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Assertiveness, and Why it Can Help You

We’ve all been there.

You know what you want – but you fear if you assert yourself, you’ll offend someone.

You struggle to say no – so others take advantage of your good nature.

You become anxious about a difficult conversation – so you avoid it altogether.

In short, you’re struggling to assert yourself confidently.

At Pink Elephant Communications, we help over a thousand people in Scotland and beyond each year overcome their fears of public speaking, giving presentations and talking to the media.

And now we’ve teamed up with Glasgow-based First Psychology, who help people overcome anxiety through proven and evidence-based techniques.

Together, we witness professional and social discomfort on a daily basis.

Yet the thing we witness more than anything else is this:

We’re worried about how other people view us.

We hate offending other people, we avoid saying ‘no’ and we shy away from conflict.

That’s why we’ve been developing assertiveness skills courses, to be formally launched next week.

Today’s blog is designed to give you a sneak preview of the techniques we’ll use to help you with your assertiveness.

Passiveness, assertiveness and aggressiveness

How to be Assertive - Pink Elephant Communications - Team meeting

One of the misconceptions about ‘assertiveness’ is that it’s akin to aggressiveness.

In reality, they’re two very different things – and understanding that difference will help you to get what you want, without offending other people.

So let’s share our definitions of certain behaviours with you:

Passiveness = accepting the actions of others without offering resistance

Assertiveness = demonstrating self-confidence to help achieve a certain goal

Aggressiveness = ready or likely to attack others verbally or physically

Passive aggressiveness = indirectly blocking the goals of others, through avoidance of confrontation

Sophie’s choice

How to be assertive - Pink Elephant Communications - confident

We worked with a young woman recently, Sophie, who led a team of digital marketers in Edinburgh.

The nature and success of the business demanded acute oversight, great attention to detail and the odd late night shift from her team.

Her fear of coming across as aggressive led to her being passive, accepting the actions of others with little or no resistance.

Mistakes were being made, appointments missed and contracts lost.

Sophie’s behaviour was having a negative effect, on her, on her team and on the business as a whole.

Our training helped her to realise that her passiveness was a conscious choice of behaviour – and was as dangerous to her team’s productivity as aggressiveness.

Simply by demonstrating assertiveness, she took control in team meetings and articulated her position clearly and confidently.

In fact, she found it liberating – and realised her team respected her more as a result.

Saying ‘no’

Saying ‘no’ can be a marvellous thing.

Once you realise it’s OK to say no, it’s like a weight off your shoulders.

Anyone who has been on one our training courses will know there are only four Direct Answers to a Direct Question, two of which are ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

But ‘no’ is something that’s often hard to say in business, and as Michael Howard so famously showed us, it’s hard to say in politics too.

Let’s take an example of how saying ‘no’ can be a great thing.

Natalie, Lisa and me

How to be assertive - Pink Elephant Communications - phone call

In December 2011, we held a 1-1 Presentation Skills course for a Senior Manager, Natalie, within a high-street bank.

She had driven from London to Glasgow that morning, setting off at 2.45am and driving through the winter darkness, eventually arriving at our offices at 9:15am.

“Can I get you a coffee?”, I asked her.

“No thanks”, she replied.

“I’ve had three already this morning”.

When we asked if she was looking forward to the course, her answer was indirect – but the reality was obvious – she’d been told to come by her boss.

Not only that – she’d been told to attend a dinner in London the evening before, which finished at 11pm, before she rested in a Premier Inn for three hours’ sleep.

“When do you get to see your kids?”, I joked.

Rather than a wry smile, I received in return a look of helplessness.

We spoke for an hour about how one late meeting a week had become two or three, about how the 8am start had become a 7am start, and about how the team of four she was supposed to be managing was now a team of 20, based in six locations around the UK.

Her inability to say ‘no’ to her manager, for fear of losing her job, had forced her into a helpless position.

We role-played, with us playing the role of her boss, Lisa:

“Hi Natalie it’s Lisa here. I need you to be in Glasgow for 7am tomorrow – and I’d like you to drive to cut down on accommodation costs”.

Her reply:

“Ok, well the thing is, that I’ve been travelling a lot this week, and I wondered if…”

Lisa interrupted:

“Well that’s a requirement of the role, and we’ve discussed this before”.

“Ok, that’s fine”, said Natalie, before Lisa hung up.

How to be assertive - Pink Elephant Communications - say no

We discussed the call at length – and practiced saying ‘no’, before making the call again:

“Natalie, Lisa here. I need you in Glasgow at 7am – and you need to drive”.

No”, said Natalie, before justifying her position.

“I’ve been told very clearly by my doctor that if I keep up these late nights, early mornings and long drives up, my health will deteriorate.

I can only do my job well when I’m well-rested, when I’ve had time to spend with my family and when I’m 100% focused on my work”.

“I’d be delighted to dial into the meeting – or I can meet with them next week when I’m travelling to Edinburgh”.

A stunned silence followed the call.

“That was great!”

said Natalie, a grin of realisation coming over her face.

A week later, we received a call from Natalie – and she told us that the training had changed her life.

I said no to my boss. I explained about my health. I’ve spent more time with my son in the last week than I can remember. And what’s more, Lisa actually thanked me after the call”.

Saying ‘no’ can be a wonderful thing – it’s all about where you go from there, justifying your position and showing assertiveness.

Managing anxiety

How to be assertive - Pink Elephant Communications - anxiety

Our third example comes from Tony, who held a senior position within local government.

Every time he thought about a difficult conversation he was about to have, he became anxious.

His heart rate increased, his throat dried up, he felt physically ill.

He became so anxious, in fact, that he would make an excuse for delaying the conversation.

When we spoke to Tony over the phone, it was clear he was shying away from asserting himself in these difficult conversations, because the anxiety he felt was overwhelming him.

We reassured him that anxiety was OK.

Feeling uncomfortable is OK.

Demonstrating assertiveness will help you manage both.

Through some simple exercises practising difficult conversations in a safe environment, we were able to reduce the feelings of discomfort and anxiety.

Having an understanding of anxiety helped Tony to learn that the discomfort is natural and will pass.

As assertiveness becomes more familiar, anxiety will become less prominent.

Dealing with criticism

How to be assertive - Pink Elephant Communications - criticism

Now you’re able to assert yourself, the next step is to help you face criticism.

Whether it’s at a Board meeting, a public consultation or from a member of your team, there is a simple technique to help deal with criticism.

Answer questions directly, refusing to repeat the accusations thrown at you.

If you’re accused of having taken your “eye off the ball”, the temptation is to get drawn into the personal argument.

“Taken my eye off the ball? I’ve never taken my eye off the ball. To accuse me of taking my eye off the ball is ridiculous. I’ve never taken my eyes off anything, I don’t even have a ball!”

It’s unhelpful, and creates conflict.

A better answer is: “No – my eye is firmly on the ball”.

And it’s over – you’ve answered the question and now you’re speaking positively about yourself.

Nonviolent communication

How to be assertive - Pink Elephant Communications - Gandhi

Nonviolent communication (NVC) is rooted in 1960s psychology, and its theory applies more than ever in the modern 21st century workplace.

The theory is simple:

Saying “Don’t do that” or “I’m not going to do that” can create animosity, as it’s perceived that there’s a lack of willingness to complete a task.

The nonviolent form, however, “I’m unable to do that”, restricts the language to an inability to do something, rather than an unwillingness.

That helps to foster certainty, respect and ultimately trust.

“I’m unable to get that to you by Friday as I’m in meetings all day – but I’ll make sure I have it to you by Tuesday”.

NVC founder Marshall Rosenberg held up Mahatma Gandhi as an inspiration for nonviolent communication.

You’ll find it useful for dealing with difficult, persistent and aggressive behaviour.

A new you

Image by Guy Hinks.

Putting all of these techniques into action takes time, but it helps enormously.

Asserting yourself confidently is the quickest way to get what you want, whilst building positive relationships with other people.

Now that we’ve teamed up with First Psychology to deliver these courses, you’ll be able to benefit from the combination of our 26-year history in building confidence and their evidence-based psychological techniques for showing assertiveness.

We believe it will help you enormously, just like it did for Sophie, Nathalie and Tony.

Our next course runs at Lochinch House in Glasgow on Friday 27th January, 2017, at just £600+VAT per place.

Book your place here.

Andrew McFarlan is director of media training and presentation skills firm Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can view his full profile here.

First Psychology is an independent provider of psychological services. You can visit their website here.

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13th April 2016 Featured in: Blog By:

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