Assertion: It ain't What You Say...

Knowing that you're being assertive is all very fine, but how do you put it into practice? Our second article in this short series on assertion points you in the right direction, with a little help from Stella and her truculent boss, Kathy...

A popular - but demanding - boss was once summarised by an admiring employee as: "John could tell you to go to hell, and you'd look forward to getting there."

Last month, we concluded that you can strongly disagree with your colleague, boss or client even, but as long as you retain - and communicate - a respect for their rights then you should never lapse into aggressive behaviour.

But let's turn this into something practical, how exactly do you do it in real life? How can you make sure that the assertive thought in your head is accurately translated into assertive speech?

Well, let's quickly dip back to a key point in December's article: if you are being truly assertive then you will speak to the other person in a way that ensures that they maintain their self-esteem. This is crucial. You may be angry, but allowing the anger to fuel your communication can be potentially disastrous and very demotivating for the person you're talking to.

How not to say it

Let's do some easy stuff first. If you're serious about self-esteem, and want it preserved in those around you, then you'll avoid the following:

"Stella, where is the Hallam report? I thought you'd promised it to me by today."

"Oh, I thought you meant by close of business, Kathy. I didn't think you were talking about having it in quite yet."

"Don't talk rubbish, Stella! You know it needs to be with the senior team by tomorrow morning. I have a life as well you know, so I'd prefer to not to spend my evening checking your late reports!" Aggressive? Certainly. But why? After all, she's angry about Stella's thoughtlessness and wants to let her know.

Of course, the manner was all wrong. Rather than deal with Stella's unthinking response, Kathy chose first to diminish her self-esteem ("Don't talk rubbish, Stella.") Next she opted for sarcasm ("I have a life as well you know…"). But did you notice that the one thing that needed to be said wasn't? Surely what Stella needs to know is what she did wrong and what effect her oversight would have?

Getting it all right

Wind the tape back; as in all good training videos, let's give Kathy another chance.

 

"Stella, where is the Hallam report? I thought you'd promised it to me by today."

"Oh, I thought you meant by close of business, Kathy. I didn't think you were talking about having it in quite yet."

"Stella, we both agreed with the senior team to have this report in first thing tomorrow and you know that I need at least an hour to sense check it beforehand. When can you have it on my desk by?" To the point and - this is crucial - with an action for Stella to crack on with.

Assertive behaviour is a practical, constructive behaviour. Aggression is relentlessly destructive. It helps nobody but the aggressor; it's a selfish, tactless and ultimately pointless exercise that achieves nothing but resentment and defensiveness in others. Like the parent slapping their child in the supermarket, whom has that slap helped the most? Parent or child?

Fight fire with fire?

But - we hear you say - what can you do when other people behave so aggressively? Surely we have to fight fire with fire?

No. We fight fire with water.

When another individual chooses not to talk to you in a way that respects your rights, then it is up to you to remind them that you will not accept anything other than assertive communication.

Come to think of it, Stella's response to Kathy's first outburst, might have been...

"Don't talk rubbish, Stella. You know I need it to be with the senior team for tomorrow morning. I have a life as well you know, so I'd prefer to not to spend my evening checking your late reports!"

"You're right, Kathy. I forgot that you would need to spend time on it as well. I'll finish it within the hour and have it on your desk." Stella chose not to pick up on Kathy's aggression, preferring instead to assertively respond to her outburst. Whatever mistake Stella made in her work, her manner remained faultless. When Kathy chose an attitude that disrespected Stella's rights, Stella rose above the situation and remained assertive.

A time and a place to be assertive

We'd like to think that Stella walked into Kathy's office later in the day with the completed report and, just before leaving, turned to her saying:

"Kathy, you know when you pulled me up earlier for not having the report ready for you?"

"Hmm? What about it?"

"Well, I would prefer that if you wanted to talk to me about something I'd done wrong, you'd do so when other people aren't around."

"I'm sorry Stella, that was thoughtless of me." It's quite simple really. Assertive people are often more popular. Assertive people have less stress or heart-related diseases. Assertive people often set the standard for behaviour around them.

As our opening anecdote pointed out, assertive people can be as demanding to work for as any aggressive manager. The difference is that they make us want to be assertive like them, and look forward to getting there.