Dr Marlet Tromp

How to be more assertive

Being assertive won’t solve all your problems at the office. (Barry’s bad breath probably requires medical intervention.) But by standing up for yourself, you could sort out most of it.

Many people believe that by being agreeable they can avoid conflict and build a network of alliances in the office. But being submissive, constantly having your needs disregarded and feeling obliged to say yes to all demands is stressful. You may be all nice and sweet on the outside, but inside you are a seething mess of resentment, which may spill over in all sorts of passive aggressive ways. Also, you will end up being sidelined.

In fact, if you are serious about your career and personal growth, assertiveness is not optional. No-one will hand you success and respect. You have to stand up for yourself, and be able to communicate clearly about what matters to you.

Learning to be more assertive is the one key intervention that makes the biggest difference in her clients’ lives, says Dr Marlet Tromp, a life and corporate coach in Johannesburg.

“But for many of us, standing up for our interests goes against how we are raised: to be agreeable.”

Here’s how to amp up your assertiveness:

Set boundaries: Before automatically agreeing to a request, or with a statement, test it against your own needs and beliefs. Ask yourself what your rights are when it comes to protecting your own time and energy. This will help you define what you should say yes to and when to say no.

Prepare for difficult situations: Write down your thoughts and rehearse your views. Be prepared for any questions or objections.

Shake it off: Being assertive will inevitably lead to more conflict in your life. Your needs may not necessarily fit the needs of others, and expressing yourself may provoke criticism.

When someone says something negative to you, first decide whether the criticism is constructive and truthful, says Tromp. If you don’t believe it is justified, don’t internalise the remark. “Also, repeat the criticism back to the person and ask if you understood their view correctly.” This will force them to repeat the criticism, often leading to a qualification of the first remark.

Watch your language: Don’t undermine yourself by using tentative language. Words and phrases like “just”, “sorry”, “actually”, “I think”, “Does that make sense?” and “I’m not an expert” don’t inspire confidence in your message and will diminish your message. (A new free Gmail plug-in called Just Not Sorry will highlight these offending words and help you make your emails stronger.)

Also, avoid filler words like “um” and “like”. Say what you want to say and don’t qualify your message. To get what you want, you will have to express it in clear language. Make sure that you don’t waffle on, but that you make your point in a logical and direct way. Also, use “I”, rather than “you”, is Tromp’s advice. You will get a much better result if you say something like, “I feel disrespected when you don’t react to my emails” – instead of, “You never respond to my emails.”

Be a broken record: This assertiveness technique can be surprisingly effective, says Tromp.

When your view is being ignored, repeat in a calm voice the exact message you want to get across. It will help to stop you flaring up in anger, or prevent other people derailing you and taking advantage of you. Simply repeat the same phrase in a measured tone over and over again. Importantly, don’t make excuses or introduce new information. For example: “I won’t be able to take over your project.” Then: “I understand you are under a great deal of stress, but I won’t be able to take over your project.” And then: “That’s really not relevant to the issue under discussion. I won’t be able to take over your project.”

Keep calm: Don’t lose control and self-respect by flying off the handle and saying things that will undermine your position. “The best way of being assertive is to remain calm and by being measured,” says Tromp. Don’t ever react in anger. Instead, step away from the situation (or sit down, at least) and take time before you react.

Adopt a daily assertiveness regime: Move out of your comfort zone and test yourself in different situations. This can include making small talk with strangers, or asserting yourself in small decisions, like choosing a restaurant for a group of friends.

Don’t put the ‘ass’ in ‘assertive’: There is a big difference between being aggressive and being assertive. Listen carefully to others and take great care to understand their opinions and beliefs. Being assertive doesn’t mean that your views are automatically right, so be respectful of and open to other views. Seek win-win outcomes that acknowledge all participants and benefit all involved.

Check your body language. Sit up straight and make eye contact at all times. Adopt a high power pose: Stand tall with your chest out and your hands on your hips.

Don’t shift the blame: By admitting mistakes and shouldering responsibility, you will earn respect.

Take an active role: Listen carefully in meetings, ask questions and offer your opinions. Don’t shy away from responsibility; seize every opportunity to prove yourself.