How To Be Assertive—Even When You’re Constantly Talked Over
Assertive people seek out win-win scenarios and make their desires and beliefs known.
Aggressive people are hostile, adopting the “my way or the highway” stance. Passive people give up their power and are easily taken advantage of, which creates a surefire recipe for burnout and resentment. You want to be the happy medium—an assertive person.
Assertive people seek out win-win scenarios and make their desires and beliefs known. Confident and assured, they approach situations with a healthy dose of objectivity, and as a result, are able to communicate clearly and directly in a low-drama, self-respecting way.
Being assertive is effective. One Stanford study found that women who used confidence and assertiveness skills, combined with relationship-oriented traits like empathy, were promoted more often than women who used only relationship-oriented skills. They also advanced more quickly than men.
Unfortunately, women face barriers to projecting assertiveness at work. Messages from our families, schooling, and society urge women to be likable and agreeable, and this expectation helps create adouble bind: If a woman speaks up, she risks being called ”bitchy” or mean. However, if she stays quiet, then she may be overlooked for opportunities or cast as the office pushover.
Many women have stumbled upon tools like talking sticks or shine theory to get their voices heard. But what’s even more powerful than one-off tactics is developing communication skills to deal with common situations like advocating for your ideas in a meeting, asking for a raise, or managing up.
Here are techniques for speaking up, pushing back, and getting your voice heard more often.
Speak for yourself
When making a request or sharing your point of view, come from your own perspective. Use “I” statements to express yourself, such as:
- ”When we’re running behind I…”
- “I feel unappreciated when …”
- “I would like …”
- “My concern is …”
- “What I’d like to see happen is …”
Avoid blanket language like “it’s not fair” or “it always seems like you …” Using first-person statements helps you speak clearly and directly without arousing defensiveness or blaming others.
Some people assume that assertiveness is all about making demands, but it’s really a two-way dialogue. Confident communication is equal parts giving and receiving. In order to get what you want out of a situation, you have to understand where your counterpart is coming from.
“Reflecting” is an active listening skill that can help you have a healthy back-and-forth. When reflecting, you summarize and share what you believe the other person is saying (“What I’m hearing you say is …” or “It sounds to me like …”). This is a good way to seek clarification, confirm your understanding, or get more information.
Achieving a win-win scenario means acknowledging the perspectives of others and encouraging collaboration. You can do that through asking good open-ended questions such as:
- Can you tell me more?
- What do you mean?
- What would be helpful?
- What do you make of it?
- And then?
Use silence to control the conversation
Silence is another powerful, underutilized tool. When used correctly, strategic pauses can help you reclaim control of the conversation. If someone is lashing out at you in a meeting, for instance, take a deep breath and wait three to five seconds before responding. It can instantly stonewall the aggression.
Shut down mansplaining with “the broken record” technique
Stick to one firm, clear message, and repeat it if you have to. This is sometimes referred to as the “broken record technique,” especially when you have to assert yourself against someone who isn’t listening or who is an antagonistic mansplainer.
You might say:
- No, I’m not able to do that.
- That’s not relevant to the conversation.
- I’m speaking.
- I’d be happy to talk about this later.
- What we can do is …
You may have to reiterate these message multiple times, but your persistence and consistency sends a strong message. Remember, even if someone else is shaming you, you don’t have to explain, justify, or defend your thoughts and feelings. Don’t apologize for doing your job.
Find a workable compromise
Offer a workable compromise, or an alternate proposal of your own.
For example, if you need to assertively protect your time from someone who keeps dropping by your desk, you might say: “I understand that you’d like to talk right now. I need to finish what I’m doing. What about meeting in half an hour?”
If you’re interviewing for a job and the employer says your salary request is too high, you can keep the conversation moving forward by saying: “My goal is find a number that works for both of us. How can we get there?”
If you need to turn down a networking request or avoid someone who is trying to pick your brain for free, you can say: “I won’t be able to meet. Here are some resources to check out.”
Assertiveness can be uncomfortable. It brings up emotions we would rather avoid, like anger, jealousy, fear, and doubt. Avoiding difficult conversations, on the other hand, may feel good right now (even when it is ultimately damaging in the long term).
It takes courage to voice an unpopular opinion or advocate for yourself. But if you find you’re getting push back when you do, then that’s a great sign. Friction is evidence of change, and it’s necessary for both you and your organization to grow.
Melody Wilding is a high-performance coach, writer, and speaker.