Whenever I write, or talk about being assertive, especially to a mainly female audience, I find myself starting by explaining the difference between being assertive and being aggressive.
Probably because far too often, women who behave in an assertive way are called aggressive by others. I am not intending to fill this post with examples of how women are treated differently in the workplace when it comes to certain attributes, (you know, the sorts of situations where a man would be called a natural leader, yet the women behaving the same would be described as bossy?).
Let’s put that aside for another time and just understand why it can be much more helpful when communicating with others, personally or professionally, to recognise what these terms mean and how to best use them.
Assertiveness is NOT about being loud and aggressive and always getting your own way. That IS aggression.
Similarly, keeping quiet and going along with everyone else, letting them get their way, regardless of the impact on you, isn’t always the best way to behave. That’s being passive.
Passive-aggressive is another quite common term and usually involves manipulation of other people, and avoiding responsibility for having your own needs met.
Most of us have a tendency towards one or other type of behaviour, although it is very common to be able to shift along the continuum from aggressive to passive, depending on the particular situation.
So having outlined what assertiveness isn’t – what then is it?
It is about letting others know what it is you want, in a direct, calm and confident way. Crucially, it involves being honest about your feelings and opinions, whilst at the same time listening to the other person’s point of view.
It is a brilliant skill to use when dealing with conflict or difficult situations and, most importantly, it is a skill that can be learned. But why is it such a struggle to be assertive some times?
Most of our beliefs, attitudes and behaviours are influenced by our experiences from childhood onwards, positive experiences, disappointments, losses and achievements, which includes our default position when communicating. This outlook is not fixed and so any tendency to be aggressive or passive can be changed to have a more positive, assertive outlook on life.
Our gender definitely has an impact, as culturally, even in these enlightened days, there is an acceptance of men as the more aggressive sex and women as more passive.
In this and the next post in this series, I will give you some insight into why we behave in certain ways, but I could be writing from now until the end of the year on this fascinating subject, you can find lots of amazing books and articles on t’internet to help develop your understanding. Or take part in some amazing workshops and programmes that cover assertiveness. (Such as the Springboard Women’s Development Programme)
I am going to talk more about the various types of behaviour we adopt, when communicating, next time, but given that this is the first post on this subject – you probably want a quick win, so here it is.
If you have a situation coming up that you know is going to be difficult, here’s an acronym that might help when you feel out of control, but still want to get a point across – C.A.L.M.
Look them in the eye
Mean what you say
It’s a bad idea to have a difficult conversation when you are cross, upset, frustrated or any other negative emotion, unless you want the other person to become angry, upset, defensive or whatever.
So put off that conversation until you have cooled down. There is nothing wrong with saying, ” I am feeling quite upset / concerned/ annoyed right now. Can we talk about this later /tomorrow etc etc.”
When you do have the conversation, don’t say – “you are making me feel…” the reality is that we all have the ability to make choices about how we feel. Our feelings are not someone else’s responsibility, no matter how hard the situation is.
To get in-depth support on how to be more assertive, why not join our next Springboard Women's Development Programme starting in Bournemouth in January 2017? Find out more on our Springboard page.
This article first appeared as a guest blog on the Springboard Consultancy website.