Practical Assertiveness

lion aMost, if not all of us could use some refinement when it comes to achieving the right balance between overbearing or controlling assertiveness and reticence or timidity. In how many situations did we feel as though we either didn’t know what was best to say or later wished we could have a do-over?

Wikipedia’s definition of assertiveness infers this need for balance. It defines; “Assertiveness is the quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive.”

Assertiveness has many synonyms: commanding, authoritative, bold, self-possessed, firm, emphatic, determined, insistent, forthright, insistent, feisty, pushy, resolute. It might be helpful to reread these words and notice if any invoke negative attitudes or feelings.

No one is going to learn about becoming bold by reading articles about Viking Gods or watching action hero films on Netflix. One doesn’t learn to play the sax or hit a baseball by reading about these activities in a book. They’re learned by actual doing; with thoughtfulness, frequency, and repetition.

We’re going to master assertiveness by practicing and living it. Let’s start by looking at recent encounters where we did or did not strike the right balance for ourselves or the other party.

Ask yourself:

1. From this encounter, were my needs met?

2. Was I calm and collected, or was I uncomfortable, agitated, numb? (Yes, numb. Many of you know what I mean by this; everything stiffens up, and you can’t even think.)

3. Did the other person seem satisfied and comfortable?

4. Did they express agreement, satisfaction, acceptance, recognition, or did they appear threatened, insulted, marginalized, intimidated?

Some of us are just naturally shy. Some had a parent or influential person in their lives that was domineering, threatening, or did a poor job helping you to define your boundaries or them defining theirs. The result was a person not being self-possessed, self-assured, secure in themselves with strongly defined limits, borders, and sometimes: not even having knowledge and awareness of their personal rights. (You can read about some of my personal experiences with shyness in “A Journey Overcoming Shyness.”)Journey Overcoming Shyness

Tom McIntosh  via Wikipedia

Tom McIntosh via Wikipedia

I remember lessons with the great jazz musician and teacher Tom McIntosh. In a master class at music school, Mr. McIntosh asked the class to point out the one quality that I had that no one else in the class possessed. (Being singled out was somewhat embarrassing.) He said BOLDNESS!

No, I surely didn’t have that starting out! But, if you can play the saxophone on Quincy Jones’ TV show “Vibe” for millions of viewers or blow a solo on the stage of Royal Albert Hall with Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, then you know something about boldness and assertiveness. Right?

We see assertiveness in action every day; the mother trying to pass through a crowd on a busy sidewalk with her three children, the store manager telling the clerk he didn’t like the display, the bus driver telling everyone to move towards the rear of the bus, the taxi driver honking his horn, the deli man yelling, “No soup for you!”

Like the professional musician or a beggar in the street, many are launched or pressured into being assertive on one level or another. As I wrote in ” A Journey Overcoming Shyness,” being confident in one area of life doesn’t necessarily make one assured in every aspect. It’s those other situations where we all need to improve.

Shrinking Fred Flintstone

Shrinking Fred Flintstone

Yes, I was bold when playing the sax, but when it came to asking for a raise; that’s where I slipped back into my shy, affected, and apprehensive old-self. The Flintstones cartoons come to mind. Whenever Fred Flintstone went to his boss, Mr. Slate, his boss would belittle him. Fred would actually shrink; becoming lilliputian with a tiny squeaky voice. This was me.  Eventually, I learned assertiveness in this situation, too.

Prior to asking for as raise:

1. Figure out what you need

2 Research what others earn who do a similar job

3. Understand, as best you can, the company’s and department’s financial situation

4.Think of the possible consequences of losing the job

5. Conclude what you are worth in the market

6. Reach out to confirm how solid your possibilities and connections are for obtaining work.

7. Have a few “back-pocket” concessions ready to go.

Before the meeting:

1. Know what you are going to say. Here is an elementary example of what you could state; “I’ve been enjoying my experience working with you and wish it to continue. I need earn “such and such per year.” Would you please discuss my proposal with the accountant and decide how to make this possible?”

2. Rehearse before of a mirror.

3. Try to speak in a relaxed, assured tone. If your mouth dries up and your cheeks tighten, then take a water break and get back to it later.

4. Observe your facial expressions and notice how you feel when saying these words.

5. Recognize if you believe in what you are saying.


You could also add or emphasize what your contribution has been and how you can be useful for developing new clients, products, standards, etc.

As important as the intellectual aspect of this undertaking is the emotional one:

1. Were you nervous while asking for what you wanted?

2. Were you able to be completely present, to listen and understand what they were saying?

3. Were you able to adapt to changing circumstances?

4. How did you feel when you left the room?

How you answer these questions will set the barometer as to where you are at on this issue. What happens when you feel “into” being important, commanding, authoritative?

Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defines assertiveness as: “a form of behavior characterized by a confident declaration or affirmation of a statement without need of proof; this affirms the person’s rights or point of view without either aggressively threatening the rights of another (assuming a position of dominance) or submissively permitting another to ignore or deny one’s rights or point of view”.

With this definition, our assertive claim affirms our right to have a perspective while not threatening someone else to have theirs. Personally, I don’t find this helpful enough. How can someone cut through all the fluff and begin constructing a foundation right now?

 One powerful tool is having a sense of your mortality. Yes, we are going to die. That’s a fact. No matter what you believe as far as an afterlife or whatever, this existence as we know it is coming to an end. So, the question remains, “How do you want to live your life from this moment on?!”

This vantage changes everything. Who we are, what we are trying to accomplish, where we need to be, and what our timetable is, all become paramount issues. We become the adult, taking care of the adult. Being demure and reticent doesn’t serve us, nor will sitting on the bench-of-life, making excuses. If I could learn to say “No” with or without finesse and panache, then so can you!

Defining who we are is not like spraying paint on a wall but more like sculpturing a splendid work of art. It takes time, dedication, and effort.

These four points will ensure our success:

1. Using our abilities to reflect on previous encounters

2. Having the humility to recognize our issues

3. Being resolute to make the necessary changes

4. Remaining determined to be mindful of this goal

Often, persons with boundary issues unsuitably formulated from their “banged-up” past are those who have the most difficulty thriving in positions of authority. Often, past issues soil their ability to lead with respect in the here and now.

Leaders without proper boundaries will usually move towards extremes, either being too aggressive with subordinates or too passive. Let’s talk about the former.

Years ago, because of the frequency of so many men abusing their positions of authority, Sensitivity Training became an instituted requirement by many businesses. Unless, someone realized or had it pointed out to them that they had issues, there wouldn’t be a pressing need to change. Often, it took threats of termination to make the required effort.

Although we see the ongoing helpful customer service trend within American companies today, I am shocked by the number of young professionals residing in New York who are just plain unfriendly. There’s been a trend for the past decade or so that; “To be friendly, is to be a loser.” Implying that if you are nice to someone, then it’s because you either have to be or you need something.

If you think I’m wrong about the power of being warm and friendly rather that cold and harsh, then try this experiment. The next time you need to phone customer service to file a dispute or require tech support, try this:

– Stay calm.  Be compassionate for the person on the other side. They listen to complainers ALL DAY LONG!

– Say hello.

– Be friendly.

– Ask them for their name.

– Address them by name throughout the conversation.

– Ask them what state they’re in.

– Start a small conversation about this – (Remember, they are paid by the hour and not the number of calls. They want to have a nice day too. They have to deal with nastiness regularly. To finally get a nice person is a breath of fresh air!)

– Let them finish their sentences.

– Be polite. Thank them throughout the call.

– Speak directly without accusing them personally of anything.

– Enlist their further help and advice if the issue remains unresolved.

If you do this, I guarantee that you will have the best customer service experience ever! Try this same technique next time you go to a restaurant. You will receive the server’s best effort.

This approach is good training for when you get your chance to be in a position of authority. People will do their best for those they admire. They will work with more vigor if they feel that they are seen and noticed. You be that kind of authority. Learn to assert yourself and command with kindness, consideration, and respect for your subordinates and you will command their top performance.

However, for the person in an authoritative position that did not learn appropriate limits, they need a slightly more circuitous route before arriving at this place. Again, let’s look at Dorland’s last part of the definition; “…submissively permitting another to ignore or deny one’s rights or point of view”.

There’s a famous Zen Koan that comes to mind. “Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains were not mountains, and waters were not waters. But now, that I have got its very substance, I am at rest. For it’s just that I see; mountains once again as mountains and waters once again as waters.”

Now, of course, there are many interpretations and applications for this Koan. Let’s use one for our purposes here.

It’s difficult to command authority if the leader with poor boundaries is overly friendly. Once they put themselves into the work situation as a peer and not a leader, the murky gray area can become confusing. With some subordinates, this may not pose a problem. With others it will.

Some people we encounter don’t have much respect for themselves or anyone else. So often, we have to deal with these people. These persons tend to travel in herds and are usually the frequent complainers and dissenters. They are the “bad apple that can spoil the bunch.”

With this type, the overly-friendly approach just doesn’t work. A professional, direct and respectful one does. There’s no need to try to “make nice” to help these people feel comfortable. Usually, they are not nice people and will never be comfortable…at least for a while.

Why did I say “for a while?” Because in many instances, when you shift, others around you shift. They will begin to admire you for the qualified, respectable, and kind leader that you are.

Don’t hold your breath though. What is important is that you get them to function properly. That’s enough of a shift. If they don’t, then you get to apply your assertiveness by closing the door behind them.

When a Japanese person greets another by bowing, it is a sign of respect and reverence for the other person. This attitude is what we need to learn to hold for ourselves and others. By changing the way we feel about ourselves, we can change the way others feel about us. It’s not the display of wealth and power that commands respect. It’s what we feel and exude that does. Insist on nothing less.

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James Finn

Author: James Finn

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