Three Steps to a New Assertive You

I sat at my desk, fiddling with my pen, clicking the ballpoint in and out repeatedly. Anyone who knew me would have read that as a sure sign of agitation. I tapped the keys of my keyboard and glanced at the clock repeatedly, trying to be obvious – but not TOO obvious (that would be rude) – while my colleague from accounting chattered on, even though I’d answered her only question several minutes previously. I’d tried the usual tactics (“Well, thanks.” “Look at the time!” “Don’t you have to get back to…”) without success.

I never hope for phone calls (I hate phone calls), but now I prayed the phone would ring, because that would give me an excuse to end the exchange and get back to the emails, instant messages, and general work that I knew was piling up while she told me about teaching her dog to use the toaster. I think. I’d honestly quit listening. What finally saved me was someone else appearing who had not yet heard her riveting tale of canine/appliance adventure.

If you’re reading this article, you’ve experienced something similar before. Lots of people have. You know how I know? Search “how to be assertive” on the web and see how many results you get. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Or, I can save you the drama. You’ll get more than seven MILLION results. Crazy, right? Not really.  See, being assertive is one of those things that is really hard to accomplish. It’s that magical sweet spot between pushy and passive, and there’s a perception that you have to be a communication Zen master to manage it.

But while assertiveness can be challenging to achieve, like many things it gets easier with practice. I’ve learned a few things since that fateful dog-and-toaster day, including a few tips and tricks to for assertive communication. Since we’re all about making things easy for you, here are my favorites – the top three.

Number One: Know What You Want

One of the biggest obstacles to assertiveness is that people don’t really know what they want. In the scenario above, I wasn’t being honest with myself about my goals. My number one goal was to get back to work.  I let that get muddied up with not wanting to hurt my colleague’s feelings. The truth is that we’re all adults, and if you conduct yourself with grace and professionalism, no one’s feelings should get hurt. It’s difficult to do in the moment, so make sure you have your goals for the day firmly in mind at the outset so that when those interruptions come, you know where your priorities lie. That way, when faced with having to choose between your work and your colleague’s dog and toaster story, you’re prepared.

Number Two: Be Direct

There’s a big difference between being rude and being direct. Being direct means that you convey your message clearly, leaving no room for confusion with regard to your motives or meaning. If people choose to be upset or offended, that’s on them – not you. For example, in the scenario above, I could have waited for my colleague to take a breath, and then said, “I am really behind on a couple of projects, and I don’t have a second to spare right now. I need to get back to work until I’m caught up, but I would love to hear about your dog and the toaster over lunch in the break room!” Of course you should only say you want to hear their story if you mean it. In this case, I would mean it. Under other circumstances, a story about dog using a home appliance would be pretty astounding. I’m hoping there’s video.

Number Three: Look Confident

So you know what you want, and you have the right words. Now you just need to sell the message. See, sometimes it’s not enough just to say something. Remember how I said that I had tried to end the conversation by talking about wanting to get back to work and mentioning the time? The problem wasn’t just that my words were wishy-washy, but that my tone and body language lacked conviction. Assertiveness has a certain “look” about it. Assertiveness sits and stands up straight. It makes eye contact. It doesn’t cross its arms or fidget (I mentioned I was fidgeting too, right?).

It turns out that I was wrong. The dog hadn’t learned to use the toaster – just the toaster oven (heck, my cat can do that, so….). But I still got to have a nice chat with my friend over lunch. We’ve since worked out the best times for her to come to my desk, so there aren’t nearly as many interruptions. You can find the same kind of success if you practice these tips and make them yours. Now, if you’ll excuse me, a guy from IT is standing behind me with what he claims is a riveting tale about his guinea pig and a waffle iron. Practice makes perfect…