One of the skills that I have only had a tenuous grip on over the years is assertiveness.
Due to various reasons as a child, assertiveness was almost completely elusive to me. I say sometimes. There are occasions where even I have reached the end of my tether. I have been known to unexpectedly stand my ground and make it very clear what I feel. This is usually followed by a complete dread of what will happen next. But I’ve taken everyone, myself included, so much by surprise, the usual reaction is complete silence.
Sometimes I feel I’m holding a solid rock of assertiveness in the palm of my hand. But more often than not, it feels like sand slipping through my fingers.
What is assertiveness?
Assertiveness is a superpower!
True assertiveness is the ability to communicate your thoughts and opinions, needs and feelings in a direct, honest and appropriate manner. It allows you to stand up for your rights whilst continuing to allow the rights of others. True assertiveness does not offend or hurt another’s feelings.
But it does enable you to take control of your life. It is empowerment. It gives you the ability to say NO. It prevents people from taking advantage of you or taking you for granted. And it generally commands respect.
Types of assertiveness
There are three styles of assertiveness. Passive, aggressive and assertive. The assertive style is what most of us should aim for. But it can be difficult for people to attain, especially if you are met with the aggressive style.
The passive style
The passive style of assertiveness tends to put the needs of others before their own. They may feel that they don’t have the right to be assertive. This may come from a feeling of inferiority. A result of bullying by others who believe they are more powerful or superior to them. Consequently they may feel that their needs are not as important as those of others.
They may feel it is too difficult to be assertive. Perhaps they believe that they are incompetent or weak. Or that their decisions will be ridiculed for being the wrong decision. They have such a poor sense of self that it is easier to let others make the decisions for them.
Often the passive person is a peacekeeper. Even though they may not be happy with the decisions made, it may seem easier just to go along with the decision. It keeps the peace rather than making a fuss. But over time, this can lead to resentment as the needs of that person are continually overlooked.
The passive person may have low self-esteem, struggle with depression or other emotional or physical complaints. This can compound the passive style. People are never at their most assertive when at a low ebb. It is so much easier to go with the flow.
Unfortunately, the passive style can lead to a loss of respect of those around them as they find it so difficult to stand up for themselves.
The aggressive style
The aggressive style stands up for the persons rights, but they can generally be pushy and inappropriate in their approach.
This style tends to offend the feelings of others, and ignore their rights. But they firmly believe in their own. They either don’t believe or forget that others rights are just as equal.
The aggressive style a strong need to compete or prove themselves. They feel they deserve more respect and attention of others. And in the presenting of their own needs, they lose sight of the needs of others.
They get their own way by treading on others, being rude, pushy or insulting. This may not be intentional, but it is hurtful. And their bullish manner can be very difficult to stand up to. Especially for the passive style person.
It is important to realise that some people who have the aggressive style believe that this is them just being assertive. Unless it can be pointed out that they are hurting feelings, being bullish or controlling, they may never realise they need to adjust their behaviour.
The assertive style
The assertive style recognises that they have rights, but also the rights of others. They are considerate of other’s feelings, and present their thoughts and opinions in a polite, but firm manner. They have a sense of give and take and are cooperative at times of conflict.
The assertive person is considered. They assess each scenario and choose the most appropriate behaviour for that situation. They recognise the need for give and take. Being considerate of another’s feelings means they can retreat when the other person is struggling, unwell or being difficult. But equally they can stand up for their rights and be strong.
Not only do they have respect for themselves and others, but this assertive style garners respect from others.
Assertiveness and the menopause
We all aspire to the Assertive style and it isn’t that difficult to get there, but it does take the support of those around you to help.
The people around me have a huge affect on my assertiveness. It took me a long time to realise this. And it takes a lot of strength to walk away from the people and the jobs that seek to diminish us.
This is especially important for women going through the menopause, when they find their assertiveness levels can ebb and flow sometimes daily.
You could have spent 30 years being the assertive member of the boardroom, only to find your confidence has been whipped out from under you. Suddenly, the thought of speaking up in front of anyone is horrifying. You are now that passive person that you always thought was weak. But now you understand that being assertive is actually a gift, a skill, a superpower and the menopause has become your kryptonite!
Or you may have been the mild-mannered peacemaker at home, navigating the needs of your partner and children. And suddenly the menopause has turned you into a crazed being. You are no longer able to compromise, instead thrusting your will in all directions and woe betide anyone who challenges you.
My menopause voice
As I said earlier, I was the passive style. A quiet child and reclusive teenager. Always the one to go along with things so as not to make a fuss.
It took me a very long time to find my voice, but even now, it struggles to hold its own if someone is shouting.
But my adult years have helped develop my voice. Its not always strong. I struggle on and off with depression which can suck out my assertiveness like Harry Potter dementors. And the menopause has been no less of a roller coaster.
Demoralised, demotivated and diminished
As I write this, it is 1 October 2020 (the year of COVID) and I am 10 monts into a new job. The previous two years had been a nightmare. Menopause and depression had me in its grip and my confidence was at an all time low.
I was making mistakes at work, feeling very fragile, and my voice and assertiveness were diminishing daily. Except for one spectacular day when I managed to speak up in a 1-2-1 meeting with my boss.
Each month these sessions just seemed to be a catalogue of my failings, despite positive feedback from my users. Despite being at a low ebb though, my assertive voice broke free.
I heard myself saying that these sessions left me feeling demoralised, demotivated and diminished. The complete opposite of their purpose. It took both of us by surprise. But it did open up a dialogue of how these sessions could be better. The result of which was to put in place measures that benefited not just me, but the rest of the team.
The right level of assertiveness
Not long after, I secured my new job. And thanks to the COVID lockdown, the world made working from home the norm.
This has been a huge boon for me, as it has helped me repair and regroup. And I have a fantastic team, people that I have selected, who support not just our users but each other.
I worried I wouldn’t cut it as a manager. “Imposter syndrome”* loomed large for a while as this role felt a far cry from anything I’d done before. But actually, I soon realised, I’d had had plenty of training from my Fundraising Coordinator role at CamSAR.
Drawing on this experience, and some wonderful help from a friend and mentor, I have found a mix of empathy along with the right level of assertive management has so far developed a good and motivated team.
My place of work offered courses on Team Leading and Assertiveness which I realised was building on values and skills I already had.
I began to realise, assertiveness is about confidence, about understanding what my values are and not letting others compromise them. Its about recognising the different assertiveness styles and actively working to shake off the passive.
I have learned recently that I have a phobia of shouting. Or more accurately I can’t tolerate loud sounds. Seems strange to only learn this now, but I it had never occurred to me. So, some tricks I’ve learned to being assertive in the face of aggression:
- I often find its easier to get distance between what is being said and when I respond. Often I will broach the subject when its all quietened down.
- Walk out of the room when there is loud noise. It stops people dead in their tracks. All their bluster goes. Then I can calmly explain that I struggle with loud noise, but will be willing to speak quietly later.
- Practice over and over what you would say in certain situations, so it feels natural to speak up at the time.
- Explain upfront that I’m nervous to raise the subject because I feel it will cause discord. But I would appreciate my being able to say my piece without interruption.
- Or, explain that what I’m about to say may come out wrong, but I’m just going to blurt it out and then would like to discuss it.
Being assertive in the face of the passive person is actually just as hard. Its really hard not to take advantage of their willingness to just blend in. I’ve been passive most of my life, so many of my tricks below are what I do to help others come out of their passive shell:
- It helps to get to know the person. Having 1-2-1 sessions over coffee, generally chatting – bit like on a date – will help you find out what makes that person tick. Then you will begin to know what they do enjoy and when they really are just going along for the ride.
- Be on their side. If you know that they won’t like something, step in. “I’m not sure that its something that “Freda” and I would enjoy. Perhaps we could try something else”. It will help the rest of the group remember that that person has a right to a voice and choice too. Be careful not to single them out though.
- To the answer of “I don’t mind”, I gently try to challenge the answer. “Of course you do. We all mind. This is more than just my day, its yours too.” This can take a long time to work, but gradually choices will start to be made.
- Provide a list of options that you know they will enjoy. Then share the decision of what you do. “If I choose to go to the seaside, what will you choose to do when we are there?”
The easiest way to be assertive is by pulling people along in the path of your enthusiasm. Being willing to get stuck in to even the most banal jobs breeds respect – never ask someone to do that which you aren’t willing to do yourself.
In the workplace, recognising the different assertive styles means I am clear about the kind of manager I want to be. But more importantly my team are clear on what I want from them.
I feel focused in presenting a style to which my team appear to respond and respect. And this in turn has garnered confidence in my everyday life.
Having said all this, I still struggle to be assertive against aggression. I don’t always get it right. My instinct sometimes is to want to tell someone exactly what I think of their negative behaviour, but won’t for fear of the reaction or hurting their feelings even when they have railroaded mine.
And so I walk away, regroup and try to think up different strategies that will get them doing what I need without compromising our respective values, losing tempers, appearing manipulative or letting them “get away” with their actions.
Imposter syndrome: the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.