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How to Be Assertive at Work
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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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You’ve just come out of an important meeting, and you’re kicking yourself. You had a great idea for the direction of your team’s big project, but every time you tried to bring it up, your manager talked over you. So you backed off. 

We’ve all been in this situation or something like it. For many people, it’s difficult to walk the fine line between too passive and overly aggressive. Wondering how you can start being your own advocate and make yourself heard? Here’s how to be assertive at work.

What Does It Mean to Be Assertive?

People who are aggressive often seem to come off as bullies, because they project the idea that their approach is the only approach. People who are passive submit to what others want and often get steamrolled. And then there are people who are passive-aggressive and avoid confrontation altogether while indirectly expressing frustration.

None of these behaviors is ideal in the workplace (or anyplace). Assertiveness means taking control of a situation without discounting the views and needs of others. It requires a blend of confidence, common sense and level-headedness. An assertive person is able to express her ideas articulately and stand up for herself while simultaneously taking into account the opinions of others, even if they contradict her own. She can listen to these opinions rationally without getting defensive.

How to Be Assertive at Work

Wondering how you can become more assertive at work? Here are some steps to follow.

• Take the lead, but listen to others.

You’re working on a team project and have an idea, but you’re not sure if it’s your place to voice it. What do you do?

An assertive person would articulate the idea while avoiding making it seem as though she’s taking over the meeting. While it might be too aggressive to immediately make your suggestion from the getgo, you should look for an opening. For example, if your boss asks for suggestions, this is the perfect time to jump in. You should also listen to and acknowledge your colleagues’ ideas, even if you’re partial to your own, by pointing out both the merits and areas of improvement.

• Use active language.

Using phrases such as “I think” and “I feel” before voicing your opinion introduces a layer of uncertainty, according to Jerry Weissman in the Harvard Business Review. This rhetoric will make you appear weaker. Instead, opt for powerful language, such as “I’m convinced” or “I expect.” Or, if you can, eliminate the introductory phrase altogether.

• Back up your ideas with evidence.

Part of being assertive at work is having the evidence to back up your claims. For example, if you’re negotiating your salary with your manager, you’ll want to point to examples of how you’ve gone above and beyond your job description, specific assignments and projects that demonstrate your value, and so on.

Even in everyday conversation, you need to present facts in order to be assertive. If you’re discussing the direction of an assignment with a coworker, you’ll come off as much more reasoned and self-assured if you can point to lessons from past projects or similar ones.

• Recognize your worth.

It’s very difficult to be assertive if you lack confidence in yourself. Of course, it can be difficult to find and build that confidence. 

If you have trouble recognizing your own value, try the “fake it til you make it” approach. For instance, when approaching salary negotiations with your manager, it can be helpful to gear yourself up for the meeting by writing down your accomplishments and going over them with a friend or colleague. If the meeting doesn’t go as well as you had hoped, ask your manager when you can revisit the subject. This demonstrates that you believe in your own worth.

• Learn that it’s sometimes okay to say “No.”

Being able to say “No” firmly but politely is an important part of being assertive. You know your limits, and you need to be able to articulate them. 

For example, if you’re feeling like you have too much work than is feasible to complete on your plate, discuss the situation with your boss rather than immediately accepting a new assignment. You should also feel comfortable with expressing yourself if your boss asks you to complete a project that falls outside of the purvue of your role. 

• Stop saying “Sorry.”

Don’t apologize when you don’t need to do so. Many people say “Sorry” to avoid coming across as demanding or pushy, even when the request or statement is perfectly valid and necessary. Women especially often use overly apologetic language when they have no reason to apologize, and it conveys passivity, as well as weakens the request or statement.

(Of course, if you have done something wrong, you should apologize. But don’t make “Sorry” a verbal tick.)

• Accept feedback.

Learning how to accept and handle feedback and constructive criticism is an important part of the growth process. There is also an “assertive” way to accept feedback. An aggressive person might clap back and become defensive. A passive person could blindly accept it and perhaps internalize the negative comments. An assertive person, however, would listen to the constructive aspects and consider how to improve based on the feedback. If you’re confused about any of the points, ask for clarification. Thank the person offering the feedback, and use it.

• Know your limits.

This goes hand in hand with learning how to say “No.” Avoid burnout by understanding what you can and can’t do and articulating that to the people making demands of you. You need to be able to communicate your limits clearly. This is an important part of assertiveness — knowing what your own boundaries are. 

Why Should You Be More Assertive at Work?

• You’ll feel more satisfied.

If you’re passive and never articulate what you want or how you feel, you may well become resentful, upset and anxious. If you’re aggressive, you may find others resenting you, and you’ll have trouble meeting people in the middle, which can take a toll on your work life. Being assertive means you’re voicing your needs without being pushy. While you won’t always get what you want, you’ll know that you’re making the effort.

• You’ll be more persuasive.

No matter what you’re role is, you’re more likely to convince others of your ideas and value if you take an assertive approach. People appreciate someone who is able to articulate herself without being controlling or unreasonable. This can help you earn respect, be a more effective employee overall, and even earn promotions.

• You’ll be more confident.

Even if you don’t feel confident now, being assertive will help you feel more empowered. You’ll likely see others, including colleagues and managers, responding positively, which will allow you to feel more confident in yourself.

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