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