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How To Be Assertive — Without Being Seen As Bossy
Adobe Stock / Monkey Business
Bonnie Marcus M.Ed, CEC
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Communication experts agree that the most effective way to communicate is honestly and openly — meaning, assertively. However, this is one of the biggest challenges ambitious women face in the workplace today: being assertive without being "overly aggressive."

We are told that in order for us to be considered for a leadership position, we must be assertive — expressing yourself and standing up for what you believe — and direct in our communication. Yet when we do assert ourselves, we are viewed negatively, labeled as bossy and no one wants to work with us. If, on the other hand, we focus on being likable and soften our message, we aren’t viewed as having leadership potential. See the problem here? It’s often referred to as the double bind; doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t.

study from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business shows that in the business world, women who are assertive and confident, but also able to turn these traits on and off depending on the social circumstances, get more promotions than either men or other women. Therefore, it’s essential that women learn how to be assertive in a way that’s acceptable (for a woman that is). I know! Don’t get me started! But we need to deal with the reality, and the reality is that women are judged differently than men when it comes to the qualifications for leadership, and that assertive communication for women is tricky at best.

One of my coaching programs includes getting direct feedback on my clients from their boss, colleagues, and direct reports. This feedback is invaluable to better understand the way they are perceived in the workplace. A client of mine who’s an attorney in California was labeled as being aggressive by her male boss in an initial feedback form I sent out. However, when I had a direct conversation with him, I asked him specifically what he considered aggressive. The example he gave was indicative of the gender bias many women face when it comes to assertive communication. He described a situation in which she delivered clear and direct communication, which was in actuality assertive rather than aggressive.

Given the challenge that bias presents, women must learn the skill of assertive communication without coming across as bossy, and feeling comfortable enough to express their opinions honestly and openly. They must still demonstrate their competence and confidence without intimidation or forcefulness. It’s often a delicate balance, but it is definitely doable.

Are you up for the challenge?

Examples of assertive behavior

Assertiveness can manifest itself in body language, attitude, and, of course, behavior. These factors play a role in whether you come off as aggressive versus assertive. For instance, an aggressive person might speak loudly over colleagues, while an assertive person carries on a conversation. An aggressive person tries to be in control, while an assertive person maintains personal control, while still acting as a participat in a group setting. Read on for more specific examples of how to incorporate this behavior into your daily work life.

How to be assertive

Here are some tips on how to demonstrate competence and personal power without overwhelming your audience.

1. Avoid minimizing language.

In a Harvard Business Review article, "Replace Meaningless Words with Meaningful Ones," author Jerry Weissman advises us to replace weak, meaningless words with stronger ones. He talks about how a simple word replacement can change the impact of our overall communication so it becomes more assertive. Weissman suggests we replace the weak words “I think,” “I believe,” and “I feel,” for stronger options like “I’m confident,” “I’m convinced,” “I expect.” These simple replacements can make a difference in how our message is perceived. Don’t sabotage your effectiveness with weak language. A stronger choice of words supports your assertiveness without giving the impression you’re bossy.

2. Don’t over-apologize.

Apologizing unnecessarily robs women of their power and puts them in a subservient position. Sometimes strong women feel the need to find ways to temper their personalities or otherwise risk being called “bossy” or “abrasive,” so they use “I’m sorry” to soften others’ perception. But over-apologizing too often can sabotage your executive presence and career. It’s best to eliminate the word unless there is a real reason for the apology. If you need to apologize, simply state your apology and move on.

3. Don’t be overly emotional.

We all have feelings and sometimes our emotions get triggered by another person or situation in the workplace. A wise woman, who has had a very successful career in a male-dominated industry, told me a mentor once suggested to her if she needs to cry at work, go to the lady’s room or take a walk outside to clear your head. Emotional communication is not well received in the workplace, and it’s almost impossible to be emotional and assertive. People only remember your emotions, not the message. They see you as weak and too hysterical to be considered for a leadership position.

But don’t confuse emotion with passion. You can state your opinions clearly and passionately without losing the impact. In fact, your passion will reinforce your message and your influence.

4. Get to the point.

I have coached many women on the importance of clearly stating their objectives and conclusions without telling a long, drawn-out story about their effort in reaching those results. This is assertive communication!  Until you get this right, do your homework, prepare, write down the bullet points, and speak to each one. It will help organize your thoughts and stay on point. Over time, as you practice this technique, you will train yourself to speak assertively. 

5. Make eye contact.

Making eye contact along with direct and clear communication is a strong signal that you are confident and competent. Don’t stare people down, but don’t look away either. When you avoid their gaze, you decrease the impact of your message and you appear insecure and unsure of what you’re saying. Eye contact reinforces your assertiveness and effectiveness without seeming bossy.

6. Use ‘I’ statements.

Start your sentences with “I” and avoid blaming others. When you begin a sentence with “you,” you run the risk of being perceived as aggressive. It definitely sounds bossy. Instead practice beginning your sentences with “I” — “I have reached this conclusion,” “I am confident that x, y, and z,” “I know.” After you say that, avoid the tendency to backpedal or soften your statement. Practice this because it is challenging to so clearly state your opinions and feelings. In the end, however, this ability is crucial to assertive communication!

7. Take credit for your work.

Many of us in the workplace have experienced this. You bring up a point in a meeting and it goes unnoticed. Later, someone else (usually a man) will repeat your thought and people will applaud his great idea. When we stay silent and let others take credit for our ideas, we give our power away. If we object and point the finger accusing them of stealing our idea, that’s aggressive. That’s not a good approach.

Instead, I coach my clients to take back the credit in an assertive and effective way. “Thank you for bringing up this idea that I proposed earlier. I appreciate your support.” Make a statement that will remind the attendees of your ownership of the idea. This is persuasive and direct without being too forceful.  

8. Self-promote but don’t brag.

Nothing turns people off more than a braggart! And though it’s essential that you advocate for yourself in an assertive manner, coming across as a “know it all,” especially for a woman, can ruin your reputation. Think of self-promotion as a leadership skill. It is your responsibility to talk about what you and your team have achieved, not only for your own benefit, but also for the team and the company. It’s how you create influence. It’s how you sell your ideas across the organization. It’s the basis of building relationships with key stakeholders and gaining access to the power networks, yet it’s also not bossy, pushy, or egocentric.

2011 Catalyst study supports the importance of communicating your value. After following 3,000 high potential MBA graduates, Catalyst found that doing all the “right things” like being proactive, requesting high-profile assignments, and asking for promotions and raises, did not significantly help women advance their careers. What Catalyst found did have a positive impact on women’s careers, however, was the communication of their achievements. In this way, women were able to advance their careers and increase their compensation.

Letting others know of your accomplishments and your value proposition is a win-win. Your team benefits from your promotional efforts. They receive recognition for their efforts and success, while you benefit as the team leader who spearheaded the project or initiative, and the company wins as well.

9. Be aware of your audience.

Who is your audience? Is there a sensitivity or bias against assertive women? Look at women in your company who have been promoted. How do they communicate? What is their communication style? Use them as a role model for success.

It is important to understand that communication is a two-way process, so understanding your audience helps you position yourself appropriately and walk the fine line between assertiveness and likability.

Why it's essential to be assertive

It takes conscious effort to be assertive, but using these techniques for standing up for yourself can carry you far in your personal and professional life. It's a delicate balance, but taking control of your presentation, understanding how you come across to your audience, and making your presence known will have enormous benefits and gear you up for success.

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Bonnie Marcus, M.Ed, is an executive coach, author and keynote speaker focused on women's advancement in the workplace. A former corporate executive and CEO, Bonnie is the author of "The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead," and co-author of "Lost Leaders in the Pipeline: Capitalizing on Women's Ambition to Offset the Future Leadership Shortage."

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