Speaking up when it counts, cutting through whatever the noise is to get your point across, boldly stepping into crucial conversations that must be had, navigating the politics in your environment; all of these things matter if you want a successful career, and all require practiced skill.
Everyone bumps up against challenges with some of this. Each person’s challenge points differ, but ultimately, when left unaddressed, they’ll get between you and your success in the world.
I’ve been coaching and training my clients across generations, culture, roles and industry in these skills for two decades, and have distilled the most effective strategies down to a few steps.
So let’s say you’re being challenged by someone or something right now, and you’ve hit a wall with it. You know you need to be assertive but you’re not exactly sure what that looks like.
Start by being clear on what assertiveness is and isn’t. People often confuse it with being aggressive and it’s one of the reasons they stay stuck.
How are they different ?
When you’re assertive, you’re able to hear, and clearly articulate your thoughts, opinions or feelings when appropriate, while being tuned into the person you’re speaking to. Your message lands in a way they can hear.
Others might not always like what they hear, but because you’re so clear, and grounded in respect, they’ll hear you. The style is rooted in confidence and self-esteem.
When you or someone is being aggressive, by contrast, they get straight to the point by blurting out what’s top of mind. There’s no thought given to how their direct message might impact the listener. They want what they want and that’s what they’re focused on.
On the other side of the spectrum, when you shy away from conflict, and revert to staying out of it when something in your world creates tension for you, you may believe that asserting yourself is being aggressive. You assume that speaking your mind will lead you into direct conflict. It may or may not happen. Chances are it won’t.
Aggression breeds more aggression which leads to conflict. Assertiveness fosters constructive conversations and outcomes.
If passive aggressive tactics are something you’ve dealt with, you know that approach is certainly not assertive, is instead covert and the hardest to spot. Intentions are hidden but there’s a calculated effort made to ensure others are made to feel uncomfortable.
It’s important to recognize where you go when you’re uncomfortable, and also point out that all non-assertive styles are a response to stress.
Self-awareness and the willingness to adopt a more productive communication style, despite the discomfort involved, is more than half the battle.
Here are two tried and trusted practices to start with:
As soon as you’re even slightly uncomfortable about a particular person, behavior, or a type of situation, heighten your awareness, put up a red flag. This is an opportunity to practice.
Here’s a sampling of some common challenges I’ve seen people navigate over the years:
Managing a difficult report or boss, managing someone out altogether, speaking up in a room full of experts who intimidate you, speaking up in a room full of people competing to show whose most intelligent, starting a new role and getting expectations lined up, managing a former peer, asking for a promotion or a clear path to promotion, pitching your ideas to potential investors, speaking to people more senior to you, asking for a raise or talking about money in general.
Step one then, is to write a list of the people and situations you want to focus on. Not all battles are worth fighting. Be selective, choose the one that’s most important to your growth right now.
Step two is about getting clear on what the core issue is for you. Really accessing this is harder than you might think. Most of us get foggy headed when we’re disturbed by something. It takes practice to root out the issue.
Try this: Imagine that there are absolutely no consequences to whatever it is you want to say to the person, and say it, or else write it down. Don’t censor.
Once it’s out there, THAT’S the thing you want to say. You’ll probably need to wordsmith it, but don’t change the core of the message.
These first steps: Identifying who and what makes you most uncomfortable, choosing the one to focus on, getting at and articulating what’s true for you , will give you the foundations to step into conversations from a much stronger vantage point.