindly to colleagues or to get to work by 9 a.m. are clear directives regarding the behavioural changes you’d like to see.
#6 Employees: Speak up
“Employees often feel like assertiveness doesn’t apply to them because they’re the ones who get bossed around,” Paterson says. “But if they don’t provide feedback, how will the managers know what’s working and what isn’t?”
He points out that managers rely on employee feedback. If they’re not told, for example, that a particular project is especially time-consuming, they might continue to assign their employee more work and run the risk of overloading them.
“Zero in on the issue and talk about the task at hand. Don’t attack your manager’s character or instincts, but explain what your issues are,” he says.
Is there ever a time when you shouldn’t be assertive?
While Short says that this is a question that needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, the reality is that assertiveness is what moves you forward progressively.
“If you’re engaging with someone who’s getting upset or aggressive, it’s time to take a break. Assertiveness doesn’t mean having to have that conversation right then or solving the problem immediately. It’s a progressive approach,” she says.
However, it doesn’t always have to end with your needs being met.
“Sometimes we just have to agree to disagree. And that’s OK, too.”