I am always trying to be polite, friendly and calm at work. It is called being professional, and it is especially important for people working in professional services. The word professional is in the name kind of gave it away, so the last thing I want is saying something I regret to a client or teammate.

Being professional all the time can be challenging. Everyone has bad days, there are days I feel tired or impatient, and I am always worried that my actions might appear aggressive to others. In my head, I might be saying something reasonable, but other people might see it as I’m snapping at them when they asked a legitimate question. Being in professional services, the first thing to learn is saying no. The client always wants much more than what the team is capable of delivering. Not knowing when to say no is very harmful both to the customer and the team. The client will be disappointed later on when the project can’t be delivered, and the team will feel stressed when the amount of work just keeps piling up.

What is assertiveness?

I searched “assertiveness” on Google, and this is one of the better definition I got back.

“Assertiveness means standing up for my personal rights - expressing thoughts, feelings and beliefs in direct, honest and appropriate ways.” - skillsyouneed.com

Before attending the training, I saw assertive as being more confident and less passive. It turns out that being less aggressive is just as important.

My definition of assertiveness now would be “controlling emotions, focusing more on the goal. Achieve it using fair, friendly and neutral language while sounding confident”.

Some key points I learned

Do not let the other person dictate your behaviour or thoughts

I often find myself distracted by other people’s comment or action. When other gets angry with me, I would also lose patience because I think I’m right. When I’m having an argument with others, they could quickly change the topic to something else by raising some points which I am eager to challenge. For example, when people accuse me of things I quickly become defensive and start questioning them. This leads to the fact I stop focusing on the goal and will easily get tricked into talking about something else.

Being assertive means that I know what I want to achieve and focus on the goal. When people try to draw me away from the conversation, the best thing is to pause and use repetition assertion to highlight the points you are trying to make. No matter what they are saying, that can wait. Solve one problem at a time is always better than mixing more issues into the ball of mess.

Focus on the positive

To be assertive, having a clear head is the key. For example, before attending a meeting, I might already be thinking some people might be speaking a lot and complaining about everything. With this kind of negative inner dialogue in my head, it is easy to say something rude without realising. What I should do here is take all these negative dialogues and try to think about the positives. Instead of seeing the person complaining as annoying, I could see it as the person caring about what they are doing, and they have a lot of ideas on how to improve it. With this kind of positive inner dialogue, when things occur in the meeting my use of words will be positive and supportive.

Being assertive is tough to do, and everyone will find it difficult at first. It suggests I should disagree with myself, even if I were able to change the thought into a positive thought the whole process is still very tiring. Have you wondered why meditation helps people to remain calm and have a more positive view of life? Well, it could just be that when people meditate, they think about the negative thoughts. During the process, they can take a step back and see it from another perspective without making biased assumptions and judgements. Maybe it is time for all of us to start doing some meditation in this busy and stressful time of our lives.

Mirror, match, pace & lead

When approaching difficult people, this technique is one of the ways to start building the relationship. The method can be especially useful when the other person is being difficult with you (e.g. not showing much respect).

  1. If the someone is sitting down having a conversation with me, the first step mirrors the person by slowly adapting to their posture.
  2. When they change, try to match their position and then pace them as they change. Be careful to maintain the respect for the other people throughout the process.
  3. After a period, start taking the initiative by start changing my position.
  4. If the mirror/matching is strong enough, the other person starts copying my position changes. Now, I can lead the other person to the direction I wish.

Maintain the relationship

Being assertive is not just about speaking my mind and coming out directly with how I feel. Even though that is what people should do if they find themselves very passive. The important thing here is finding the line between honest and rude. Because one will strengthen a relationship and the other will chip away the foundation.

When speaking to people, it is important to get my points across. But at the same time, I should be asking the other person about what they want and seek clarification. If a person is trying to tell me something, there are the reason behind it, and without understanding the actual cause, the real problem will never be resolved.

One of the most important things I learned about being assertive is that while being assertive, I can still be respectful and polite.

Build up confidence

The first thing is to understand rights belongs to everyone, if someone can say or act a certain way to me, then I should have the same right to do the same with them, and vice versa. If the right only works unidirectional, then something is wrong here. If I think I have more right than other people, then I’m probably not being fair to them and acting in a not assertive way towards them. On the other hand, if I believe someone (e.g. my manager) has more right than me. Then my behaviour will change around him/her, most likely acting passively in conflicting situations.

One way to build up confidence when in a passive situation is by taking pauses, and let the other person speak. Pausing makes the other person feel respected, and give me to take a step back as well as get a chance to think about the conversation.

If I am in a position I think the other person is being too passive; I could empathise more with them when they speak. Asking open questions such as “what are your thoughts on…?” should also help to boost their confidence.


Challenging beliefs

I have often heard people say things like “I NEVER want to…” or “ALL of them are…”. When I want to challenge people speaking in this kind of certainty, this is the technique to use.

For example, what if someone said to me “ALL cats are lazy”?

  1. Is the statement accurate today?
  2. Does it contain generalisation?
  3. Is it the truth or did the person just stated their assumption/interpretation as fact?
  4. Is there any counter example where the statement does not apply?
  5. If I can’t think of any counterexample, can the statement be addressed with development?

No one knows everything; it is best to avoid saying things that are impossible to backtrack.

Say NO

The biggest problem with passive people is how much they want to avoid saying no to someone. When someone asks them to do something, they will agree to do it no matter how much they didn’t want to do it.

  • The biggest lesson is to know it is ok to say no. Just come out directly and state that you won’t be doing it. Try to avoid using nice padding words such as “I’d love to but…” or “I’m so sorry, but…”.
  • The most respectful thing to do here is to state the reason and make it concise. People will understand if it is a valid reason.
  • It is also useful to empathise, to ensure the relationship isn’t broken by showing understanding toward the other person.
  • The final useful thing to do trying to give suggestions, maybe there are other people or ways to achieve the same end goal.

If the other person doesn’t take the NO very well, just repeat your reasons and empathise with them. Don’t get dictated by their behaviours and stay assertive.

Dealing with unwanted behaviour

If someone is doing something that is offensive to me. The assertive thing to do is try to talk to them in private and raise the issue. Use the DEESC model to deal with this kind of behaviour.

  • Describe the situation – state the facts which cannot be challenged, let them know the situation using neutral language.
  • Express feelings - let the person know how much the issue affected my feeling.
  • Empathise - show some understanding, so they don’t feel suffocated and turns aggressive by acting defensive. The goal here is to give them some room to continue the conversation in a gentle manner.
  • Specify a solution – explain what should happen in the future, so the person can easily understand what to avoid next time and never do the same thing again.
  • Clarify consequences - if the same issue happens again in the future, there are two ways forward. Using the carrot/stick method, either let them know how much you value the relationship so that they will stop. The other way is to threaten with some undesirable consequences which should hopefully prevent the same behaviour appearing again.

Constructive disagreement

When speaking with an unreasonable stakeholder, here is how to raise a disagreement. This could be making statements about your team’s “poor efficiency”.

  • Pause - Let the person speak their mind, it is important not to jump to conclusions before fully understanding the problem.
  • Ask questions - find the people believe and values, then it will be easy to understand why he/she is acting this way.
  • Summarise - extract the key points from their explanation and try to word it into a more assertive description.
  • Empathise - show understanding towards what was said and find common grounds which both people agrees.
  • State reservations/concerns/issues/points - lead the conversation, so the key points are covered. It could just be that the stakeholder lacked the full picture and misunderstood the situation.
  • Make suggestions to move the conversation on and find solutions to solve the client’s problem.

Some final thoughts

Like most soft skills, this takes the time to build up the experience. But this training helped me to see everything from a different perspective. Even though I don’t agree everyone should be assertive all the time, it is a useful skill to have when faced with challenging situations.