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The Power of Being Assertive

When it comes to women advancing in the public workforce and overall workplace, there’s no shortage of advice and articles detailing how you can be more assertive. Whether it’s Sheryl Sandberg telling women to lean in, or Fran Hauser sharing how ambitious women can achieve satisfying careers, one fact is clear: women are still struggling to voice their needs in the office.

At Federally Employed Women’s 49th National Training Program, GovLoop learned what being assertive really means for women and the power it yields in our professional lives. According to Trainer, Mallary Tytel, president and founder of Healthy Workplaces, “Being assertive means expressing your thoughts, opinions, feelings, attitudes and rights in an open and honest way.”

The challenge that women face in the workplace is that either they are perceived as too weak and not assertive enough or they are perceived as too aggressive. Tytel cited Marcia Clark in describing the double standard women face, “The minute you step into a job where you have to be at all tough and assertive, that’s when the mischief happens. And you’re not allowed to be assertive and feminine.”

A simple Google search reveals that for many women, trying to be more assertive have often been described as aggressive, irritable, bitchy and even hysterical.

So how do you navigate when the deck seems stacked against women? Tytel said the key is communication. “Healthy communication plays an important part in making your workplace not only effective, but also a pleasant place to be,” Tytel said. “Being a good communicator can assist you in building trust, solving differences and creating an environment of respect that promotes problem-solving and builds relationships.”

In other words, being assertive means you communicate in ways that clearly assert your needs and wants while considering the rights and needs of others.

To start, Tytel advised that it’s important to first ask yourself three important questions:

1. Who are you? Do you see yourself as a professional, mom, leader, sister? Determine if you want to fast track to a Senior Executive Service position or if you want more work-life balance.

2. What is important to you? Do you prefer having a flexible schedule or do you seek prestige and status? Define your priorities.

3. How do you want to relate to others? Think about the reputation you want to project. Being aggressive means getting your way while leaving bodies in your wake. But being assertive means voicing your needs in a proactive way while making sure the other person is heard as well.

When it comes to being assertive, Tytel said, “You don’t have to be the loudest voice. But you want to be a voice that matters.”

Tytel shared several strategies and practical techniques that you can start using in the office. For example, here’s what you should do if you’re facing criticism from a supervisor or co-worker:

  • Agree and accept criticism if the criticism is true. “Yes, I did come in late this morning.”
  • Agree with the possibility you could be wrong. “Yes, I might have come in late other days this month.”
  • Agree with the attacker’s logic. “Yes, I can understand why you would think I let the team down.”
  • Accept the attacker’s feelings. “I can understand why you are feeling angry with me.”
  • Allow for improvement. “Yes, I can do better.”
  • If you are in the wrong, calmly admit your mistake without excessive apologizing. This allows for both of you to maintain your dignity.
  • Agree with the criticism. “Yes, sometimes I let time get away from me. I have to do better.”
  • Say you are sorry only if you’re really sorry. Women have a tendency to over-apologize, which is unnecessary and makes you seem inauthentic.
  • If you’re not sure why you are being criticized or the facts are not presented, ask for an example. “I see. Do you mind sharing a specific example with me?”
  • Appreciate the other person’s feelings. “I can totally understand why you feel that way.”
  • Raise objections as an afterthought rather than objecting at the very beginning. “Yes that seems true, but if..”
  • Show that you have anticipated that attack. “Thank you, I was hoping someone was going to mention that.”
  • Maintain your self-esteem.

Whether it’s saying “no” to taking on extra work, asking for a raise or simply communicating your needs, being assertive has many benefits for both work and life. By being assertive and confidently voicing your needs, you will ultimately be more comfortable with yourself, become more valued and respected and will improve your overall interpersonal skills. Most importantly, you will be helping other women to voice their needs too.

For more articles about Federally Employed Women and the 49th National Training Program, click here.

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