Assertiveness sometimes gets a bad press. When I have posed the question to delegates on a course or individual clients as to how they view ‘assertive’ people, they may describe them as “difficult, demanding and pushy.”
Assertive women in particular are often perceived in this way.
So if you feel you want to be more assertive, what does this mean for you? If you assert yourself, will you always get your own way? If you assert yourself, will others think you difficult, demanding and pushy?
My approach to coaching assertiveness is quite different. Firstly, it is helpful to understand the nature of assertiveness, which includes both our behaviour and the language we use.
However, it is more than that. It involves underlying principles of self-respect and respect for others, of integrity and humanity.
It’s about the art of communication. Through conversation, expressing yourself clearly and concisely, directly yet diplomatically, you are far more likely to be effective than if you try to steamroller over others’ wishes and opinions.
You want to be heard – and so do others. Listening is fundamental to communication, a word which originates from the Latin ‘communis,’ meaning shared understanding.
How to be Assertive
The principles and practices of assertiveness will enable you to identify and state your needs and make it more likely that you achieve win-win outcomes.
The Courage to Assert Yourself
It takes both courage and skill to be assertive. We will consider courage first. A ‘Charter of Personal Rights’ underlines assertive communication and it helps to say them to yourself before beginning a ‘difficult’ conversation.
Here are three (out of fourteen) of these rights:
- I have the right to state my own needs and ask for what I want.
- I have the right to define my own limits, look after my needs and say ‘No’
- I have the right to express my feelings and opinions
By BELIEVING you have the right to ask and to refuse unreasonable or inconvenient requests, you will be able to express your needs and opinions more cogently.
The Skills of Assertive Communication
I do not wish to be prescriptive about how you express yourself in a given circumstance. After all, you know the situation and the person or people you are addressing and how they are likely to behave. Therefore, below I give you a communication tool box from which you can decide which tools are best for the job in hand!
- Outcome planning – are you very clear in your mind, before starting a conversation, about what you want to gain? Only begin when you know. Lack of clarity and confidence may allow the other person to run circles around you.
- Be specific and succinct – keep to the point without embellishment or justification which will only serve to distract them…and you!
- Acknowledge what others say – be a great listener so you can refer to what others say in your response. Then they will know you have been truly listening
- Be empathetic – show an understanding of other people’s situations and feelings. Demonstrating this will help you both engage and discuss, even if you don’t agree with them.
- Repeat your request or refusal – if they don’t accept what you say, repeat your original statement avoiding justification or excuses. Ensure you are heard.
- Use ‘I’ statements – I believe, I feel, I’ve noticed, I’d be grateful if you could, I don’t wish to, I’d like to make a point here,
- Self-disclosure – express how you feel, if appropriate, and use an ‘I’ This is an invaluable tool if used carefully and I give examples below.
- Workable compromise – if you cannot agree with someone, can you work towards finding a compromise that works for you both, by dealing with the common ground first and then with more contentious issues?
Here are some examples of assertive and unassertive language:
‘I want my money back’
Imagine you lent a friend £20 a week ago and you would like it back. For some it would be easy to ask, for others it can feel awkward. Do you find it easy, or do you feel awkward, embarrassed or mean?
Difficult feelings can get in the way of our ability to ask, so try expressing the feeling(s) appropriately and the words are more likely to flow:
Unassertive: “Do you remember you borrowed some money from me?” (A question)
Unassertive: “Could you possibly return the money you borrowed?” (Hesitant, apologetic)
Assertive “I’d be grateful if you could let me have the £20 back I lent you when we were at the theatre last weekend” (a request) or start with your self-disclosure e.g. “I feel awkward asking. I’d be grateful…”
‘I want to buy or sell my car or my home’
Here the outcome planning tool is particularly important. It involves more than deciding on one outcome you wish for (one price for the sale or purchase of car or home). It is also worth considering:
- What do you ideally want to pay or receive?
- What can you expect realistically?
- What is acceptable as a fall back?
Be clear in your mind before you begin. Write down your outcomes to refer to when you speak. This preparation will enable you to communicate far more confidently and assertively.
Thought for the day
When faced with difficult people and situations, we may not be able to change others’ behaviour. However, the one behaviour we can definitely change is our own and, by changing the way we communicate, we are more likely to achieve the outcomes we wish for.
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About the Author
Lucy Seifert is a highly experienced coach and trainer with over 26 years’ experience working with individuals and organisations in the corporate, charity & public sectors. She is author of several books on training assertiveness and self-empowerment and a full member of the Association for Coaching. For more information, visit lucyseifertcoaching-training.co.uk and subscribe to her regular newsletter, or follow her on Twitter: @LucySeifert.