How to become more assertive at work (your ultimate guide)

June 7, 2021 - 18 min read

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What does assertiveness mean?

Why is it important to be assertive?

The difference between passiveness and assertiveness

The difference between aggression and assertiveness

5 Examples of assertive behavior in the workplace

How to be assertive at work (and in life)

How to deal with non-assertive people?

Use assertiveness to advance your career

Learning how to become assertive at work is crucial to anyone’s career. Assertiveness helps you earn the respect of your peers and make sure your point of view gets heard.

But being assertive and knowing the ins and outs of assertive communication is easier said than done. This is especially true if it doesn’t come to you naturally. 

But, it is possible to learn assertiveness and stand up for yourself. You can even do so in a way that is healthy and respectful of others.

Let’s discuss the importance of assertiveness. You'll also learn how it differs from passiveness and aggression and how you can become more assertive in the workplace.

What does assertiveness mean?

Assertiveness is the ability to stand up for what you believe while staying calm and positive. You also do this while respecting the rights of others.

Assertiveness is an important communication skill at work. But it also matters in other aspects of life.

Some people are naturally assertive, while others are not. But you can develop assertiveness if you work at it.

When you’re assertive, you balance your wants and needs with the rights and needs of others.

For example, imagine you made a mistake, and your manager called you out about it in front of everyone in a meeting.

An assertive response might look like this:

You wait until after the meeting, then take them aside to privately (and politely) tell them you didn’t appreciate the spotlight. You can also tell them you would prefer it if they raised concerns with you privately, rather than in front of the group.

Someone who isn’t assertive may instead avoid confrontation. They will ignore what happened and continue dealing with the stress of getting called out.

 

Why is it important to be assertive?

Assertiveness can help you earn other people’s respect. It can also help you increase your self-esteem and reduce anxiety and stress.

A study on assertiveness showed a significant reduction in anxiety after students received assertiveness training.

When using assertiveness, you respect the other person. You rely on mutual respect as part of a communication skill that gets your point across. Plus, you respect and stand up for yourself. But, you still respect others and show that you want to resolve a conflict without being hurtful.

With assertive behavior, you can find win-win solutions in conflicts if the other person is also willing to have a discussion.

Plus, if you want to become a great leader, assertiveness will help you transform into a leader that your team respects. This is because you treat others fairly while still upholding the law of the office.

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The difference between passiveness and assertiveness

When you lack assertiveness, it’s possible to slip into passiveness instead. Passiveness is not taking action and letting things happen to you instead.

Here are five key differences between the two.

Views on conflict

Someone who is passive will have an attitude that goes with the flow to avoid conflict.

For example, this type of person will tend to say the following: 

“Let’s just pick whichever you prefer.” 

They'll say this instead of asserting their preference.

On the other hand, an assertive person will step into a conflict when necessary to resolve an issue.

Ability to self-advocate

Being passive signals that your wants and needs aren’t as important as those of others. When this happens, you don’t advocate for yourself.

On the other hand, assertiveness allows you to step in and voice your concerns. This is to make sure that your needs are being met.

Interacting with others

Some people act passively to be liked by others. But, this doesn’t help them get respect and will lead to other people making decisions for them.

When you’re assertive, you don’t neglect your own needs because you want someone to like you. You’re able to weigh in on decisions that impact you.

Holding yourself accountable with assertiveness

Passiveness places responsibilities on other people. A passive person doesn’t have the burden of making decisions. In return, they cannot make decisions that work toward their goals.

Assertive behavior ensures that you’re able to make decisions. This means you’ll have to hold some responsibility for outcomes.

Views on self-worth

Passive behavior can have a negative effect on your self-worth. That's because you’re constantly putting yourself down or prioritizing the needs of others.

When you’re able to assert yourself, it can help you increase your self-worth, since you can see the outcomes of your assertiveness play out. You then become more aware of your ability to influence situations that impact you.

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The difference between aggression and assertiveness

Being assertive isn’t the same as being aggressive. Aggression lies on the other end of the spectrum.

Aggression is hostile or even violent behavior towards others.

Here’s how they differ and how to avoid aggressivity.

How you view other people’s rights

Aggressivity doesn’t take the views or feelings of other people into mind. Someone with aggressive behavior will rarely take the time to praise others.

Meanwhile, assertiveness doesn’t sacrifice other people’s rights for your own.

Encouraging assertive responses

When approaching someone aggressively, you don’t encourage others to respond with assertiveness. Instead, the natural response to aggression is to act aggressively or to remain passive.

On the other hand, assertiveness doesn’t suffocate the other person, which allows them to respond assertively if they know how to do so.

Telling vs. asking

When you tell someone what to do or how something is going to be instead of asking, this is aggressive behavior. It doesn’t open up a conversation.

Assertiveness should help you state your needs without imposing them on others. It should also avoid forcing people to do something they don’t want to do.

How you meet your needs

Aggressive behavior can develop into manipulative behavior. This is especially true when your thoughts aren’t expressed clearly.

An assertive person will strive to meet their needs not through manipulation, but through open conversation.

How your behavior affects others

Assertiveness involves standing up for your rights, but not by causing distress to others.

On the other hand, aggressive behavior can cause distress depending on the situation. It can also cause your peers to feel unsafe and unsupported, which can result in people not engaging as much with their work and not trying new things.

difference-between-aggression-and-assertiveness

5 Examples of assertive behavior in the workplace

What can assertive behavior look like in the workplace? Let’s explore five examples so that you can learn how to be assertive at work.

1. Expressing your opinion and speaking directly

Assertive behavior means that you say what you want to say directly, without beating around the bush.

You’re direct while remaining respectful of others.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you don’t agree with a new policy. You can say so clearly without just hinting at what you’re thinking:

“I don’t agree with this new policy. I believe it will negatively impact productivity and morale.”

2. Making eye contact with others

Eye contact shows assertiveness. Avoiding eye contact is a way to avoid confrontation. The latter is passive behavior.

Assertive behavior will also include positive body language that diffuses negativity.

Using eye contact doesn’t mean staring aggressively at others, though. There’s a balance to maintain.

3. Taking accountability for your own mistakes

Because you stand up for your beliefs, you also need to take accountability for your mistakes.

However, don’t take accountability for other people’s mistakes. Instead, hold everyone accountable for their own actions.

If you advocated trying a new project management method that didn’t work out, admit your mistake instead of pointing fingers.

4. Making sure everyone is on board with a decision

Assertive behavior will leave room for other people’s opinions to make decisions together.

You make sure everyone is on board before making a decision that affects them.

This also includes you. You should agree with the decision and stand up for your opinion instead of agreeing with others to make everyone else happy.

5. Taking pride in yourself and your team

An assertive person will not just take pride in what they’ve accomplished, but also what their team has accomplished together.

This doesn’t mean you’re placing all the praise on your team, either.

Not taking pride in yourself and giving credit to just your team is passive, not assertive. On the other end of the spectrum, taking all the credit for a team effort is a form of aggressive behavior.

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How to be assertive at work (and in life)

Here is how you can become assertive in the workplace.

Use “I” statements

Being assertive is all about getting your needs respected and your point of view valued. It’s not about judging others or telling someone they are lesser than you because they are wrong.

Use “I” statements in your sentences to avoid pointing fingers. This will help you develop assertive communication.

Here is an example of being assertive. Instead of saying, “you need to stop taking my parking space,” try, “I feel upset and uncomfortable that I can’t access my parking space.”

Practice eye contact

Look at the other person in the eye and avoid shifting your gaze when you feel like shrinking away.

You can practice this with someone you’re comfortable with at first if you find this difficult.

Use body language

Body language can communicate confidence or lack thereof. Keep your posture upright, and your head held high during conversations.

Avoid crossing your arms and legs. Lean forward, but don’t take over the other person’s space. This will avoid aggression.

Get comfortable saying “no”

Practice saying no without beating around the bush.

Be direct and use the word “no,” not an alternative. Let’s say you don’t want to work late again to do unpaid overtime. 

Here’s an assertive example. Instead of saying:

“I don’t think I’ll come in tonight.”

Say:

“No. I don’t feel like doing unpaid overtime is fair.”

Rehearse your conversations

If you’re still feeling nervous about being more assertive, practice your conversations in front of a mirror.

Keep your practice conversations clear and direct. You can get a feel for what your statements will sound like in a real situation.

Watch your emotions

When you start standing up for yourself, you may not get what you want right away.

Remember that it’s a conversation, which means there will be some back and forth.

Stay mindful of what’s going on with your emotions, and don’t speak out spontaneously out of frustration or anger. Instead, practice mindful breathing and take your time before responding.

Remember that you can’t control others

Assertive communication is all about making sure your voice gets heard and respected. It’s not about controlling what others do.

Control slips into the territory of aggression, so keep this in mind.

Remain open to positive and negative feedback

Be open to hearing compliments and receiving them without downplaying them. It’s important to know how to ask for and receive feedback

On the flip side, be ready to hear constructive criticism without acting defensively. Both types of feedback are necessary to help you improve.

Express yourself positively

Be constructive when speaking your mind and avoid negativity when possible.

Remain respectful of other people, even when you’re dealing with a negative or difficult situation.

Practice assertiveness in low-risk situations

You don’t have to start your assertive journey by confronting your manager.

Start small and practice assertive behavior in low-risk situations.

You can try this out with someone who is safe, like a partner or a close friend. It should be with someone you trust at first.

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How to deal with non-assertive people?

How you can deal with non-assertive people depends on whether they are aggressive or passive. Let’s explore what you can do for each type of person.

Aggressive: acknowledge their feelings

Even if someone is being aggressive, they have a right to feel how they feel.

Acknowledge their feelings by saying something like this:

“I can see that this has made you angry and that you’re upset about this situation.”

Passive: encourage contribution by asking for their opinions

If you notice someone is using passive behavior, be proactive and ask for their opinion.

They may not speak up unless asked. This will help them take a step toward assertiveness.

Let’s say you notice someone is especially quiet during a meeting. You can ask:

“What are your thoughts on this?

Aggressive: pause before you respond to an outburst

If an aggressive person has an outburst, don’t respond right away. You’ll risk responding with aggression.

Wait for a moment or count to 10. This will help you avoid responding in an automatic or aggressive manner.

Passive: use body language to show you value their opinion

Show that you are interested in what the other person is saying. Ask relevant questions and use body language to show interest.

Nod, smile, maintain eye contact and avoid disinterested body language like turning away or crossing your arms.

Aggressive: find common ground

Find areas in which you have something in common with the other person.

Don’t focus too much on what you disagree on. Instead, try to find ways to see eye-to-eye.

Use assertiveness to advance your career

Assertiveness can help you meet your wants and needs so you can be happier in your workplace.

It can also help you gain the respect of your peers and move forward in your career.

Learn how to be assertive by getting personalized coaching with BetterUp.

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Published June 7, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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