You can't have it if you don't ask for it. That became the mantra for a group of executives in an emotional intelligence class I was teaching. The topic of assertiveness came up because three-quarters of the class scored below average in it. The low scorers were visibly distressed since I mentioned that it is a highly valued trait in western culture and that few would find themselves in successful positions in business without it. That's a big statement, to be sure, so let's take a look at what this million-dollar behavioral attribute looks like.
To begin, choose one of the following approaches of communicating that you would wish to use in a discussion in which you have an opinion about the topic.
- Assertive communication is the ability to express your thoughts, desires and feelings in a nondestructive manner.
- Aggressive communication is the ability to scare or threaten the receiver to do or believe what you want. It can be abusive and debasing, but that's the listener's issue. It is often efficient.
- Passive-aggressive communication is covert and scheming. It's the smile on your face saying ìYes, I agree with you,î but then you leave the room and gossip about or sabotage what you just agreed to. This helps avoid face-to-face conflict.
Now, choose (please).
I've led you a bit because, of course, you'd choose assertiveness. But, here's the irony--so many people don't choose anything at all. By not being deliberate about a communication style, many people default to passive-aggressive or slightly aggressive behavior, and it isn't serving them well, and according to them, it feels bad. They're not getting their needs met.
Back to the class I was teaching. †I asked the nonasserters to come up with a list of reasons for why they don't assert their opinions. Their lists include: I'm afraid the discussion will end badly; it feels scary to give an opinion because it might be considered stupid; the other person is a bully; I don't have the right status to speak up. The one thing each of these reasons has in common is fear. Then I ask the people who score off-the-chart high in assertiveness how it feels when they assert themselves, and they say it feels scary, too, but they do it anyway. Here's the big lesson if you're not assertive: Do not seek to feel comfortable when communicating difficult things. It's not a good barometer of whether you should speak up or not. Doing difficult things may always make you feel vulnerable and threatened, even if only slightly.
Here are some other lessons about assertiveness that might give you perspective on the skill.
1. Assertiveness isn't stable. Some people can easily tell a co-worker they're doing a bad job but have a difficult time sending back a steak that's over-cooked. You probably won't be assertive in all areas of your life. Look for situations where you regret having not said something. You want to practice speaking up in those instances. Or if you feel resentment or commiserate about a situation after the fact, instead of in the moment that it happened, that's a good indication that you want to practice assertiveness.
2. Draw lines in the sand. We all have lines that, once crossed, we'll speak up. Assertive people seem to have a few more lines than those who aren't assertive, and they are very aware of them. Make a list of the things that absolutely get you to speak your mind, for instance: others who swear in front of your kids, people who belittle those who are at a disadvantage, when you've been lied to by a customer, and so on. Take note of when you speak up, and use those times as examples of how you might muster the courage to speak up in other situations. Why are they different? Why are they less threatening?
3. Four areas of assertiveness. There are four general areas where people assert themselves. Check the areas in which you assert the most. I've included opening assertiveness phrases that you may use or adapt to practice speaking up.
- Defense of interests
-Refusing unreasonable requests ("That's not going to work for me.")
-Standing up for your rights ("That feels unfair to me." "I see that you're angry, but please don't swear.")
- Social assertiveness
-The behavior to initiate social relationships ("Hi. My name is Scott." [No, you don't need a cheesy pick-up line. Just introduce yourself.])
-The behavior to maintain social relationships ("Hi Jill, I was thinking about you today and just wanted to reach out to say hi.")
-Stating opinions ("Here's what I think.")
-Resisting individual or group pressure to conform ("I have to respectfully disagree.")
-Taking responsibility ("I'm sorry. It was my fault.")
-Initiating action ("I'm making an executive decision. Let's do it this way.")
4. Don't destroy. When you feel someone is wrong, you don't have to tell them how stupid or bad they are for doing or thinking the wrong thing. Simply begin by saying how YOU feel about it. When you assert, always take into consideration how others will feel when you tell them their baby is ugly. You may choose not to speak up at all. Or, when you do, you'll smartly measure your approach.
5. Are you worthy? I hear people say that they would rather personally deal with the mess of not speaking up than to put someone out by saying something. Really? Their health and well-being are worth more than yours? Something to give you impetus to take care of you.
Assertiveness is something you won't wake up tomorrow and begin doing immediately. It takes practice. Today, assert yourself in a situation where you typically wouldn't but have wanted to in the past. Come from the perspective of speaking YOUR mind, not destroying the other person over your differing opinion or need. Get more of what you want.
You can't have want you want or need if you don't ask or speak up. Go. Now. Assert.
Scott Halford, CSP is President of Complete Intelligence, LLC. He speaks worldwide and writes about emotional intelligence and brain-based success behaviors. He is the best-selling author of Be a Shortcut: The Secret Fast Track to Business Success.