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How to be assertive at work

In their book How to Be Confident and Assertive at Work, Suzanne and Conrad Potts provide guidance and exercises to help you to be the best you can be at work in interacting with other people. One element of this is behaving assertively, rather than either aggressively.


Imagine you have been asked by your boss to take on an additional task, which involves taking responsibility for some of your colleagues’ work. You feel reluctant to do this because you have not been given the authority or the resources to make a success of the task. After the first couple of weeks you are behind schedule and your boss phones you up to check how everything is going.


Here are three different responses you might give:


An aggressive response:

‘It’s a waste of time. You’ve put me in a very awkward situation and taken advantage of my willingness to help. You’ve just dropped me in it and it’s no surprise that we are behind schedule!’


A non-assertive response:

‘Oh . . . um things seem to be ok, perhaps . . . some minor difficulties here and there. You know . . . you’d expect that . . . I guess. Things could be better, but I’m sure we’ll get there eventually.’


An assertive response:

‘I am finding it difficult to redirect people’s efforts when I haven’t the authority to do so. Now I’ve been doing the job for a couple of weeks I think we need to sit down and discuss exactly what support I need. When can we do that?’


How assertive at work are you?

An important first step in increasing your assertion is to identify how much you currently use when you’re at work.


Part 1

The question we’d like you to think about is:

When you’re at work what proportion of the time do you behave:

  • assertively? ………………………%
  • non-assertively? ………………………%
  • aggressively? ………………………%


Part 2

At this point you might consider: in what work situations do you find it most difficult to behave assertively?


  1. What’s the situation?
  2. Who are the people involved?
  3. What is the usual result?
  4. What would you like to happen next time? Visualise the best outcome.
  5. Is this a win:win?

Some tips on how to speak assertively, rather than aggressively or unassertively

If it’s an ad hoc discussion, ask if they have the time before you launch into what you have to say, e.g. ‘Alan, do you have a couple of minutes now to discuss this?”


When you’re organising a meeting through their PA explain to the PA what impact the meeting will have on the business, e.g. ‘I’d like to squeeze 10 minutes into the Director’s diary this afternoon so that we can agree the steps for securing the XYZ contract.’


Acknowledge people’s time, e.g. ‘Thank you for fitting me in. I know you’re busy.’ Signal what you’re going to do before you do it, e.g. ‘I have a question I’d like to ask’ or ‘I’d like to tell you about my idea and then ask for your thoughts.’


Bring solutions as well as problems, e.g. ‘We’re experiencing major staff shortages because of sickness. I want to organise temporary staff for the next two weeks and I need your authorisation.’


Prepare open questions on issues you think will be discussed, e.g. ‘How do you think I can do this differently?’ or ‘What leads you to believe that would work better?Test understanding when you’re uncertain, e.g. ‘When you mentioned xyz did you mean . . . ?’


If you feel you’re not getting the opportunity to make your point of view, signal your intention, e.g. ‘Would you like to hear my view on that?’ or ‘I’d like to make a comment about that.’


Show your appreciation of the bigger picture, e.g. ‘This will meet the global /national requirement to hit those all-important targets.’


Place emphasis on what you’re going to do, e.g. ‘I’ll provide you with the all the evidence you need’ or ‘I’ll deliver the presentation in a way that captures their imagination.’


For much more advice of all kinds, on how to behave verbally, how to use body language to best effect and so on, Suzanne and Conrad’s book is all help you need to facilitate interpersonal relationships in the workplace.