Being assertive can be a tricky balancing act. To avoid underselling yourself without overstepping the mark, you need a laser-like focus on the outcome you’re looking for. A calm, focused intention will shape the way you communicate with your audience. Here’s how to win them over, skip unnecessary drama and avoid losing the plot along the way.
Being assertive isn’t who you are, it’s not a badge of honour; it’s how you manage the moment. We all assert ourselves in different ways, depending on the situation. Persistently maintaining a pushy persona is one strategy, but perhaps a better alternative would be to keep in mind the outcome you want to achieve. Then you can manage the moment accordingly. This agile approach takes in a range of factors, from understanding your audience to knowing the difference between needs and wants.
Seeking positive outcomes
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Judith E. Glaser points out that our brains are hooked on being right. After coaching many successful leaders, and studying the science behind their behaviours, she discovered that winning an argument releases adrenaline and dopamine in our brains, hormones that make us feel good about ourselves, even dominant. “It’s a feeling any of us would want to replicate”, she says, “so the next time we’re in a tense situation, we fight again. We get addicted to being right.”
Feelings fuelled by hormones can get the better of us, whether it be the desire to be right, or expressing anger at a misunderstanding or injustice. If your first reaction is to go in all guns blazing, how do you avoid being held hostage by emotions that overpower reason? One way is to focus on a specific outcome.
‘Outcome thinking’ begins when you consider your desired goals in advance. We don’t have control over other people’s behaviour but we do have a choice about our own. Before all interactions — from a meeting to a company presentation — it’s important to be clear on the distinction between what you want and what you need. A need is an absolute requirement. A want is a desire, a wish.
By focusing on the intention to achieve your outcome, you can hold off emotions such as wanting to show that you’re upset or needing to pound the floor in a fury. Outcome thinking, and focusing on your intention, are habits that can keep you centred.
Empathy with your audience
There are plenty of situations that don’t trigger emotion, where you calmly assert yourself – perhaps among colleagues, friends, or at home. And with these groups, you assert yourself in different ways. However, you may find that particular situations or personality types consistently trigger a reaction.
The fact is you are skilled in picking and choosing how to assert yourself, which is worth remembering when you next find yourself triggered by something or someone you negatively react to. By building on skills you already possess, you can learn to manage situations that you have found challenging in the past.
Picking and choosing which of your assertiveness skills to fall back on partly comes down to the audience. Who are you talking to? What’s their relationship with you? To be effective in your assertiveness, you need to empathise with your audience and look at things from their point of view.
Judith Glaser points out that when you develop a human connection with another person, your brain releases a hormone called oxytocin which increases your sense of trust and openness to sharing. This paves the way towards what author Steven Covey calls an ‘emotional bank account’. Covey suggests that in developing your relationship with another person, you can make ‘deposits’ (by showing understanding through simple interactions such as emails or calls) and ‘withdrawals’ (by asking for trust in more difficult moments).
Much of the relationship between assertiveness and outcome relies on emotional intelligence. You’re more likely to get what you need when you understand – and work with – your audience. For example, perhaps you can give up a want for something that your audience needs, building trust through give and take. It’s a process that starts with you. At the end of the day, assertiveness is about being proactive, you have to put yourself out there, contribute that idea, volunteer for leadership. Along the way, know your outcome, keep focused on your intention – and don’t forget to take your audience with you.