Asserting yourself in the workplace

woman with laptop in informal meeting

If you remember nothing else from what you read here, remember this: You have the right – and duty – to assert your feelings, beliefs, thoughts, and intentions no matter where you are and who you’re with – as long as you do so in ways that don’t violate the other person.

A client of mine – let’s call her Kate – recently called me in a state of excitement.   Kate works in the marketing department of a financial services organsation and had just left a meeting in which she was both the youngest person in the room and the only female. The other participants, seven men who work on the trading floor, were exchanging sexual tales and banter, none of which were relevant to the topics on the agenda. Finally, in exasperation, Kate banged her hands on the table top, raised them to the stop position, rested her elbows on the table, leaned forward and said in a firm voice, looking them directly in the eye, “Gentlemen. Put it in your pants and zip it up!” For a moment, the room went silent. Then, the men burst into laughter, saying, “Way to go, Kate! Call it like it is!” and other words of praise and admiration. Their good natured response, which included getting down to business, signaled that Kate had scored points with the lads.  Ever since, that group of seven has treated her with admiration and respect. They actively solicit her point of view. And, when asked, each man has said that he values the way she copes with challenges. They described Kate as clear, direct, and respectful. In addition, they describe Kate as someone who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it. Did they find her aggressive? No. Did they describe her behaviour as assertive? Yes.

Why do I find this story particularly interesting? Because of the way Kate handled a challenging situation and the resulting outcomes. Kate values completing tasks and treating people with respect. So, while I admit to having experienced an initial sharp intake of breath when she delivered her punch line – call me old fashioned – I exhaled with relief, respect and pride when she described what followed. The consequences of Kate having adhered to her values of respect for others, building rapport and getting the job done served her well.

Kate had several ways in which she could have reacted to the boys’ banter. For example, she could have responded passively, failing to express her thoughts and feelings. Had she done so, she would have violated her own rights and allowed others to do so as well. In addition, had she expressed her thoughts and feelings in a passive, apologetic, self-effacing way she would have given the others permission to disregard what she said.

Or, Kate could have responded in an aggressive manner in an attempt to establish superiority. She could have gone on the attack by putting the guys down and keeping them there. And, as that behaviour would have violated one of Kate’s values – respecting the rights of others – that choice was a non-starter.

Instead, Kate chose to behave assertively, acting boldly with strength and confidence. By speaking in terms that reflected the language she was hearing, Kate established rapport with her cohorts. Her words were few and well-articulated, her message was clear, and her approach was direct. She didn’t allow the others to take advantage of her and she didn’t attack them for being who they were. Because of Kate’s choice, everyone came out a winner feeling good about one another collectively and individually.

So what can you learn from Kate’s story and how can you apply that learning in the workplace? For starters, when you stand up for yourself and treat others with respect, your self-esteem rises. Your chances of getting what you want improve as you engage with others, demonstrating honesty and appreciation. By expressing yourself directly at the time and not harbouring ill-feelings, resentments won’t build up. And, when you aren’t feeling the need to protect yourself and are less self-conscious and preoccupied with your own needs, you’re more able to engage with others in an easy and relaxed way.

WARNING: If behaving assertively is not how you usually act, don’t be surprised if you – and others – struggle with your new way of communicating. Changing the way you engage with others might feel uncomfortable, both for you and for those who are used to you acting differently. You may even find yourself or others trying to sabotage your efforts to be assertive. Keep calm and carry on. Even if you feel uncomfortable and aren’t guaranteed specific desired outcomes, the pain is worth the effort of becoming the person you’re entitled to be.

Elizabeth KuhnkeAbout the author

Elizabeth Kuhnke is the best-selling author of Body Language: Learn How to Read Others and Communicate with Confidence. (Capstone 2016), as well as three titles in the For Dummies series.  (Body Language FD, 3rd edition, Communication Skills FD, Persuasion and Influence FD).

Elizabeth is an Executive Coach, specialising in impact and influence. An acknowledged expert and bestselling author on the subject of communication and non-verbal behaviours, Elizabeth works with senior leaders and rising stars in global organisations, helping them present themselves at their authentic best with clarity, confidence, and commitment.

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