Asking for what you want—and setting boundaries around what you don’t want—is a key life skill. But sometimes in our enthusiasm to practice this skill, we over-do our own assertiveness and end up with colleagues who shut down, get angry or feel resentful. Or, in our attempt to prove we are a ‘team player’ we fail to set, or stick to, our own boundaries. Here are some tips for developing your assertiveness in a way that will actually strengthen, deepen and enrich your relationships—thus avoiding the “alienation trap”:
Assertiveness is not aggressive or passive-aggressive. Assertiveness is simply asking for what you need in a cool, calm and collected manner. It isn’t showing your frustration, shouting or bullying. It isn’t becoming difficult to work with and sulking if you don’t get what you want. At work, the needs of the team should come before our own individual needs. Some things we may be able to get and some we may not. And we need to be OK with that.
Being assertive starts with knowing what you are—and aren’t—willing to be, do, or have. For many of us, coming to this knowledge is a real task unto itself. Here, it may be useful to ask: “In an ideal world, what would I like to happen?” Focusing on an ideal outcome opens our minds, prevents us from falling into passivity or “victim-thinking,” and helps us get really clear on what we want and don’t want. If you simply complain about what you don’t want you’re the office whiner and will become the problem. When setting your boundaries it’s important to make sure you clearly state what you do what to happen instead.
Once you know what outcome you need (or want), share it with your manager or colleagues. Pay attention to the way stating your boundary feels. At first you might stammer awkwardly or feel that you’re not being a team player. Phrases like “such and such doesn’t work for me” and stating what you’d like to happen instead, are simple ways of being assertive while maintaining connection with your colleagues. Remember, that at work we can ask for what we would like – but that doesn’t mean we are going to get it. But one thing is for sure, if you don’t ask you won’t get. At least, before you make any life-changing decisions you’ll know you gave it your best shot. Remember, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.
Make a Regular Habit of Stating Your Needs.
You can build your assertiveness the same way you build any muscle: exercise. Practice speaking up about your needs, big or small, on a daily basis. When you speak up about things that are less controversial—such as where to go to lunch, requesting help with that big project or not staying late when you already have plans—both you and your colleagues get used to your new-found assertiveness. It becomes easier for you to practice and for others to hear. Also, when bigger issues come along, you’ll already have a healthy process in place for dealing with differences in needs.
Give as Much as You Get.
Assertiveness is a two-way street. If you want your boundaries to be respected, you must return the courtesy to the team. If they need 30 minutes at the start of the day to plan, respect that. If they have helped you when you’ve needed it, return the favor. Even if they haven’t helped you in the past, model being a good team player and do what you can to assist. Actions really do speak louder than words.