You Can Be Assertive at Work Without Being Perceived as Rude — Here's How

A woman sitting in a chair talking to an employee.

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Ivy Exec
Ivy Exec
May 29, 2024 at 2:16PM UTC
One of the cornerstones of professional success is assertiveness. An assertive employee is someone who expresses their perspectives confidently without making their colleagues feel bad if they disagree. Assertive people care about what others say but know how to maintain their boundaries and say no.
In other words, assertiveness is all about expressing one’s thoughts and needs without making others feel theirs have been diminished.
But being assertive at work often requires you to walk a thin line between assertiveness and rudeness.
It perhaps comes as no surprise that women often face a greater likelihood of being perceived as rude or impolite than men do.
“A 2015 experiment showed that when men spoke in angry tones, they came across as more credible and more persuasive. But when women spoke forcefully, they were less likely to change people’s minds. Subjects perceived the angry women as emotional and untrustworthy,” reports the Washington Post.
The experiment cited the praise the then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders received for his strongly-spoken beliefs, while anything other than restraint from Hilary Clinton was criticized as hysterical.
Women are also more accustomed to speaking more politely – adding “please” when giving commands far more often than men did.
Black women may be even more likely to be perceived as rude or “angry” than their non-Black counterparts.
“Black women must overcome the angry black woman stereotype, which characterizes black women as bad-tempered, hostile, and overly aggressive. For evidence of this stereotype, one must look no further than recent headlines regarding Serena Williams. Other examples of this stereotype being applied include Michelle Obama, Jemele Hill, and Shonda Rhimes,” wrote Forbes.
How, then, can professionals – especially women of color – commit to being assertive at work without fearing they’re being perceived as aggressive? Here are some tried-and-true tactics.

Claim assertiveness for yourself.

Psychotherapist Michele Kerulis suggests there are many myths that keep people from believing they can be assertive. One of them is the one we’re talking about – they believe assertiveness and aggression are the same. Other people believe that assertiveness signals someone is either selfish or difficult.
The first step is untangling your perception of what assertiveness is from what it’s not.
Kerulis shares this example of the difference between rudeness and assertiveness:
“You’re walking down the street and accidentally bump into someone. If they start yelling “Hey! Watch where you’re going, you jerk!” that’s an aggressive response. If they calmly say: “You were looking at your phone and bumped into me. Please watch where you are walking. That will be safer for you and everyone around you,” they’re being assertive. That’s because the person acknowledges the issue—you violated their boundary by bumping into them—states the facts, and provides a rational solution.

Set boundaries – without worrying you’re being aggressive.

You need to set boundaries for yourself – and keep them. If you’re worried about never saying no, you aren’t being adequately assertive – and your colleagues will likely continue to take advantage of you. If you’re burned out, you’re less likely to be able to respond assertively, not rudely.
Coach Melody Wilding shares an example of maintaining a boundary. One of her clients wanted to take Fridays off, but a co-worker always scheduled meetings that day at the last minute. The client was never getting her Fridays off, and her first email, suggesting that Friday meetings were not “efficient,” didn’t get her message across.
Eventually, the client wrote to the whole team telling them she wouldn’t be available on Friday for any reason. She then established regular meetings on Thursday afternoons, so last-minute concerns would be addressed before the last day of the work week.
This way, the client is assertive at work in her communications – and maintains her boundaries.

Use assertive, rather than rude, expressions in communications.

Sometimes, expressions that seem rude are only slightly different from those that come across as commanding. So, be sure you’re using assertive phrases, which are slightly less harsh than those that come across as rude.
Assertive expressions ask for things directly and comment on mistakes but in a kinder way. For instance, “Could you explain what happened?” instead of an aggressive expression like, “You were totally out of line!”
You can also couch your comments with “I” statements like “I think…,” “I feel…” and “I believe…”
Assertive communicators also ask, rather than giving commands. This can be a big shift for professionals who may have learned their skills in non-traditional settings, like the military.
“Most professionals appreciate requests rather than orders. Asking someone to do something allows them the freedom to accept, decline or renegotiate parameters of the request to ensure they can deliver successfully,” said Chrissy Scivicque, a career coach for Ivy Exec.

Listen actively and share your impressions of the situation.

The more complex or difficult a situation becomes, the more likely you might be to respond with anger or frustration. But an assertive person doesn’t veer into aggressive territory even when they’re feeling themselves getting heated.
Instead, ask questions that ensure that you understand every part of the situation at hand. Convey that you’re hearing the other party by restating what they’ve said.
Then, tell your colleagues or subordinates about how you feel without letting anger take control. If you respond to a negative situation with hostility, you’re almost guaranteed to be perceived as rude. Difficult situations demonstrate your mastery of assertiveness.

You can be assertive at work without being perceived as rude.

Being assertive at work is important in moving up the corporate ladder. But some people, especially women, may worry about how they’re perceived. They may believe they’ll be seen as rude, or even selfish if they don’t communicate passively and be overly available.
This isn’t a reality, however. When Black women were open and expressive in their communication, for example, they were rewarded for it.
“[O]ne ground-breaking study found that because black women are more likely to be thought of as assertive, dominant and exhibiting traits often associated with white male leaders, they were not penalized for displaying these traits, whereas their white female and black male counterparts were,” wrote Janice Gassam Asare.
Half of the battle in being more assertive at work believes that you deserve to be – and that you’ll be successful in it. The other half is setting boundaries, keeping them, and maintaining your composure when someone tries to push you too far.
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This article originally appeared on Ivy Exec

What’s your no. 1 piece of advice for walking the line between assertive and rude communication at work? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!

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