“The fundamental distinction in between being assertive and being aggressive is how our words and habits impact the rights and well being of others”

Did you find yourself resorting to passive-aggressive tactics at work because of fear that mentioning your request might cause you trouble? Do you feel that you acting passively? Do you believe it is self-centered to state what you need? Or do you believe that other people should know what you desire?

You are not alone. The majority will naturally fear to lose their jobs if they want to have a chat with their superior about a raise in salary or an overdue promotion. The current wave of virtual, remote communication and back-to-back video meetings makes it even tougher to find a way to (assertively) communicate needs to a boss in a time where many trying to keep their jobs in an uncertain economy.

Let’s first define what assertiveness is. It is a behavioral halfway-point between ineffective passive and aggressive manners. It is a middle ground between being polite and acknowledging your needs. Being assertive the ability to respect the boundaries of oneself and others. It is a method of effective communication where you can politely yet directly express how you want to move forward. On the other hand, aggressive – and passive-aggressive – communication involves threatening, betrayal, silent treatment, withdrawal of support, and other forms of aversive tactics.

An example of assertiveness talking to a boss at work is “I understand that you think we have tried this solution before, and it did not work out. I looked back at the original data and I could see that the method used is different from the updated one that we currently use. Would you be willing to listen to my thoughts about using our new tools/techniques/methods to re-test the old solution and go from there?” In this example, you acknowledge the boss’s opinion while assertively, directly and objectively making an objective point about what you want to do and why. At the same time, you acknowledge the power dynamics of the boss-employee relationship and gave the ultimate decision to the boss. The same request could come across as aggressive if it was “I know that you are opposing the idea, but I still want to try it.” Many might perceive the latter as appropriately assertive. Yet, using verbs such as “know” and the strong adjunct “but” – instead of “understand” and “and” or “while” – could make the message come across as aggressive.

As with all human traits, assertiveness is assessed on a spectrum rather than a binary system – assertive versus non-assertive. We all have moments where we were assertive with ourselves and others and other moments where we were not, depending on the context and whom you are dealing with. The question is whether you assert yourself when need to help set boundaries or help you get your job done, rather than having an assertive conversation every time you want to have something done.⁣

Now, how could one objectively know if they are assertive? Our norms are different. What is assertive for someone could be viewed as aggressive for someone else. We frequently don’t see how others perceive our assertiveness. A small-size study was done at Columbia Business School shows that almost 60% of the MBA students enrolled in the study, viewed by their colleagues as under-assertive, believed they had come across as correctly assertive or even over-assertive. Interestingly, the opposite was also true! Around a similar percentage scored by their counterpart colleagues as overassertive felt they were considerably assertive or even under-assertive. Their work suggests that any of us could be the pushy or the pushover and mostly unaware of how our behaviors are seen.

Since our perception of our own assertiveness is not necessarily the most accurate, we might need to rely on a validated psychometric tool. Developed in 1973 by Spencer RathusThe Rathus Assertive Schedule (RAS) is a free psychometric instrument that could help you assess where you are on the assertiveness scale (the link contains a fillable PDF where you can take the test and see the interpretation). The instrument includes 30-items scored from very characteristic of me to very uncharacteristic. Despite that it is an old scale, the test-retest reliability shows moderate to high reproducibility of test scores. Yet, as with all self-report tools, the score relies on the person’s introspective ability, honesty, and self-image management. The more honest and introspective we are, the more we get out of using this tool.

Here are three strategies for thinking and acting assertively. Keep in mind that practicing these techniques does not guarantee that we end up necessarily getting what we need every time we make an assertive request. Yet, you will feel confident starting your need and your confidence will keep growing from that time on. Also, your superior is now aware of what you hope for and might meet you halfway through next time you make a request.

1- Practice writing down your need. Before challenging someone, why not write down what you are going to say? Do your best to be succinct and include the following components: the nature of the issue; how it affects you; how you feel about it; what you desire to alter. Be prepared to do some homework if needed to bring resolution! If you know an unwelcome demand is coming to your way, practice stating your answer in advance. What are you going to do and say?

2- Utilize the “Broken Record Technique” (if needed). It is a technique where you simply duplicate your statement softly, calmly, and constantly. The technique got its name from the broken vinyl record tape; they tend to repeat the same piece of recording. The technique is effective mainly if the message is clear and respectfully state the reason behind your need to do or not do the task. Otherwise, repeating a sentence that does not necessarily reflect your true need could easily come across as passive-aggressive, nagging, or even bullying.

3- Practice the facial expressions of an assertive person before you make your request. Your facial expression needs to be in line with your tone to avoid sending mixed messaging. Why not imagine yourself in front of the person sitting in front of the person you would like to negotiate with and record yourself on your phone or laptop? It can be painful to see ourselves in a recording, yet it is one of the most powerful ways to examine our expressions and test whether they are suitable for the situation we will face.

Telling other people what you need makes it easier for them to interact with us. We can’t expect others at work to read our brains. It helps us interact with respect and be listened to in work relationships. Being assertive saves others the energy to try to guess what we want. Through efficient, assertive communication you will be able to express how you wish to move forward.

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