Assertiveness: 25 Ways To Fight Your Corner At Work Without Losing Your Dignity
"Is it me? Am I the drama? I don't think I'm the drama… Maybe I am! Am I the villain? I don't think I'm the villain!"
If you've killed as much productive time as I have in the past few weeks watching Instagram reels and TikTok videos, those words may sound familiar. You'll recognise them from the thousands of people who've lipsynced their own version of the now-famous quote by Scarlet Envy, an American drag queen who found fame on Season 11 of Ru Paul's Drag Race.
The point of this random intro is that we're all the villain in someone else's drama. No matter how sweet and placid you think yourself – somewhere out there, you're someone else's worst nightmare right now.
It could be the tradesman you screamed at for not turning up on time. Or the Tinder match you left on read because you got bored of them. Or Carol from Accounts, who'll have your head on a plate next time you file your office expenses six months late.
Wherever there's human interaction, there's going to be conflict – especially in a work environment. Indeed, regardless of whether you identify as Michael Scott in The Office, Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada, or Christine Quinn in Selling Sunsets, maturely handling workplace conflict is a key indicator when it comes to your future success.
Fight, flight, freeze
Once the ego believes it's about to enter a conflict situation, our poor brain gets flooded with a cocktail of stress hormones.
Adrenaline and noradrenaline enter the bloodstream, causing our heart rate and blood pressure to increase. We become sweaty and hyper-vigilant. Some people literally start to see red as the blood flow in the capillaries of their eyes increases. If you're working in a non-native language, you may even find yourself tongue-tied as your otherwise large vocabulary dry up.
These physiological changes are typical of our nervous system's 'fight/flight/freeze' response – an evolutionary leftover from the days when standing in the path of a horny mammoth was more likely to get you killed than a bollocking from your line manager.
The flight/flight/freeze stress responses broadly correspond to the three conflict-coping strategies we typically follow.
When confronted with conflict, you might decide to take the path of least resistance by passively giving in to the other party's demands. Doing so, you place a greater weight on the needs of others than on your own. Your tactic is to sacrifice your self-interest as a way to avoid upsetting others.
This type of 'selfless' behaviour can be terrible for you in the long run. Although it might seem more effortless in that moment, once you consistently fail to fight your corner, colleagues and/or clients will begin to feel sorry for you over time. They may even start to take advantage of you.
In the long run, you become resentful of your own behaviour as you watch yourself bend over backwards like a yogi on steroids trying not to upset anybody else. Do that often enough, and you'll end up with very low self-esteem and self-confidence – not to mention a seriously deformed spine.
If you veer towards this behaviour, you probably thrive on the approval of others. You might be a bit of a people-pleaser who prefaces every sentence with: 'Would you mind terribly if…", "I don't mean to be rude, but I was wondering…" or belittling phrases like: "I'm no expert, but…".
Rather than pleasing others, your persistent lack of confidence is pretty irritating to most people.
By acting aggressively, you might well fancy yourself as the alfa in your team – the one who 'doesn't take shit from anyone' and 'tells it like it is'.
If you veer towards this 'fight' stress response, you'll probably lose your rag quickly at work and swear a lot. Or, if you're in an environment where this type of overtly aggressive behaviour isn't tolerated, you might use sarcasm instead or be direct with others in a way that's uncalled for.
In fairness, your aggression often pays off. People are too scared to push you around, so you come out as the top dog.
"I never start the drama. I just finish it." - Christine Quinn, Selling Sunsets (Netflix)
But all that bullying means relationships with colleagues either have or are about to get sour very quickly. While you admire the views sitting at the top of the tree, you're operating from a place of isolation. Dare to look down, and you might find there are plenty of volunteers gathering below, getting ready to give that tree a really good shake.
If you've noticed that your 'good guys always come last' approach has made it hard for you to build deeper relationships at work; or that colleagues avoid eye contact with you and never include you in activities or conversations, then congratulations! You've successfully established yourself as the office arsehole.
There's a special place in hell that caters specifically for passive-aggressive people. In it, they get to enjoy perpetually-jammed printers, slow WiFi and the fishy waft of a tuna sandwich that's been sitting at the back of the fridge since August.
When imagining passive-aggressive behaviour, most of us immediately think of sarcastic emails, or Post-its stuck on the watercooler. Those actions are actually more typical of aggressive behaviour.
Passive aggression works by manipulating others to do what you want them to do by making them feel guilty or shaming them. You sulk and embarrass someone to the point that they feel sorry for you. Give it enough time, and people just want to get away from your 'woe is me' and victimised aura as quickly as possible. You complain about not being appreciated by others, but at the same time, you feel resentful about any request that comes your way.
Just like being passive or aggressive, it's a reasonably successful tactic in the short run. But do it too often, and you'll gain yourself a reputation as the office martyr. People feel they're walking on eggshells around you and the initial sympathy vote quickly turns into hatred.
To make matters worse, it was probably you who left that tuna sandwich there just to prove a point.
If you’re a fan of Catherine Tate, you’ll probably know who I’m talking about.
Disagreeing like a pro through assertive behaviour
First things first: acting aggressively or passively can both be valid responses in a limited number of situations. But a different type of behaviour is likely to get you further in all kinds of disagreement – assertiveness.
When I bring up assertiveness with clients, it becomes clear that most people conflate it with aggression. But both are very different ways of behaving.
First of all, being assertive has nothing to do with raising your voice or changing your workplace personality.
Secondly, assertiveness forces you to state your needs and wants in a direct, open, and honest way. You own what you say (or write), and you stand up for what you believe, but you never do it at the expense of others.
Assertiveness therefore requires you to express your best interests transparently and appropriately. To do that, you need to get clear with yourself first about what those beliefs and best interests look like – something most of us aren't quite used to. You then extend the same courtesy to others before you start negotiating a compromise. Or you both decide to withdraw.
Responding assertively always involves some degree of negotiation. Instead of 'I win, you lose' (aggressive), or 'you win, I lose' (passive), or 'we both lose' (passive-aggressive), assertive behaviour seeks out a workable comprise where you both win, or you both decide to withdraw.
Assertive behaviour isn't baked into our natural fight, flight or freeze response. Most of us instinctively struggle because it's a learned behaviour that requires practice.
There's a link between having high self-esteem and being assertive. When you have a strong sense of your own self-worth, the opinions of others aren't likely to bother you much, so you tend to be more assertive.
But it also works the way around. By practising assertiveness and reaping the positive impact of that, you actually increase your self-esteem and confidence.
Assertiveness means taking a direct and diplomatic approach when expressing your thoughts and feelings – all the while staying aware of the thoughts and feelings of others. That's why assertiveness isn't a way of being. It's a communication skill based on using the most appropriate language to resolve a conflict successfully.
Acting stubbornly and/or binary thinking about who's right and wrong causes huge blockages when it comes to communicating assertively. When both parties refuse to budge, a compromise and/or a way forward becomes impossible.
That is why in this next section, I'll outline 25 tips for creating some wiggle room for negotiation to prevent this kind of checkmate as soon as a conflict arises.
25 ways to be more assertive
1. Before reacting to a conflict, take some time to intentionally check in on your needs, wants, or beliefs in this situation. Then communicate them to the other party directly and respectfully.
2. If someone surprises you with a request, it's okay to ask for a time-out before answering. Simply respond: 'Thank you, I need to think about this first before giving you a response.'
3. Own what you say by using 'I' statements as much as possible, such as 'I want...' or 'what I need is…'. Be direct and don't use roundabout or fluffy ways to express it.
4. Use positive statements that offer a way forward like: 'Tell me how you feel about this situation. I'll tell you how I feel, and then we'll come to a way forward'; or 'I can see we disagree on this. How are we going to sort this out?'; or 'I would like you to…'; or 'I want…'
5. Nobody can take away your power at work unless you decide to give it to them. Nobody can do to you what you refuse to have done to you.
6. You're perfectly entitled to give a simple 'no' to a request. It's neither rude nor unfair, and you don't have to explain your why. Saying no works better than making excuses anyway. If you make an excuse, it's likely the same request will pop up again in the future.
7. Avoid using generalising statements like 'you always…' or 'you never…' They're blameful and judgmental. They act as an emotional red rag, causing the other party to respond immediately with evidence to the contrary about that one time they did do x,y,z.
8. Be specific about what action you want the other person to take. Don't lose your temper and stand your ground. After stating you understand their point of view, simply repeat your request.
9. When you're on a difficult call or meeting, avoid the fight or flight response. Focus on your breathing for a couple of seconds instead of focusing on your thinking. Remind yourself that you're safe and competent to handle the situation.
10. If you're dealing with someone irate, give that person some space to let them speak their mind. They'll run out of steam eventually. If you feel the person is overstepping your boundaries or is rude, politely say so and inform them you'll end the conversation unless they tone down. You're not a punching bag.
11. Be empathic and show the other person you understand their point of view. Understanding someone's perspective doesn't mean you agree with it.
12. By throwing in verbal softeners such as 'likely', 'possibly', 'occasionally', 'perhaps', 'I wonder if', or 'typically' in your conversation, you can create a better environment for agreement and cooperation. Remember that clarity is vital, so use them sparingly.
13. If you're talking face-to-face with someone, make sure you meet on the same eye level if you want the conversation to be amicable. If you're making a demand, make sure you place yourself at a slightly higher level than the other person.
14. Practise keeping your voice at a low pitch and volume. It'll help you exude more confidence.
15. Be absolutely clear and specific on what you want to be done. Say how you feel, and explain why you want it done. Then follow through with a 'What we're going to do next is xxx'.
16. Avoid undercutting yourself with phrases such as 'I'm sorry to ask you but…' or 'Sorry to be so blunt, but…'. Ban them from your vocabulary. Say what you really want and say it clearly.
17. If you're leading a meeting where conflict will likely arise, start by laying down some clear ground rules, like raising one's hand before speaking. Also, make sure everyone can contribute during the meeting so that a single person doesn't dominate.
18. If you spot someone displaying early non-verbal signs of disagreement in a meeting, invite that attendee to make their point as quickly as possible.
19. Use empowering and constructive phrases like 'When you ask me to do xx without checking in with me first, I feel like xxx. Instead, I propose we do xx from now on. How does that sound?' Notice the use of 'I’-statements here.
20. Use the 'broken record' technique. You keep repeating your point until the other person recognises or acknowledges what you're saying. Consistency is critical if you want to be taken seriously.
21. Don't give big egos a chance to bait or bully you in a conversation. You probably won't win that battle, and it will make you look bad for trying. Ease the situation by letting them exhaust themselves and run out of steam.
22. When dealing with large egos, always use their first names in the conversation, but not too often. Applying this subtly is an excellent technique for taking command and control of a conversation.
23. Find out what it is about someone's specific behaviour that's triggering you emotionally. Be open to the fact that you may well be projecting some of your own insecurities and inadequacy onto that other person.
24. Practise speaking your mind outside of work too, and make sure you do so after preparing solid arguments. Concentrate on discussing the argument at hand and not the person's character.
25. If the conflict relates to your manager, provide them with specific and supportive feedback on how you feel you're being managed. Be friendly and upfront, and remember to be critical of the behaviour rather than the person.
Conclusion: get assertiveness training
Conflict at work is inevitable. While most of us will seek to avoid it, this automatic flight mechanism can seriously undermine our confidence and credibility at work.
Being more assertive means bringing greater awareness to what your needs are in a particular work situation. You remind yourself that those needs are as valid as anyone else's, and you communicate them in a way that encourages cooperation and negotiation rather than conflict.
Assertive communication doesn't come naturally to anyone and is a learned behaviour. That is why specific training might be a great way forward if you struggle with it.
And if the culture of conflict in your workplace is endemic, then perhaps it's time for you to move on. Unless you thrive on the challenge, of course, in which case being assertive will make it even easier for you to get what you need.