Being unable to speak up at work can have long-lasting negative consequences. It can lead to stress, burnout, or render you almost invisible in a setting where promotions and raises depend on visibility.
When you’re assertive, you ask for what you need, you talk openly about what you want, and you recognize when someone is taking advantage of you. You can approach the things you do with confidence and make a direct impact on your environment. But this does not come easily for everyone.
There are two important components to becoming more assertive: (1) learning to treat yourself with respect, and (2) building communication skills.
1. Recognize Your Value
The first step toward becoming more assertive is nurturing a realistic and respectful perspective on your value as a person. Many people struggle with attribution problems—attributing their failures to internal flaws (“I’m just no good at this, no matter how hard I try”) and their successes to luck (“That went well because it was easier than everyone thought it would be”), contributing to gnawing self-doubt and potentially a sense of worthlessness.
Take a step back and think about what you contribute to your workplace. For now, try to quiet any internal criticism that wants to scrutinize your flaws, mistakes, and failures; those thoughts can evoke shame and cloud your ability to see your positive attributes. Take a balanced inventory of who you’ve been at work, noting both good things that you’ve done and anything you might want to improve.
2. Know Your Rights
Educate yourself on the things you’re entitled to in your workplace. The big wall of posted notices in your lunchroom, your employee policy manual, your job description—you might not know what’s in all of that available material, despite it having important information.
Learning to be assertive in your workplace includes learning the legal and ethical boundaries of what you can expect from your work environment. For example, if you find that you’re frustrated by being expected to work through lunch four times a week, this material can tell you if that expectation violates laws in your state, which can support your desire to stand up for what you need. If you are being harassed or subjected to mistreatment, there may be protections in place to help you. Knowledge can help empower you to seek what you need.
3. Know Your Boundaries
Learning and respecting your personal boundaries is an important step toward regulating stress and frustration. Taking on extra projects despite missing important family events, or continuing to answer work emails from your bed despite the interference with a proper night’s rest—burnout is made of these ingredients. Think about what you can realistically expect of yourself and respect your limitations. We are all bound by our humanness and by time; there is no getting around those things, even if deadlines are looming.
Everyone benefits from your direct communication. Being exhausted or resentful is not only miserable, it keeps you from performing at your best.
4. Prepare and Practice
First, prepare for being assertive at work in the safety of your journal, your therapy, or your close relationships. Imagine what it might be like to communicate something difficult to your coworker or your boss. Ask yourself the following questions: What is my goal? What do I want to say? How would I like to say it?
Act it out in your mind, playing out both the ideal scenario and the scenario that scares you the most. Try talking it through with a loved one who would be open to role playing. Say aloud what you would like to communicate at work. If you don’t, when the moment comes, your nerves might get you tongue-tied and it can feel easier to give up. Consider the things that are often difficult for you to say (for example, “No, I can’t,” or, “That makes me uncomfortable”) and rehearse them for future use.
5. Learn the Difference Between Assertive and Aggressive
Many people quiet their voices because they have come to believe that speaking up is synonymous to being bossy, pushy, or disrespectful of other people. Being assertive does not have to be any of those things; it only means to value your own thoughts, feelings, and voice as well as those of others.
You can continue to be a kind, likable person while communicating directly. Assertive communication doesn’t look to bulldoze over other people (that would be aggressive communication). Its goal is to create the best outcome for you in cooperation with the others in your workplace. “I disagree with that” is assertive and honest, and it opens up further conversation to move toward resolution. “What kind of stupid idea is that?” is aggressive and minimizing, and it shuts down conversation.
6. Keep Growing
The more you learn and grow, the more connected you can feel to your skills and your knowledge. Confidence is rooted in knowing yourself, your value, and the things you can offer to the world around you. Continue to cultivate your career, and acknowledge how your efforts and strengths bring benefits to your work environment.
Have patience with yourself as you make these changes. You may stumble through difficult conversations or lose nerve at the last moment. That’s OK—many new things are hard at first, and building a direct communication style is a process.
If you find that being assertive is particularly difficult, you can also address the issue through assertiveness training programs, group psychotherapy, or individual psychotherapy.
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