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The Coach: ‘How do I become more assertive at work?’

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It takes time, self-control and confidence to build an assertiveness based on mutual respect, says Matthew Turner

When I described a situation that has arisen at work, a friend said I need to be more assertive. The trouble is, I don’t respect the domineering approach of some colleagues and don’t want to become like them. 

Matthew turner

Matthew turner

Assertiveness is a communication skill and is key to working with others. It enables you to put forward ideas, thoughts and opinions by expressing yourself effectively. It also helps to earn others’ respect and boosts self-esteem.

But it is important to understand that assertiveness isn’t only about putting your opinions forward and speaking up. It’s more of an interplay between how we communicate and how we treat the other person in the conversation. The aim should be a balancing act that ends up with an ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’ situation, based on mutual respect.

So how do you develop assertiveness? It takes time, self-control and confidence. Be curious about the other person’s point of view. Ask open questions and really listen to what they have to say. If people are being unreasonable, it can be challenging. But if you and they feel listened to and respected, the conversation can be more positive. 

Speak up and express yourself. People can’t read your mind, so be honest and specific.

Use ‘I’ language to avoid sounding critical. For example: ‘I have another suggestion’, rather than ‘You’re wrong’. Or ‘I noticed the deadline wasn’t met’ instead of ‘You didn’t meet the deadline’.

If you have a hard time turning down requests, learn to say ‘no’

If you have a hard time turning down requests, learn to say ‘no’, ‘not yet’, or ‘not now’. It’s not selfish, and shows you are able to prioritise and set healthy limits.

Remember, every time you say yes to one thing, you are saying no to something else. Saying no therefore also enables you to say yes to the things that matter.

Tone and body language are also important. When you are preparing for an assertive interaction, think ahead about your body language, paying particular attention to your facial expressions, arms and posture.

Think ‘win-win’, and don’t assume the other person is aiming to undermine you. Even if they are, don’t sink to their level. Build on their ideas rather than dismissing them.

Offer potential solutions and ask the other person to help shape an answer that works for both of you. You might not always get exactly what you want, but you will build a reputation for being confident, professional and great to work with.

AJ coach Matthew Turner is an architect and careers consultant who runs the Building on Architecture consultancy. Email him in confidence at hello@buildingonarchitecture.com.

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