Let’s Talk About…Assertiveness

Calm preparation + Backbone = Progress, suggests Davina Greene.

Ah, assertiveness. The great ambition of so many people the world over. Such a well-known word, but such an ill-employed concept. To master it, we need to name and reject the alternatives. So, here we go…

Probably the toughest, most energy-sapping failure of assertiveness is Submission. At some point, we’ve all watched hopefully as a colleague continuously got riled up by someone else’s unfair actions….and did absolutely nothing about it (except say ‘OK’ again). It’s very understandable, this continuous internal battle to engage the necessary gear-change. Understandable, but not helpful.

Poorly exercised assertiveness can also result in Aggression. I know I’ve been that person, at times: confidence combined with frustration can momentarily eliminate humanity on a bad day. Sometimes I can’t help it; sometimes I know damn well what I’m doing but choose to whack my point home…and then apologise. Not a great approach, I confess, but nobody’s perfect.  But this is where self-knowledge can act as a quick lifesaver – without the apology, even a moment of snapping can be a reputation- or career-ender.

At least with aggression, it’s all upfront and out-in-the-open, so you know what you’re dealing with. You can put someone back in their box quite publicly, just as they publicly berated you, and it seems to even out in the end if both parties manage a smile before leaving the room. However, poorly applied assertiveness can also result in Passive Aggression – hidden aggression, ‘armchair warrior’-type aggression. So, satisfying little moments of perceived ‘easy wins’ for the instigator; in reality, no real overall accomplishment, and the recipient slowly being broken down rather than improved.

We see these differing approaches daily in the workplace. Submission can mean potentially suffering for years under a manager who makes your life a misery, saying nothing and potentially severely damaging your own mental health. Aggression can mean storming into that manager’s office, calling them every name under the sun, and either staring them into submission or storming straight back out; it can also mean less physicality, but really, really cutting words. Passive aggression can mean heading to the pub with your colleagues, doing your best to get them on-side and together take subtle steps to make that manager’s life a misery. The lesser-spotted Assertiveness would mean planning in advance a conversation that starts with something to the effect of “I think we can both agree that this working relationship isn’t functioning quite as it should, both of us are probably coming out of it not feeling entirely satisfied. So, I’d like to take the opportunity to discuss that, so this becomes easier for both of us” – and then working your way calmly through the top three items on your pre-prepared list.

So, what is the key to assertiveness? It’s remembering that the aim of the game is to make your points calmly whilst doing no damage to the other person – standing up for what you believe is right, without violating the rights of the other person.

When we discuss communication, we often refer to the difference between communicating as Parent, Adult, or Child. Obviously, we all aspire to communicate exclusively as Adults; however, at times we lose that balance and perspective and lapse into Parent or Child. Much of the bad side of assertiveness is childish – you can imagine a child storming into a room and exploding with emotion at someone, huddling with friends to gossip and manipulate as a gang, or being so shy that they can’t find the words to do anything at all. Put in this context, don’t we want to be better than that?

Assertiveness is saying your piece without damaging the other person – the very essence of adult behaviour.


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