Be Assertive, Not Aggressive
Be Assertive, Not Aggressive | Barbara Schwarck

Have you ever watched a friend, co-worker, or even a boss who can navigate a challenging situation with ease and professionalism, no matter the office politics or difficult personalities involved? They seem to have a Teflon-coated ability to deflect anger and frustration that doesn’t sacrifice their self-respect, their own clout, or their success.

The challenge of getting things done at work when others are involved is a recurring topic in my executive coaching practice, especially as teams work remotely around the globe and the old hierarchy is no longer in place.

A key skill that is needed to navigate with ease and grace is assertiveness. Many people confuse this with aggression, but they are completely different skills. Assertiveness is an emotional intelligence skill that can be learned and practiced. The confrontational boss having a temper tantrum and yelling “my way or the highway” is being aggressive, offensive, and ultimately ineffective.

Like most skills, assertiveness may not come naturally. In business, however, assertiveness is a core competency and an important communication skill. I consider it an essential personal – as well as business – skill, because it offers a constructive and productive way to deal with difficult people and challenging problems. Until recently, male-dominated environments made little room for assertive women who were seen as ‘overly aggressive’ and ‘blood-thirsty,’ whereas the same man would be “just doing their job.” Assertive people look to create win-win scenarios. They understand how to communicate goals and values in a clear and calm way, and won’t have a public meltdown if their recommendations don’t come out on top. Confident and self-assured, they approach situations with a healthy dose of objectivity, and as a result, they are able to work through challenges in a low-stress, self-honoring way – without all the drama.

Want to assert yourself so others will listen? Here are five tips that can help:

1. Allow yourself to feel anger.

“If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.” One of the biggest obstacles to assertive communication is the feeling that negative emotion or anger is bad, and expressing it shows you to be an aggressive mean person. Anger is a natural emotion – it isn’t a bad emotion, and people aren’t bad for feeling angry. However, the way in which you express anger makes all the difference. Avoid finger-pointing, making “you” statements, or labeling people. Stick with the facts and say, “I am angry because…” or “this is triggering me …” Always take personal responsibility for your feelings without blaming others.

2. Set your intentions, goals, and methods

Before you begin the conversation, take a moment to think ahead. What do you want to accomplish? What’s the best way to achieve it? We often start to talk without being clear about what it is we want. It is especially important to think about intentions, and the emotional quality we want to experience. How do you want to feel while engaged in the conversation? Vindictive and righteous, or assertive and clear? You decide. But to get clear you need to take a moment to process this with yourself. If your feelings were hurt, you may need to do a completion process with yourself before you can be assertive.

3. Be direct

State your case in a way that is straightforward and does not denigrate the person you’re speaking to in any way. Acknowledge the perspectives and feelings of others and back up your ideas with facts rather than emotions. Make others feel that their ideas and concerns are valued. Be open and creative in coming up with other solutions.

4. Be an active, curious listener

Listen and respond to others in a proactive way, and show that you identify, acknowledge, and respect their feelings. Let them know that the current interaction is meant to grow your relationship in a mature, level-headed manner that you value and want to cultivate. Validating feelings, however, doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree with them. A great way to stay neutral is to come from a place of curiosity, setting the stage for being constructive and collaborative.

5. Don’t let problems linger or fester

Last but not least, don’t let things linger. When our feelings are repeatedly hurt, our ability to respond is diminished. Perhaps you can set aside hurt feelings, but for most people hurt that goes unaddressed can become a huge problem. Make a conscious effort to address the hurt right away with assertiveness. This demonstrates our commitment to maintaining positive relationships.

It is possible to approach friends and co-workers in a way that makes them feel valued and heard. Learning how to be more assertive while being sensitive to others will earn you the respect you deserve from co-workers, customers, and friends. Finding a win-win in a challenging situation will have you – and those around you – feeling like a winner.

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