It’s no secret that being assertive is a key attribute for most successful leaders. But knowing that behavioral trait is important doesn’t make it any easier for people who are shy, soft-spoken, introverted or simply conflict-averse to be assertive.
In fact, knowing you should be assertive without having the tools or knowledge to really do so can do more harm than good. Especially if you’re a woman in the workforce, a failed attempt at being assertive – meaning you come off as negative or aggressive – can have adverse effects on your career.
So how exactly do you become more assertive without damaging your workplace reputation or falling off the leadership ladder? Follow these three tips:
Know what assertive means. I find the most common reason people shy away from being assertive is because they confuse the concept with something else. Assertive behavior is confident and clear, but it is not:
- Aggressive. Aggression conveys hostility, which makes other people uncomfortable. It also leaves little room for the other person to reply, which leads to unproductive conversations. This article describes offers a few example scenarios to help you differentiate between aggression and assertion.
- Mean. You can be assertive without being impolite. Again, using hostile or rude language is more likely to shut down a conversation, rather than furthering your point. It can also damage workplace relationships, which are another key contributor to career advancement.
- Negative. You can be straightforward about your opinion without complaining. Whenever possible, try to assert your views by offering potential alternatives or solutions to a problem, rather than simply calling out the problem itself. That will make people more receptive to your input, and foster more productive conversations overall.
- Loud. It doesn’t matter if you’re soft-spoken. You can be just as clear and confident in the way you deliver your message without yelling or pounding on the table. In fact, you’re more likely to be truly understood if your gestures or tone aren’t distracting.
Be mindful of your language. Nevertheless, the language you use to be assertive does matter. There are innumerable articles about how “woman in a meeting” language or diminishing phrases can undermine your authority and the point you’re trying to make.
In a past article, I explained that there are times when more tempered language can be positive. However, when you’re trying to be assertive, avoid undermining your points with prefaces like “If I could just” or “If you don’t mind”. Being assertive is about enforcing your messages, not conceding to others.
This article provides a fun exercise, as well as a list of words, to cut from your vocabulary.
Take small steps toward your goal. Monitoring your language in certain scenarios is one way to become more assertive without completely abandoning your comfort zone. That’s important. If you try to change too much at once, you’ll most likely come off as disingenuous or uncomfortable – the very perceptions you’re trying to combat with your assertiveness.
Consider other small steps you can take to normalize assertive behavior, like tackling small issues before larger ones or practicing with a trusted colleague. Being assertive doesn’t mean you’re going to walk into your department leader’s office and ask for everything you’ve ever wanted. You can start with a smaller project and work your way up as you feel more comfortable.
And remember, being assertive isn’t just a skill to use on your superiors. It can make you a better peer or manager to more clearly articulate your needs, thoughts, and goals. Ultimately, that’s the goal of assertive behavior. It helps you become a more productive member of your team and a leader for your peers.
This article was originally published in January, 2017.