Since people’s perception is the reality on which they base their behavior towards us, how we communicate is a critical aspect of how assertive we are perceived to be
In my (almost) 15 years of experience, I have conducted numerous interventions around the topic of assertiveness with different industries, geographies and demographics. In all these interventions, the most common expectation I have heard from learners is “I want to be more assertive so that I can have my way more often.” And that’s what most people get wrong. Assertiveness is not about getting your way; it’s about being able to create a conversation with others in order to understand how you can possibly approach a certain issue in a way that meets everybody’s needs. Assertiveness is not about the outcome, it’s about having the conversation.
Two things are critical to understand in order to be assertive: The first one is that one’s ability to be assertive is a direct consequence of your self-esteem. Do you truly believe that your opinion, mental model and/or point of view is valuable but also that everyone else’s opinions, mental models, point of views are as legitimate and valuable as yours? People with low self-esteem will often end up pushing their way, at the expense of others, to compensate or let others impose their opinions/ideas on them to avoid difficult conversations.
The second one is linked to how we communicate. Since people’s perception is the reality on which they base their behavior towards us, how we communicate is a critical aspect of how assertive we are perceived to be.
There are a few simple things to keep in mind to communicate assertively:
1. Listen: If others don’t feel listened to, they will often think that you do not really care about their needs and could perceive you as being aggressive. Remember that the best judge of whether listening happened or not is the sender NOT the receiver, so don’t hesitate to paraphrase or rephrase to show you have listened and understood.
2. Be specific: The more unambiguous your message, the easier it is for other people to understand what you need. For example, the word “flexible” (possibly one of the most overused word in the corporate world) could mean very different things to different people. What flexibility do you need? Flexibility in working hours, flexibility in process, etc?
3. Describe behavior not people: For example, “Could you please be more organized” is a judgment on the person and will, most of the time, make others defensive. On the other hand, “I would like to better understand your filing system so that I can find the relevant documents without having to bother you” is not an attack on the person but a statement of your need.
4. Use “I” statements when expressing your needs: Take control of what you say. Using “You” statements makes the other person responsible for the need you are expressing and there again will often put them on the defensive. For example, “I needed this document from you yesterday and did not get it. Did you meet with any problem? Is there anything I can do to make this happen as I need to send this out before lunch” instead of “You did not send me the document you were supposed to.”
These four basic communication principles will allow others to see your willingness to take their needs into account while also making your needs explicit to them, which is the basis for assertiveness. However, it starts with step one: Do you really believe that everyone, including yourself, is valuable?