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Home : Media : News
NEWS | April 21, 2023

Learning to be assertive at work can result in more open, direct communication with both coworkers and leadership

By Aime Lykins, PSNS & IMF Public Affairs

In large organizations, such as Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility, where complex projects are being executed simultaneously, workplace assertiveness and transparent communication are vital to realizing a team's or project’s full potential.

 Assertiveness in the workplace aids with open, direct communication with coworkers and leadership. Practicing assertiveness can mitigate misunderstandings, while building trust in relationships and establishing credibility. Exercising assertiveness means being positive and confident when communicating opinions, suggestions, challenges and desires and engaging in negotiations. Key traits of assertiveness include being respectful, honest, concise, and receptive to open dialog.

Researchers from Columbia University and Northwestern University, published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass Volume 1, posit that people judge their own and others’ behaviors along a spectrum of possible responses ranging from avoidance and accommodation, to competition and aggression. Interpersonal assertiveness reflects the degree to which someone stands up and speaks out for their own viewpoints when faced with someone who does not want the same outcomes.

So the questions remain: how hard and when should someone push to get their way? The answer to the questions of when and how hard to push varies depending on the situation. However, several factors come into play, such as motivation, values, personal awareness, expectations, mental models of conflict, and self and emotional regulation in areas such as fear, anger and embarrassment. Before acting, most people imagine the outcomes of various behaviors — such as being highly assertive or accommodating — and then choose how to behave on the basis of these expectations, regardless of whether these predictions are correct or not. Elements of practicing positive interpersonal assertiveness include:

Asking- Some individuals struggle with initiating difficult conversations, constructive conflicts, negotiations, or even asking for help and support. This reluctance can often be traced to feelings of apprehension or intimidation, including concerns about others' negative reactions. As such, skills training and role-play practice can be effective in building confidence.

Asking for the right amount- Assertive proposals and statements can anchor a negotiation in one's favor, but beyond some threshold, overly bold, assertive or aggressive communication can backfire. Pinpointing that threshold is challenging. Precise questions and opinions are more meaningful than round, nonspecific statements, in part because they are seen as more credible and grounded in deliberation. Using precise statements without being able to provide a compelling explanation for them risks losing credibility or even evoking backlash. Threats and bullying should not be mistaken for assertiveness as they are not respectful or conducive to positive relationships or professional negotiations.

Asking in the right way- The overarching framing of a request or negotiation can shape reactions and outcomes. It is important to identify communication barriers that may be in the way before starting a difficult conversation, negotiations or asking for help. Common barriers include physical barriers, attitudes and emotions, language, cultural differences, information overload, and jumping to conclusions. Asking the right way involves knowing the right time to respectfully ask for engagement. Like many things in life, timing plays a role in effective communication and negotiations.

Compromising wisely- The framing of compromise has effects on outcomes and relationships. For instance, giving a coworker credit for compromising may help preserve positive relationships, allowing for future, candid dialog and negotiations. Framing compromise in a win-lose construct can be detrimental to healthy workplace relationships.

Saying no- Many people are reluctant to reject others' requests, especially when they are seen as pleas for help. As a result, most people can think of times when they said yes but wish they had asserted themselves and said no. Occasionally there is an agreement bias when an individual accepts a deal that is worse than the alternative because they feel an obligation to the coworker who is asking. Teaming up with others can sometimes mitigate agreement bias, suggesting that there may be value in consulting others or seeking advice before saying yes to a substantial request.

Listening- For some people, asserting themselves revolves primarily around verbally making a case, sometimes relentlessly and forcefully. However, listening can play a significant role in influencing others. Listening behavior yields both informational benefits (e.g., better understanding a coworker’s position and how to persuade them) and relational benefits (e.g., coworkers have more trust for those who listen to them and are therefore more readily persuaded by them). As such, one approach to being effectively assertive may be to not only listen to a coworker’s perspective, but to also let them feel heard.

Developing assertiveness and improving negotiation skills at work may be easier for some than others, but everyone can learn thanks to PSNS & IMF’s Command Career Center, Command University and the Command Counseling Program. These three programs are designed to help employees develop personally and professionally as well as contribute to the success of the organization.

To learn more: To see a full menu of Command University services and classes, visit the Code 1180 SharePoint page or call 360-627-6262. Employees can also visit the Mental Health and Well-Being Community of Practice SharePoint page to learn more about the Command Counseling Program.