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Assertiveness begins with a laser-like sense of focus

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.

Being proactive

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.



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Emotional Intelligence, the best way to win hearts and minds

Emotional Intelligence is key to making people feel the impact of what you have to say. Whether you’re presenting, negotiating or simply making your point to the room, by making your audience feel inspired or motivated, informed or challenged, you can influence their thinking.

Winning hearts and minds is a collaborative exercise. It’s important to carry your audience with you, shaping their opinion through patience and empathy. It’s not enough to simply rely on the logic of your argument. Sentence structure is rarely a memorable experience, better to include thoughts that are heartfelt and persuasive.

Traditionally, business leaders (following psychologists) talked in terms of IQ – intelligence quotient, a score calculated, in part, from a set of tests. In 1990, researchers Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer created the term Emotional Intelligence, (EI, also known as emotional quotient or EQ). This was popularised by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book, Emotional Intelligence, from then on EI came to be seen as the critical factor that sets star performers apart from the rest of the pack.

Emotional Behaviours at Work

Our eLearning Learnflix course on Emotional Intelligence will help you understand how and why people respond to the things they hear. These skills will help you relate to people and better handle challenging situations. If you can manage emotions, your own and other people’s – especially when under pressure – you will have stronger relationships and more success at work.

The course focuses on the ‘how’ of emotional intelligence by exploring the EBW Model (Emotional Behaviours at Work) — the emotional intelligence behaviours that characterise EI in the workplace.

This is a practical, work-based model of Emotional Intelligence, with eight main elements:

Decisiveness. Decisiveness shows you’re eager to take on responsibility, others trust your abilities because you trust them yourself. It pays to carry out research, indecision goes hand in hand with lack of knowledge. Be logical, ask yourself whether your emotions are clouding or supporting your decision?

Motivation. Author Daniel Pink believes there are three essential intrinsic motivators (the internal factors that make us do things) in a business setting:

  • Autonomy, the desire to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery, the urge to develop.
  • Purpose, the need to do what we do for reasons bigger than ourselves.

Influence. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, suggests that to be more influential it helps to have a specific outcome in mind. This will help you define what can and can’t be influenced.

Adaptability. People will disagree with you. Rather than lock horns with them, find other ways to make your point. Flexible behaviour in a difficult situation can sometimes influence the outcome more effectively than rigidly sticking to your strategy.

Empathy. The ability to empathise with people can build that crucial level of trust and emotional engagement that makes for success in business. Nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman suggests there are four attributes of empathy:

  • To see the world as others see it.
  • To be non-judgmental.
  • To understand other’s experiences.
  • To communicate back the emotion you see.

Conscientiousness. Being conscientious at work involves focus and presence, values that help to reduce misunderstanding and mistakes. These values are also the starting point in building better relationships. By remaining present in the moment with other people, you can focus on what they are saying and react accordingly.

Stress Resilience or Emotional Control. Stress resistance and emotional control are essential aspects of everyday business life. Define your emotional triggers and learn to focus on the elements you can control. Once you understand the situations or personality styles that trigger you, you’ll be better prepared in reacting to them. The more you keep your aims and audience in mind, the easier it will be to craft your response.

Self-Awareness. By understanding your own emotions, you’ll be better equipped in managing relationships at work.  According to Harvard Business Review writer Anthony K. Tjan, “[T]here is one quality that trumps all, in virtually every great entrepreneur, manager and leader. That quality is self-awareness. The best thing leaders can do to improve their effectiveness is to become more aware of what motivates them and their decision-making.”


In understanding these eight points, you’ll find it easier to understand your audience. Beware though, one size does not fit all. Be curious about who you’re talking to. What’s important to them, about business, time, money or relationships? Understanding your clients emotionally can help establish and maintain mutually satisfying working relationships, characterised by honesty and trust. The important word is ‘mutual’. It’s the quality of your relationships that counts, rather than the quantity.

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Body language speaks volumes to anyone reading the room

Body language is an open book on how we’re feeling. Offering sneaky glimpses of things we might prefer to hide, it gives away more than anything we choose to say. At work you might want to be seen as confident, capable and engaged. Here’s how to let body language do your talking for you.

According to zoologist and author Desmond Morris, “what matters with gestures is not the signal we think we are sending out but the signals that are received.” For Morris, body language can be divided into four areas:

  • Gestures the movements of hand, head and body
  • Expressions arrangements of face and eye movements
  • Stance typical body postures such as anger or fear
  • Distance between those who are interacting

Our Learnflix eLearning course on Body Language examines the body language you might encounter at work, how it can be subtle and deceptive, and how it relates to power and status.

Body chemistry

The body is influenced by a cocktail of chemicals that can influence behaviour. Eye contact, for example, triggers a rise in the hormone oxytocin which helps us develop emotional connection, trust and empathy.

By contrast, when we’re excited or worried the body releases cortisol, a stress hormone. In moments of fight or flight, cortisol can be followed up by a release of adrenalin which primes the body to act.

When we have to perform intense activity, the high-activity sympathetic part of the nervous system sends adrenalin into the blood and dominates the calmer parasympathetic system. When these two systems compete, you feel out of control for a moment. Your heart beats faster, blood is pulled from the skin region, saliva production is reduced and your mouth feels dry.

The impact of energy

Emotional factors can also affect body language. Your energy levels can be noticed by your audience through body language, whether you want them to see or not. Too much energy in a presentation may alienate people, too little may leave them feeling bored.

Effective body language depends upon authentic energy. It can reveal when you’re under-slept, stressed out, or in a bad mood. You may try to cling to a manufactured version of your normal energy but that’s hard to achieve.

Other subconscious giveaways include yawns, avoiding eye contact and glazed expressions, or body positions such as arms and legs tightly and defensively folded, or a rigid posture.

The overall body position 

Many factors lie behind the five main types of body language in social and working life. Most are a mix of conscious and subconscious emotional characteristics.

Aggressive: In an open display of indicators such as clenched fists, bolt upright stance, loud tone of voice and staring, individuals behave as if their needs are the most important, as though they have more rights and have more to contribute than others.

Manipulative body language: Subtle, calculating and shrewd, this behaviour includes indicators such as exaggerated gestures (for example, open and upturned palms held out for too long, with an insincere smile) and touching or patting in a patronising way.

Submissive body language: In pleasing other people and avoiding conflict, individuals might fiddle/fidget, cover eyes or mouth (often subconsciously), adopt a slumped posture, look down, make poor eye contact, offer a pleading smile.

Passive-Aggressive: Individuals appear passive but are actually acting out their anger in indirect or behind-the-scenes ways, perhaps due to feeling powerless or resentful.

Assertive body language: A display of high self-esteem, this is the healthiest and most effective style, leading to an upright, open and relaxed posture and good eye contact.

Wielding power

By understanding the overlap between hormones, the nervous system, energy and emotion, you can detect the display of power in others. This comes in many forms, among them:

Position Power: Power postures, such as hands on hips with elbows out, or superiority postures such as physically looking down on subordinates, ‘strutting’ around the office.

Coercive Power: Coercing or threatening others into action, perhaps by standing too close to someone, ignoring subordinates, looking through or past them, finger pointing or fist clenching.

Reward Power: May include a long handshake, a pat on the back, a smile, a nod and a gaze to denote thanks, gestures that are small but powerful and instil feelings of validation and gratitude.

Expert Power: Experts imply certainty by employing sustained and direct eye contact. Turning the palms down and appearing to press down is a way to get others to listen to you.

In these examples, and many others, body language can express power or weakness. Faking it is hard, you might succeed in one area but other things might give you away. Better to be aware of your state of mind, manage it and be true to yourself, so that the main thing seen by audience is a person in control of their message.

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Develop your personal impact, be seen as a person who’s heard

Personal impact is a dicey business. While attending the launch of a new museum dedicated to film and TV, I stepped into a newsreader booth and silently read the autocue. Once done, I stepped out only to discover with horror that my ‘performance’ was being played back on a giant screen, complete with yawns and moments when I was picking my teeth. The bits where I was silently mouthing words like a gaping goldfish were especially memorable.

And that’s the point. Personal impact is about being memorable, particularly for the right reasons. Like all forms of communication, personal impact comes down to how you come across to other people. How they remember you will depend on your actions.

Controlling your actions is important, impact helps people remember you the next time they meet you. This in turn develops trust. Impact also raises your profile and helps your message hit home, whether you’re presenting to many people or pitching to one or two. In the end impact keeps your presence lingering in the room even after you’ve left. 

Learning to control your actions

So how do you control your actions? Our Learnflix courses on Personal Impact explain these skills in detail, focusing on bringing together your emotional intelligence, vocal expression and body language. These skills enable you to achieve your long-term ambitions as well as short-term objectives, from getting noticed at work to successfully pitching to clients.

1. Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a complex of mix of ingredients, from self-regard to relationship skills. In essence they boil down to two things, self-awareness and empathy for someone else, in that order. This two-step process requires you to know your own opinion. You might not always choose to express it, but it will at least shape your thoughts and responses.

What are the things that are important to you? Getting your point across perhaps, being heard, being treated with respect, being talked to as a person rather than being talked at as if you’re a meeting. Of course these things matter to other people too, communication being a two-way street. Your audience’s opinion of you rests on your empathy for them.

2. Vocal expression

Vocal expression can be trickier than might at first appear. There’s a lot of guidance available about using your voice, but speaking with impact is as much psychological as physical. A good place to start is to believe what you’re saying. If you don’t, others may not either.

The next step is to think about language. What are the words that are natural to you? Sparing a thought for your audience will help you determine how formal or relaxed you should be. This in turn will influence your choice of words. Then come thoughts about tone, energy, emphasis and clarity. It seems a lot to remember, but once you know what you want to say, everything else will start to fall into place.

3. Body language

Thinking about the needs of your audience is also a useful approach when it comes to body language. This too has a psychological aspect to it, just like using your voice. Keeping things natural to you is a good first step, though you might need to moderate things. For example, arm-waving and big gestures work better in some contexts than others.

Eye contact sometimes take more practice than we might think. In one-to-one situations, eye contact is easier than when we’re addressing a room full of people. Similarly, on a Zoom call it’s hard to talk to the light next to your camera. Keeping your hands under control also takes a little practice. Again, it’s important to be natural but it’s helpful to remember how you’re coming across to other people. If the people in the front row are looking a little windswept, maybe your hand gestures are a bit big.

You can increase your chances of getting a favourable reaction from other people by remembering their needs and expectations. Being true to yourself is always a good place to start. It’s certainly a better bet than kicking off with a film on a big screen offering two minutes of you picking your teeth. Being memorable is nice, but it’s important to shape what you want people to remember.