Being assertive is the cornerstone of good communication. It helps us articulate our thoughts in a manner that doesn’t negate the feelings or opinions of the other person. Assertive communication thrives when we are given a space to voice our views fearlessly.
Unlike their western counterparts, South Asian cultures have considered assertiveness as an unpleasant personality trait, encouraging the reverence of people based on seniority of age or position. We are rarely emboldened to question or confront a conventional thought. From a young age, the need for total obedience is drilled into our minds by our parents and teachers. Any attempt at straying the obedience path is met with ridicule or, in some cases, strict punishment. If we go against the norm, we are termed rebels, a moniker we are told not to aspire to. Thus, we are left to function on a personality tank that is almost empty on assertiveness.
Difference between assertive and aggressive
Our lack of assertiveness follows us into the corporate world, where most of us zealously obey whatever our senior tells us to do. We are scared to present our ideas, and when we do, we rarely stand by them. Our failure to say no, leads to internal disharmony, creating an unpleasant working scenario.
One of the reasons for our hesitation to be assertive is that we confuse it with being aggressive. It is, therefore, essential to understand the difference between the two. Being assertive means standing up for yourself and your ideas in a manner that is not offensive to the other person. Assertiveness allows space for civil disagreements. On the other hand, aggressive behaviour leaves no room for negotiation, with one person believing they are absolutely right. Aggressive behaviour leads to one-way communication, creating an uncomfortable workplace environment. Assertive behaviour leads to a harmonious exchange of ideas, backed by research substantiating opposing views.
Being assertive an important COVID era communication tool
Assertive behaviour has become more urgent during these unprecedented times. COVD-19 has moved almost all corporate communications online, making it essential for employees to speak up more to get their ideas heard. It has become imperative to be more assertive or run the risk of being touted as someone who doesn’t add to company discussions.
How do we find the courage to stand our ground and communicate our ideas? How do we ensure we speak our truth, hold our own while not rubbing our seniors or colleagues the wrong way?
In this edition of Conversations with Rakesh, SoME Founder Rakesh Godhwani tackles this common dilemma, pointing to our fear of failure and being judged as reasons for our hesitation to communicate fearlessly. The inability to do so can significantly hamper our workplace environment. Be strong, assertive and courageous; your colleagues will appreciate your stance, says Rakesh.
Watch the video here:
Following is the transcription of the talk.
Decoding assertive behaviour
Here’s today’s question, “I think I have no problem standing up and speaking. I’m also very comfortable in a meeting room, and I communicate my views properly. But I have a problem asserting myself. I feel if I do so, people might perceive me as selfish, rude or aggressive. I also feel I might lose a big opportunity. What do I do?”
Three are three important questions hidden in this one query.
Number one is if I’m assertive, what would people think of me? Would they judge me as selfish and aggressive? The second question is that if I am assertive, then would I lose an opportunity. And the third question is, how do I become assertive.
The concept of assertiveness is so ingrained in how we are brought up and how we live in our cultures and societies. I’ll give you a simple example. You and your friends go to a restaurant and order food. Let’s say your friends ordered rice and some curry, but you don’t like rice and are craving noodles. You don’t want to say so because you are worried they might perceive you as selfish and aggressive. So you concede and opt for rice. Deep down, you feel miserable and berate yourself for not being assertive and standing your ground. You tell yourself that this happens every day!
You come home and go through this guilt trip, and connect the incident to your office behaviour and think you simply can’t say no, and everybody makes use of you.
There are two reasons behind our hesitation to say no. One, deep down, some of us don’t want to hurt others, and secondly, we want always to please others. We try to gain their acceptance by being nice to them.
A reflection of low self-esteem
This is a big problem and is a direct symptom of low self-esteem. If your self-esteem is based on people pleasing, you will compromise all the time. You will never be assertive, and you will keep giving bits of your life to others, becoming hollow.
People pleasing is very dangerous. You must be nice to others, but that doesn’t mean you have to agree with them all the time or do things that you don’t like.
Let’s look at the second part of your problem: If you’re assertive, you will lose a promotion. Your boss and clients will feel that you are very assertive, and will not work with you. Frankly, that could happen, and therefore you need to have the confidence to fall back on. It would help if you had certain values, principles and beliefs and, based on that, decide what you want to do. If that value set makes you feel uncomfortable doing something, then be assertive, even if it means saying no to your boss or clients.
There could be collateral damage, but that’s not the issue. The problem is you are terrified of failures. It could stem from some incident in the past where you lost a great opportunity because you said no or were assertive. So you tend to overthink situations now.
Your fear of failures might be inversely proportional to your assertiveness.
Have your noodles!
Finally, how do we become assertive? The answer is straightforward: say things as they are. You can be polite while saying it or smile while saying no. Now let’s go back to our restaurant example where everyone wanted rice and curry while you wanted noodles.
You must respond to the situation with honesty. Say you want noodles because you don’t like rice. And, your friends will love you for your honesty. Have your noodles and feel your self-esteem and confidence soar.
Let’s apply this scenario to the corporate context. Your boss comes to you and gives you extra work that will take up much time, and you had plans with your family this weekend. Be polite and say that you will be unable to take on the extra task. Start by saying, “I am sorry.” Say you have a lot on your plate and do the tasks next week if you have the bandwidth. Your boss may get very upset and storm out.
But that’s their problem, not yours. That makes them an inconsiderate boss. Don’t try to solve their problem by changing yourself.
However, if you stand your ground, chances are your boss will look for someone else to take up the tasks without getting upset. Whether you’ll get promoted next year or not because of this incident, let’s not worry about that. Rest assured, no corporate entity will demote you for being assertive.
Remember to be assertive by saying the sentence honestly and not mitigating it. When we mitigate, we will beat around the bush, making us look less confident. Mitigating is a sign of low self-confidence. So, how do you overcome it?
Step 1, start using assertive language and by saying no in a friendly manner. Practice this at home with your family and friends. Your self-esteem should not hinge on gaining acceptance from others; it will cause you more harm.
Step 2, be polite. Make sure you are not making an angry face, and your tone is calm. Practice at home with your family and friends by doing role play.
Step 3, when you assert yourself, don’t punish yourself later by thinking you did something wrong. Tell yourself this was the right thing to do for your self-confidence and self-esteem. You will also realise that the world will not penalise you for standing up for yourself. You are overanalysing the repercussions of your assertive behaviour.
Being assertive doesn’t mean being rude or aggressive. If you speak in an even tone, politely and calmly, you will not damage any relationships.
So learn to say no, assertive yourself, avoid mitigating sentences, and you will realise the world is more accepting of assertive people than you think.
Watch Rakesh Godhwani’s video on assertiveness.