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Being Assertive at Work Does More Than Just Increase Your Income: Here’s How to Do It Right

Take steps to improve your place at work.
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Photo Credit: Emilie Iggiotti

You think you deserve a raise, but every time you have the opportunity to bring it up to your boss, fear of rejection stops the conversation before it has begun. Or maybe you have some great ideas for your team, but it seems that everyone is paying more attention to the usual shot-callers and glossing over your suggestions.

Sound familiar?

If you struggle to have your voice heard or are tired of feeling like a human doormat, making a conscious effort to be a little more assertive just might be the perfect antidote. Here’s how to get there.

Why Be Assertive?

A Stanford Graduate School of Business study found that women who used traditionally masculine traits—think confidence, aggressiveness, and assertiveness—combined with their more relationship-oriented traits received more promotions than women who used only relationship-oriented skills. They also received more promotions than men.

Besides helping you achieve your goals, being assertive can boost your self-esteem and help you manage stress, according to the Mayo Clinic. A study in China found that assertiveness in the workplace was linked to reduced stress levels in employees. Feelings of stress can stem from a perceived lack of control—becoming more assertive can help you regain that missing sense of command. Instead of passively worrying whether you’ll ever get that raise or be assigned to that project, appeal to your boss’ spirit of collaboration, and schedule a meeting to discuss your concerns with her in private. This is a proactive way to take charge of the situation. Soon enough, you will feel more empowered and less anxious.

Repeat After Me: Assertive, Not Aggressive

There’s a difference between being aggressive and assertive. Being aggressive can intimidate and turn people off. That will definitely not help your voice being heard. Being assertive is a collaborative approach. Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant, emphasizes that people who are assertive “put forth their needs and views confidently and directly. They stand up for themselves without wielding a metaphorical weapon and always consider the view of others.” Think of being assertive as using your presence to win over your boss and coworkers rather than bullying them into agreeing with you.

Melody Wilding, a therapist who specializes in coaching women, calls assertiveness the happy medium between aggressiveness and passiveness. Rather than steamrolling over others (aggressive) or letting others steamroll over you (passive), being assertive means that you “seek out and create win-win scenarios,” Wilding says. Achieving a win-win scenario means acknowledging the perspectives of others and encouraging collaboration. It also means keeping your cool even when others turn down your ideas.

Got Confidence?

Confidence is key to being assertive. You must believe that you have something worth saying and that you are worth being heard. You have to own the fact that you are a valuable member of your organization. Caroline Adams Miller, author of Creating Your Best Life, tells CNN that mastering assertiveness means identifying “what you want, believing you have a right to it, and finding the courage to express it.”

Psychologist Alison Block identifies several reasons why it might be difficult for some people to be assertive. Among them are a fear of conflict or criticism, fear of damaging relationships or not being liked, and fear of being inadequate. Translation: Being assertive takes confidence because you have to push beyond your fear of rejection. While you may suffer from a bout of impostor syndrome from time to time, confidence is key to ensuring that you have the momentum to assert yourself.

Confidence grows out of your belief that your unique talents, education, and training qualify you to be a valuable member of your team. As we develop our track records of personal success, we should make room to acknowledge our strengths and recognize the goals we’ve achieved on a regular basis. But sometimes, even when we know we’re competent, we all need a little confidence boost. Remind yourself of those talents, training, and qualifications—brag to yourself. Avoiding negative thinking is also crucial to maintaining and increasing confidence. Think and speak in the positive. If all else fails, dress for success, and “fake it ’til you make it.” Acting confident even when you don’t feel confident can help you be more confident.

Be Your Own Cheerleader

If you know you have an upcoming situation that calls for you to be assertive, set aside some time to give yourself a confidence boost. Remind yourself of your qualities and accomplishments and how much you’ve grown. Go ahead, brag about yourself. It can be helpful to write down a list so that you can refer to it from time to time.

Then take a deep breath. Deep, focused breathing doesn’t just help calm your nerves before a meeting, it can also help clear your mind. Breathe in slowly through your nose, hold the breath for a few seconds, and then slowly breathe out through pursed lips. Repeat at least three times.

Another great way to boost your confidence is to do a “power pose” (arms out or on hips, head and chest lifted). Amy Cuddy, social psychologist for Harvard Business School, advocates that everyone should spend two minutes in a power pose every day. Her research has found that changing your physical stance can change your internal state. She even has a helpful diagram. Cuddy’s research also found that engaging in a power pose can increase your testosterone levels and decrease stress-inducing cortisol levels. This is an ideal recipe for boosting confidence.

Analyze Your Communication Style

If you went into your yearly review intending to ask for greater responsibility but struggled to summon the courage to broach the subject, analyze how you ask for something you want. Is your language too soft? Perhaps you are too indirect in your phrasing (your boss can’t read your mind, after all). Or maybe you lose your courage at the last second and never ask at all. Identifying the weak points in your communication style will help you pinpoint where you can improve.

Daniel Ames, professor at Columbia Business School and author of Pushing Up to a Point: Assertiveness and Effectiveness in Leadership and Interpersonal Dynamics, tells Harvard Business Review that strengthening your assertiveness muscles means assessing your current communication style. “Before entering a discussion or meeting, ask yourself, ‘What do I want from this situation?’ Then afterward, evaluate the results: ‘Did I get what I wanted?’”

The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth recommends using a three-part phrase when making an assertive statement.

  1. Begin with an empathic statement. In an empathic statement, you acknowledge how the others around you are feeling about the situation. By acknowledging the emotional state of the people you are speaking with, they will likely be more open to hearing what you have to say.
  2. State the problem. When you state the problem, you are clarifying the focus of your conversation.
  3. Close with your specific request. When you close by stating your specific request, you are suggesting a concrete action as the next step.

For example: If you would like to take on a new project at work but are afraid your supervisor might pass you over, set up a meeting. Open with, “I know how important the XYZ project is for our company’s success. You’ve expressed that you want to make sure you find someone with the right qualifications (empathic statement). But you also mentioned that you are having a hard time finding someone with accounting and customer service experience (stating the problem). I’m not sure if you’re aware, but I have an extensive background in customer service. Besides the accounting work I already do, I would value the opportunity to take on this project (offering a solution).” By taking an assertive approach that’s both collaborative and clear, your supervisor is more likely to be open to your suggestion.

Knowing how to say no is also an important part of being assertive at work. Just because someone asks you to do something doesn’t mean that you have to. Staying true to your core values can help you stand your ground and say no with confidence. Using the three-part statement can also apply in cases where you need to turn down a request. Acknowledge the reason behind the request. But firmly state that you can’t meet the demand and, if need be, give the reasons why.

Practice, Practice, Practice

As you may have guessed, becoming more assertive won’t happen overnight. Ames shares that practice is essential to making assertiveness a habit. Embracing your bolder side will take practice and time. Identify one or two areas in which you want to become more assertive. Make a game plan and practice being more decisive in those one or two areas. Once you’ve assessed that you mastered those areas, move on to another. Like starting a new workout routine at the gym, it will be difficult at first. But the more reps you do, the stronger you get—and the easier being self-assured becomes. When it feels like second nature to you, you know you’ve mastered the technique.

Becoming more assertive at work doesn’t mean that you have to turn into a female version of the Hulk to get your way. A self-assured collaborative approach will win the respect of and attention from your coworkers and boss. All it takes is a little courage, confidence, and open communication.