How to be more assertive

Struggling to stand up for yourself? Here's a quick guide to asking for what you want - without being a jerk.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 29 Jul 2016

‘Assertiveness is like salt in sauce’, Stanford professor Frank Flynn once told MT. Too little and you’re a wimp, too much and you’re a jerk. While getting your seasoning right is unlikely to get noticed, it is a critical ingredient both for successful management and for career progression.

That's all very well, but how does it help me, you may ask. I’m not Clint Eastwood. He wouldn’t have a problem speaking up in meetings or telling his boss he can't work late for the third night in a row, but I do.

The good news is that assertiveness can to an extent be learned, and it's not to be found in the barrel of a Magnum 44. Quite the contrary, in fact, says executive coach Lucy Seifert.

‘There’s a real distinction between assertiveness and aggression. It’s not about getting your own way. Assertiveness is about asking for what you want, and having the ability to listen, discuss and negotiate,’ she says.

Think first

A good starting point on the road to becoming more assertive is to know what you want before you open your mouth. ‘If you don’t think about what you want to gain, it could come out wrong or other people may enter the conversation and take you off course,’ Seifert says. ‘The other aspect is being concise – keep it short and simple.’

A popular technique for approaching those difficult conversations is called D.E.S.C. – describe the problem, explain the effect it’s having, specify a solution and bring up the consequences if the problem isn’t solved.

So, a bare bones example could be: ‘The music in the office is distracting. That’s preventing me getting my work done in time. I propose either we turn down the music or I work in a different part of the office. If it doesn’t change, I may have to look for another job.’

Choose your next words carefully

The language you use when you actually hold these conversations will be important. If you want to say no to a request, for instance, it’s good to start your sentence with an outright 'no' (apologies are out) and then give reasons rather than excuses.

Similarly, watch the body language – if you need to make a request, constant fidgeting and avoiding eye contact will do you no good.  

Genuinely assertive people also have no problem hearing others out – they just don’t have to agree with them. ‘Acknowledge what other people are saying and show understanding, because that’s how we develop trust in relationships,’ says Seifert. It also greatly improves your chances of reaching an agreement.

The final stage is perhaps the most important. Practise, practise, practise. Only by putting principles such as thinking before you speak and not over-apologising into practice will they stick. And if they do, you may discover you start to feel more assertive and confident as a result. 

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