Learning to be assertive: Finding the balance between aggressive and submissive behaviour

Bournemouth-based trainer Chris Croft delivers assertiveness training on Lynda.com
Bournemouth-based trainer Chris Croft delivers assertiveness training on Lynda.com

Assertiveness can make or break social situations, whether we are dealing with people one-to-one or in groups. Chris Croft discusses how to avoid being aggressive or submissive, and presents some assertiveness techniques to help find a perfect balance. 

Good leadership, time management and giving a good presentation all require assertiveness. It is a hard skill to master, and it does not always come naturally.

Faced with difficult situations, it can seem as though we have two options: either to be overly aggressive or to be too submissive and passive.

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This article is based on an online course on lynda.com. Personnel Today readers can watch Chris Croft’s training course for free until the end of July 2015.

Click here to watch the full course

Both have perceived pay-offs that are quite tempting. But they are only perceived benefits.

We tend to think that if we are aggressive, then other people will bend to our will, and we will get what we want. This can sometimes work, but all too often it does not and the other person will fight back.

What about being a submissive type? Here, the perceived pay-off is that you will have an easy life and you will be liked. But bottling your opinions up can add to stress and you will never get closure on problems that may arise.

So what can we do? One of the first things to consider is that we can stand up for our rights. But we also need to ensure that we respect the rights of other people and to see things from their point of view.

Lose/lose behaviour

There is one other path that we could take when faced with a challenging situation, and that is to be passive-aggressive. However this is not a happy halfway point, but nearly always a lose-lose situation.

An example of this type of behaviour would be: a woman bought her first new car and drove to the supermarket. When she got there, she pulled up next to a Rolls-Royce, and the driver slammed her door into the side of her new car. The other driver did not notice the huge dent she had made and walked into the supermarket.

What would you do? You could be passive and think, “Ugh, typical bad luck.” Or you could be aggressive and shout at the woman, “You’ve ruined my car!”

Of course, the best option is to be assertive and say, “Excuse me, you probably didn’t notice, but you’ve just dented my car. Would you be able to pay for it?”

The worst option is to be passive-aggressive, as this lady was. She got out her car keys and went up and down the side of the Rolls-Royce, creating a scratch down the bodywork.

This does not help anybody. Her new car has still got a dent, and now the Rolls-Royce is damaged too. A common work example of passive-aggressive behaviour would be criticising people behind their back – being aggressive without confronting them directly.

Dealing with challenging situations

There are ways that we can change the way we deal with these types of situations and become more assertive.

For example, if someone puts us down verbally, that is a form of aggression. But there is no need to bite back aggressively. Speaking calmly to them or telling them why this is upsetting is a good example of being assertive.

Another technique is to use questions to clarify the situation. So, if someone says that they do not like the new computer system, you should ask them why. If they say it is because the screen gives them a headache, then you could ask if there are any other reasons.

With any assertiveness situation, there are two levels to choose from. There is confronting the one-off action, and then, if that does not work after you have tried it several times, you can confront the other person with their bad habit.

So, if someone has a habit of interrupting you while you are working, you could challenge them on each instance (“Sorry, I’ve got to go”) or instead address the behaviour with something like: “Have you noticed that you tend to interrupt? I’m really funny about people interrupting me.”

Ignoring the habit or making excuses may be kinder in the short term, but in the long run you will be doing everyone a favour.

Choosing your language carefully in difficult situations will also have an impact on the outcome. I recommend this four-step process:

  • I understand;
  • I feel;
  • I want; and
  • Is that OK?

So dealing with that interruption situation might go like this. Rather than saying “go away, I’m busy” say “I understand how urgent this is, but I just feel a bit under pressure at the moment.”

Then “I need [want] to get this report done by lunch time. Maybe we could talk this afternoon? Would that be OK?”

Do not forget that it is never too late to go back. Sometimes you wish you had said something at the time, but you missed the chance. The good news is that you can always go back and have another go.

The next step is to think about your own situation and try out some of these techniques. Pick your most difficult work colleague and make a plan for how you are going to use this new material to handle that person better.

Personnel Today readers can watch Chris Croft’s
training course, and two others, on lynda.com for free until the end of July 2015.
Click here to watch the full course

Chris Croft

About Chris Croft

Chris Croft is a management trainer, speaker and author at Chris Croft Training.
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