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The Art of Being Assertive

What does it mean to be assertive? When I looked up the definition, there were some commonalities and some discrepancies between the definitions I found. In the Cambridge Dictionary, the definition is, “Someone who is assertive behaves confidently and is not frightened to say what they want or believe.” In the Collins English Dictionary, “Someone who is assertive states their needs and opinions clearly, so that people take notice.” If we combine the two definitions, we are looking at keywords that are powerful. Assertiveness is someone who is behaving confidently without fear, stating what they want and believe and expressing their needs and opinions so people take notice. We often admire someone who asserts themselves. If you are not asserting yourself, what does the assertive person have that you don’t? The answer? Inner self-confidence.

Self-confidence is the cornerstone of being assertive, and this is where you begin if you want to become assertive. Self-confidence and assertiveness are two competencies on many emotional intelligence assessments. Leaders need to be strong in both these areas, in addition to other areas, to be effective.  Being assertive is not an all-or-nothing behavior, either. It can be like a sliding scale for some. If you score somewhere in between high and low on the EQ-i 2.0 assessment on being assertive, then you fit into this sliding scale domain.

What does in-between assertiveness look like? It is when you dance between speaking up without any fear of repercussions and when you choose to hold back and not say anything at all.

Many individuals I coach are fearful of confronting individuals in the workplace because they want to avoid conflict. Confronting does not have to be aggressive. There are techniques I teach my clients to be able to confront and avoid a conflict.

One skill I coach is to be inquisitive and curious. Asking questions about how someone arrived at a decision is not confrontational and gives room for the individual to explain themselves. Bringing awareness to a mistake made by asking questions allows for a teachable moment and could prevent future mistakes. In this way, the other person does not become defensive and communication is enhanced. Asking questions and being curious elevates the dialogue without pointing fingers.

Another area to consider in order to develop your assertiveness is to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Am I confident in my skills and abilities? Do I know my worth?
  2. What are my limitations?
  3. Where am I able to share my opinion, and when do I keep quiet?
  4. What holds me back from stating what I want or asking for what I need?
  5. When I offer my viewpoint, do I say it confidently where people notice?
  6. Am I able to disagree with someone’s idea or suggestion, or do I hold my tongue?
  7. What does my body language say about my confidence?

Let’s look at these questions in-depth, starting with #1. When I begin coaching someone, I often ask, “What are the strengths you bring to your position at work?” Some know immediately, but others do not know. These are the individuals whose strengths are so innate in them, like a natural ability they have been doing most of their life, that they do not realize these qualities are strengths. When I point out to them this is one of their strengths, I hear, “Really? I’ve always done this.” It’s crucial to know your strengths, as many of the rest of the questions can then be addressed, increasing your assertiveness.

Knowing your strengths can increase your self-confidence and can facilitate asserting yourself in your strength area, and you can then calculate when to use this strength more effectively and possibly to your advantage to get noticed. You can then be more aware of who does not have this strength and be able to speak up for what you want or need, addressing question #4. When speaking up, your body language also needs to be congruent with your voice. Body language is a dead giveaway of whether you are truly confident in what you are saying or not.

Knowing your strengths will enable you to feel confident to voice your opinion and become the authority in this area, which addresses question #3. It will enable you to disagree if you own being the authority, humbly, which addresses question #6. Owning your strengths consciously gives you a feeling of worthiness where you can start asking for what you want and need. Doing this will move you from being a wallflower to being noticed and valued. Furthermore, knowing your strengths will give you insight into your limitations.

Feeling unworthy can lead to imposter syndrome, leading you to feel miserable at the end of the day. In my book, Cognitive Enlightenment: A Disciplining of Your Mind, I outline in detail the importance of changing from feeling unworthy or not good enough. It is a technique that, when applied, works. Changing the feeling of being unworthy and knowing your strengths and the value you bring in your position will increase your self-confidence. When you accomplish this, asserting yourself is the final step.

If you are someone who is sometimes assertive and sometimes not, look at yourself in those second situations and ask, “Why did I choose not to say anything?” These moments are opportunities for you to choose to adopt the curiosity and inquisitiveness to move you from silence to asserting yourself. To be or not to be assertive will no longer be the choice you make. Instead, you will move forward with the confidence you have cultivated to speak up by standing on the platform of your worthiness.


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Melinda Fouts, Ph.D.
Melinda Fouts, Ph.D.http://www.successstartswithyou.net/
Melinda Fouts, Ph. D., International Executive Coach, Psychotherapist is a select Columnist & Featured Contributor for BIZCATALYST 360° and a Member of the Forbes Coaches Council (comprised of Top coaches offering insights on leadership development & careers), and founder of Success Starts with You. She was recently chosen to receive the Empowered Woman of the Year Award for 2021 given by the International Association of Top Professionals (IAOTP). She also received the honor as the top international coach of the year in 2020 by the IAOTP. She provides visionary leadership in her field and her many credentials prove she has the ability to empower women worldwide. Her exemplary role as a female professional in a male-dominated industry displays her influence, capability, and proficiency. Inclusion with the International Association of Top Professionals (IAOTP) is an honor in itself, only a few women are chosen for this distinction based on their years of experience, professional accomplishments, academic achievements, leadership abilities, and contributions to their communities. With innovation and compassion, these women empower others to reach their goals, while creating change for future generations. With over 2 decades of professional experience as a business coach and psychotherapist, Dr. Fouts has proven herself as an accomplished professional and expert in the field. As a dynamic, results-driven leader, Dr. Fouts has demonstrated success not only as an Executive Business Coach, but in every role she has held. Prior to executive coaching and leadership development, Melinda has been in private practice as a psychotherapist for over 20 years. She leverages her strengths and insights from her psychology background to help leaders and managers in transition through increased self-awareness. Owner and founder of Success Starts with You, is based upon the premise that you are already successful. Increasing self-awareness to increase emotional intelligence and unlocking blind spots are paramount to continued success. Dr. Fouts leverages her strengths and insights from her psychology background to help leaders and managers in transition through increased self-awareness and discovering their blind spots. It can be lonely at the top and as a thought partner, she makes sure you are not alone. Dr. Fouts’ unique approach from other business coaches is that she helps get rid of thinking and behavioral patterns that tend to keep executives stuck. Her key areas of expertise include but are not limited to: small business consulting, enhancing emotional intelligence, self-awareness, unlocking fullest potential, brainstorming, identifying limitations, challenges, obstacles and optimizing performance. In addition, her successful career as a Psychotherapist and International Executive Business Coach, Dr. Fouts is a sought-after speaker whose key-note address to Women’s Leadership Conferences is Channeling Feminine Power in the Face of Adversity. Her newly released book, Cognitive Enlightenment, was to be presented at the London Book Fair, March 2020, the NY Book Fair, May 2020, and the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2020 until COVID hit. Melinda received her Ph.D. in Jungian Psychology from Saybrook University and her Masters in Psychology from Pacifica University. Melinda has worked as a consultant with executives and businesses for over 20 years. As a result of her experience and studies, she has developed a unique craft to fine-tune leadership development for peak performance. She lives in Colorado with her big, beautiful dog, Stryder. For more information on Dr. Fouts please visit: www.successstartswithyou.net

10 COMMENTS

  1. Great article Melinda. I have found the culture of an organization has a major impact on the level of assertiveness. In a toxic culture, I see very little dialogue or willingness to speak up. The environment creates a “why bother no one cares” or fear of being ridiculed or shouted down. Open cultures attract high performing individuals who feel safe in expressing thoughts, ideas, concepts etc. These organization encourage dialogue and will be the leaders as we move out of this pandemic situation.

  2. This is such important work you’re doing, Melinda. So often assertiveness is perceived negatively – almost in the same frame as bossiness, or aggressiveness – so I’m glad that you’ve clarified this for so many people. I’m not sure I agree that anytime that someone is assertive that they don’t also feel fear. I think that fear often accompanies it (of course that’s also when the likelihood of being assertive in less-than-constructive-ways increases). The same is true with confidence. Just because someone is assertive doesn’t assume confidence. Your coaching questions are a terrific means for someone to approach communicating assertively in more constructive and effective ways and I hope it gets a wide audience (I did my part!)!

  3. In my first job I was for years one of four women on a team of up towards 100 people. If you did not stand your ground, you would be blown away so I learned to stand my ground.
    Interviewing for my next job I was doing one of the tests you mention, Melinda. I was found highly assertive – for women tested on that instrument. That was apparently a problem. This was the first time it really registered with me that there were gender based double standards.
    I hope you will follow up with an article on the delicate maneuvering that gives extra work to those who don’t fit the stereotypical norm for the job they do.

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