4 Ways to Be Assertive Without Being (Perceived as) Mean

Being assertive doesn’t always mean what we think it does.
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Being assertive doesn’t always mean what we think it does.

In a recent study by the Society of Women Engineers and the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, “Women engineers reported that a narrower range of behavior was accepted in women than men.” Unfortunately, for most of us, this isn’t news. We know from firsthand experience that female assertiveness in the workplace and beyond can be misconstrued as disrespectful, bossy, or worse.

We asked women who have risen to the top in male-dominated fields or who have studied the complexities of human communication how to be assertive without getting pushback or burning professional bridges. Here’s what they shared (in a calm and direct tone, of course).

01. Use what you’ve heard.

You can’t reasonably expect your colleagues to hear your voice if you don’t actively listen to theirs. Communications specialist at Frontier Business Edge, Alice Williams, says, “If you’re in a meeting, be sure to address the concerns/viewpoint of colleagues who have previously spoken as a launching board to get your views across. For example, ‘Bill, I appreciate that you brought up X issue because I really wanted to address XYZ.’”

Be conscious of your audience even as you prepare for your meeting; keep notes on what you learned in previous interactions or by doing research beforehand. Business expert Heather Monahan says, “It is critical to be familiar with your audience. . . . Subtle changes in your approach can have a major impact when you come at others from a place that is relevant and interesting to them.”

02. Pick your passions . . . and choose your battles.

Bridgette Wilder, chief human resources officer at Media Fusion, Inc., says, “You can’t be passionate about everything. If you are, no one takes you seriously. Show emotions when appropriate, but don’t overdo it. . . . You want to be distinguishable when you take a stand for something important versus being viewed as someone that is contentious about everything.”

When it’s time to speak up about something you’re passionate about, founder of Los Angeles–based public relations firm SPBX Social DeeAnn Sims says, “Assert yourself by being able to make cut-and-dry decisions with a firm voice. The very antithesis of assertive is a wishy-washy decision maker with a meek stance on the issue at hand.” Be prepared to “voice your opinion without having to devalue someone else’s,” she says.

Barbara Pachter, author of The Communication Clinic: 99 Proven Cures for the Most Common Business Mistakes, recommends maintaining some control over a situation by using direct statements instead of questions. Say “Let’s discuss this” rather than “Would you like to discuss this?” She also advises avoiding self-discounting phrases, which “can diminish a woman’s stature in the eyes of others, minimize what she is saying, and tarnish her professional image.” Cut “I’m sorry to bother you” out of your vocabulary. You are not a bother.

03. Keep track of your accomplishments.

Monahan has a secret weapon to counteract nerves before a meeting: She remembers what she has already accomplished. “Confidence is a muscle that can be built,” she notes. “Celebrate and track your wins no matter how small they may be.” The better you are able to communicate this information, the more professional and confident an impression you will give. Jenny Dorsey, professional chef and culinary strategist, says, “Proper explanation of your personality, position, and control in any position sets the right tone for all future professional interactions in that setting.” You have unique gifts—own them!

Presenting yourself honestly need not be prideful. Karin Hurt, CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and author of Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul, says, “Humility is about knowing the mission is bigger than you. For goodness sake, if you’re the best person for the job, don’t stand back and let someone else take the helm.”

04. Approach it from a teamwork aspect.

Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation, says, “Women leaders who approach something as though they have something to prove rather than something to offer are more likely to come across as defensive or disrespectful than assertive.”

That doesn’t mean you should take on more than you can handle. Sims says women often don’t ask for help at work “for fear of being viewed as incompetent, but it’s quite the opposite.” Proactively speaking up and delegating responsibilities to others are the marks of a leader who knows how to get what she needs—for the benefit of the company and her team.

Apply these tips in the office, at home, and anywhere in between, and before you know it you’ll be a woman who is heard without feeling maligned.

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock