(or, What Assertiveness Is and Isn’t)

Continued from Fill the Damn Silence pt. 1

Assertiveness is a skill rarely taught, yet is such a powerful tool in terms of stopping resentment and frustration before it even starts. The key is, it needs to stem from your GPS-informed perspective. Assertiveness needs to help support your overall goal, and, if you’re relatively passive and introverted like me, channeling the self-confidence piece is also essential. Self-confidence says you know you know you have a right to say what you want to say, but doesn’t foster defensiveness that cause the words to be perceived as an attack.

Thinking about the long standing communication issues with my boss, I could have utilized self-confidence, and gone to him saying something like, “You said this the other day, now you’re saying this, how do these work together?”

Even before it got to that level, the GPS skill could provide enough objective perspective to lead me to ask something like “it sounds like you’re giving me more responsibility, does that mean there’s more autonomy or is the current reporting structure and style remaining the same?” Then, if things were to arise after that conversation, i.e. going back and forth on expectations, I would have had clear ground to point out those discrepancies or show him how I understood navigating more responsibility with the same amount of oversight.

Overall, assertiveness is driven by the goal. In the blog a few weeks ago, Christina’s goals didn’t really connect with assertively calling out sexism; she simply wanted to do her job and complete the tasks at hand.

In the situation with my boss, I didn’t use my assertiveness skills at all. I sat in countless meetings, bending to his every whim and will. I consistently turned my work plan upside down because my understanding was that he was still “The Boss”.

I sat quiet, leaving silence in the air and him with the only option of filling in that silence with his thoughts and ideas for what was going on (or not going on in this case). This didn’t help matters by any means. I had a number of things to say, but I didn’t want to appear rude or challenging. He saw me as someone disengaged and checked out. And, truth be told, after a while, I was. Recently, things have started to get better, but the damage and burnout is still there. He asked me my thoughts about new changes, and I couldn’t provide more than a couple reflective statements because I’m still crawling out of the ashes of the last few months.

So, how do you try and avoid the damage that passiveness can cause?

In short, it’s all about owning your stuff, not putting it on the other, and maintaining respect. Here are the 4 basic steps to assertively communicating, which will drastically reduce defensiveness and the likelihood of additional conflict developing.


Ask if the person has time and willingness to talk. You don’t want to launch into a delicate conversation when the other party has pressing items. If you’re bringing up items you’ve noticed, and think examples but the person you’re speaking with doesn’t ask for examples, take a moment and ask if you could provide one or two instances about the behavior to which you’re referring.

Be a little self-centered.

Use “I statements”. I statements can be a saving grace, especially when we’re dealing with ego.

  • “I’m confused, you said X yesterday, now you’re saying Y today. Can you help me understand?”
  • “I think this initiative needs to be a primary focus...I’m open to your thoughts and feedback”
  • “I don’t feel strongly either way, but on one hand _____, and on the other ____”

All of these sound significantly better with “I” in front instead of simple statements which suddenly become more harsh.

Stay away from extremes.

We’re all living in the grey which makes black and white statements hard to hear. Even if you hedge a statement that uses words such as “always” or “never” with “I think/I feel” it’s very likely going to trigger defensiveness. Use hedge words and be ready to give examples.

“I think you have a tendency to redirect the team without taking time to see how things will play out.” *wait for a response. Then, if asked, you can provide examples such as “Well, last week our focus was this, and considering response time from others, it makes sense not much tangible progress has been made. I think giving it one or two more days may be a reasonable option.”

I would strongly caution against making a statement about tendencies or habits then jumping into examples, nor matter how well cushioned, it’s likely the person may feel attacked. Just be ready in case someone explicitly asks for instance., and be tactful if asked. Which brings me to my third point

Actively listen to what is said.

It’s called communication for a reason. Even if you use the three tips above, and don’t listen to the response, it will go nowhere really fast. Sometimes, we may instantly react to words that are said, but stay present in the moment, and if you’re confused by a statement, repeat what you heard and ask if you heard it right. Then listen some more. It’s not fair to ask if someone is open to a discussion if you’re not open to truly engaging and would rather just tell them everything you think is wrong. If you’re not in a space to hear the person’s response, you’re not in a place to have a conversation just yet.