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Collaborative Assertiveness

We think of assertiveness in adversarial terms: how to defend ourselves against someone using strong-arm tactics to influence us. How about a more constructive, win-win approach?

Rebutting force with force can gain you respect, at least in the short-term, and it can stop pushy people in their tracks, but it can also raise the emotional temperature on both sides, making one or both parties angry, upset or guilty.

Assertiveness is often defensive. You are advised to stand up for your rights: your right to do your own thing, to express yourself, to say "no" without feeling guilty, to think or act differently from others, etc.

But what is the purpose of being assertive? Isn't it to influence people to think and/or act differently? You might want them to change the way they treat you, but not necessarily. Much of the assertiveness literature assumes that you are under attack by some bully and you need to stand up for your rights.

Suppose you need to speak up in a meeting because you can see serious flaws in what others are proposing. No one is trying to intimidate or bully you in this situation. You could be a passive onlooker unless, that is, you assert yourself and say what you think.

When we notice that assertiveness applies to situations where no one is trying to bully us, it is easier to see that it is really about having the confidence and skill to influence people.

Most assertiveness training seems to be about bolstering your nerve to attack your attacker. Whenever you tell someone to do something (or stop doing something), you are being confrontational. Even if your style is not aggressive, there is still the risk of a win-lose or lose-lose outcome. The other party could retaliate in the moment or resolve to get even later, thus escalating the conflict.

How to Assert Yourself Non-defensively

Suppose someone is leaning on you to go to a movie tonight when you would prefer to go bowling. Do you agree to the movie to avoid an argument or do you assertively insist that you don't feel like seeing a movie tonight?

Assertiveness training would advise you to stand up for your rights in this situation. But how about simply saying something like: "We clearly have different needs at the moment. Can you think of a way that we could both meet our needs?"

With this response, you're highlighting the differences between the two of you rather than defending yourself. You're saying that WE have a problem, not you or the other person. Further, by asking for a suggestion, you're conveying the message that you and the other party should try to develop a shared solution and that you're open to suggestions. This is much less confrontational than simply standing firmly on your rights.

More generally, questions can be assertive without being confrontational. Suppose you are in a meeting and one of your colleagues is trying hard to persuade everyone to take a new course of action. You could be assertive in an unaggressive manner by simply stating why you think the proposed action won't work.

Alternatively, you could state the advantages you can see in the proposal and then ask its advocate questions like:

• What risks or disadvantages can you see?

• What options are there?

• What are the advantages of those other options?

• What if we do as you suggest and X, Y or Z happens, then what?

• How would your proposal impact other departments, customers, the bottom line, or any other factor?

By first stating the benefits of the proposal, its advocate is less likely to feel attacked. By asking questions, you're encouraging the other person to think beyond the advantages (which we often focus on too exclusively to make rational decisions). There is no guarantee that you will succeed in influencing everyone with this approach but you are at least asserting yourself rather than being either aggressive or passive.

Saying "no" Without Feeling Guilty

A common scenario calling for assertiveness is saying "no" to a request from your boss or a colleague who wants you to do something when you don't have time. A typical assertive response is simply to say that you are too busy.

The reason this approach is defensive and potentially annoying to the other person is that it focuses exclusively on your needs. After all, the reason you feel guilty is that you can see that you have displeased someone you like when you say "no."

A more constructive, win-win approach would be to say: "Let me see how I can best help you. Your task deserves a proper amount of time and attention." Then you make some suggestions so that your help takes the form of advice rather than your taking the monkey on your back. You might suggest another person or some sort of exchange where your colleague does something for you in return.

Or, you could say that you would be very happy to do the task if next week or next month is soon enough. Offering an unrealistically late delivery date is bound to disappoint your colleague, but at least you are saying "yes", not "no" and you should feel less guilty as a result.

By saying: "Let me see how I can best help you" the message is conveyed that you are willing to help, because you are not saying "no." You are also affirming the importance of the task so that your colleague is less likely to feel upset or rejected. If it is a task that you can do better than the person asking you to do it, you might offer some tips and suggest that your colleague has a go at it and then gets you to review it later.

You can also help people review their priorities to see if they can figure out a way to fit in the task they are asking you to do. Even if you can't help them find an alternative way of getting the job done, you have at least taken a helping approach, which should leave you feeling less guilty and others not feeling rejected.

If it's your boss asking you to do something, ask him or her to rank order your priorities, including this one. That is, you might state that your boss, as your most important internal customer, should have a say in how your priorities are ranked. Taking this approach might help you get agreement from your boss that it's OK for you to delay some other work so that you can take on the new task. Or, it might turn out that your boss sees that you are too busy with more important things without your having to say so yourself.

Collaborative Assertiveness

A collaborative approach to assertiveness helps others get what they want without being confrontational. By asking questions instead of making statements, you invite the other person to work with you to find a mutually acceptable solution.

How could you assert yourself to ask for a raise in pay? Conventional thinking would be to simply state your case calmly, logically and firmly. However, a better approach might be to ask your boss well in advance (6 months to a year) what you should do in order to get a raise, what you need to excel at, develop or achieve to deserve a higher salary.

Getting buy-in from your boss in advance about what would deserve more money gives you a target and a psychological contract that's hard for your boss to renege on when you deliver. Your boss could still refuse, of course, but you have at least asserted yourself using collaborative, non-confrontational tactics. You have increased your chances of getting a raise without feeling like you have to wage a war to get your way.

No doubt there are occasions when you need to take a confrontational stand but this should be the last resort. Confrontational assertiveness has all the advantages of slapping a misbehaving child. You gain a short-term benefit: compliance, but not genuine acceptance and the child might simply learn to avoid getting caught in future.

A Hero at Work is a related article where the point is that being heroic means feeling that we always have to deliver messages or take a stand ourselves in a totally self-reliant way as opposed to operating as a catalyst or facilitator with the aim of fostering a more collabortive solution. See How to be More Effective at Work on how to balance self-reliance and interdependence. See also Cultures of Disengagement for similar themes to A Hero at Work. For more on the use of questions to influence people, see Questions for Success. Also: How To Say No and How to Give and Receive Feedback.

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