Assertiveness is an essential quality for success, in business and in life, and can be difference between living the life you want and a life of compromise. But it can be difficult to get right: come on too strong and you risk tipping over into aggression, whether real or perceived by the person on the receiving end. Come on too weak and you don’t get your message across.
So how do you get the Goldilocks balance right?
The dictionary definition of assertiveness is ‘a form of behaviour characterised by a confident declaration or affirmation of a statement, without the need for apologising, over-explaining or justifying’. This is useful, but I believe it’s so much more than that!
If you look at an assertive person, you’ll see they are standing strong, unbowed, their posture straight, their gestures precise and definitive. If you listen to them speaking, their voice is clear and unwavering, the volume not too loud or too soft, the words accurately conveying their needs, thoughts and wants.
Being assertive means respecting and valuing yourself, while respecting others’ needs and feelings. It means setting limits in terms of time, energy, privacy and money: setting boundaries for yourself and others. It doesn’t mean disregarding other people’s limits, freezing with anxiety in the face of someone else’s assertiveness or expecting people to know magically what you want or how you feel. It’s calling out inappropriate behaviour, talking about the elephant in the room and surfacing conversations that people would rather keep under wraps.
To give you an example of assertiveness: the other day, I was in the quiet carriage of a train. It was 5am and, to my dismay, a really noisy family sat down in the seats next to me. Rather than trying to ignore them I said, “Do you realise you’re in the quiet carriage and everyone in here is either trying to sleep or work? Can you go and sit somewhere else?” They didn’t move but they quietened down. In the past I would have just sat there and seethed, scared of retaliation. With assertiveness, I was able to express a boundary that, for me, had been crossed and politely ask for what I wanted.
Assertiveness comes from the ability to be strong and communicate your needs and wants clearly. From a woman’s perspective, it often involves overriding some of society’s negative perceptions of an assertive woman, which can be easier said than done.
So how can we be more assertive?
Part of the secret comes from prioritising doing the right thing and getting what you want over making everyone else feel OK. This is the difference between respect and likeability. It’s not that assertive people are deliberately making it difficult or awkward for others; it’s that for them, there’s a bigger agenda at play.
In a nutshell, here are my top seven insights in how we can all power up and get assertive. For more detail, check out my article in Audrey.
- Channel your emotions: Assertiveness is about being comfortable with the whole gamut of emotions: anger, jealousy and rage, as well as the positive ones like joy. Allowing ourselves to feel these rather than suppressing or being scared of them means we can learn to control them in the moment and tailor our behaviour to the situation.
- Take the lead: Assertiveness is an act of leadership, so give yourself permission to go for it, rather than waiting for someone else to step in or give you the green light.
- Don’t over-think it: Assertiveness is being OK with what you know and what you don’t, and not allowing the latter to stop you stating the former. In these cases, trust your knowledge and intuition and speak.
- Be crystal clear: If you’re clear on your wants and needs, proactively stating what you want to take place and your desired outcome should be straightforward.
- Use your body: The way we take up space with our bodies says so much about our self-belief and our place in the world. With open body language, you can convey subliminal messages of confidence and ease.
- Use your voice: This is not about shouting, which the most impactful communicators avoid. Just taking a breath and filling your lungs with air before you speak will give you the ‘fuel’ to put your point across and the capacity to increase your volume.
- Choose your words: Assertiveness is about what you choose to say – and not say. If you have a tendency to precede every point with a negative preamble, like ‘I’m not sure if this is a good idea, but…’, do everything to kill this habit. Keep your points succinct and avoid over-explaining – less is more.