Assertiveness: a Misunderstood Strength

By Nick Tubach, MBA PCC. 

Being assertive is just an expression of your worth and, in the context of leadership, can help you create a collaborative and inquisitive team dynamic. Uncovering the “what ifs” often lead to positive and sometimes transformational change. So why does assertiveness often feel like a taboo?

Imagine if you, as a leader, influencer, spouse, friend, etc. could significantly improve the effectiveness of your conversations in support of a greater good. This article highlights specific, immediate steps anyone can take to re-think what it means to be assertive and, as a result, intentionally engage with almost anyone at a much deeper level.

Our ability to really connect with others is significantly impacted by our understanding of each other’s intent, needs, reasoning, etc. We can’t read minds, yet our behavior often seems to suggest we believe we and others can do just that. Mind reading is one of those cognitive distortions, unfortunately accompanied by the side-effect of significantly impeding our ability to have a more meaningful dialogue beyond the spoken word. After all, there is what we say, what we don’t say, what we think, how we feel, and our body language. They all play a role, and since the spoken word often represents much less than half the story and what’s really going on, it leaves us and our effort to connect with others at an obvious disadvantage. 

So Why Aren’t We More Assertive? 

Have you ever noticed how the thought of being assertive can induce this pit-in-our-stomach feeling or adrenaline rush, like we are about to enter a war zone? It can feel negative, awkward, or sometimes even aggressive. I conducted a simple one-question study with a few dozen coaching clients. I asked, “What are the first words you think of when I say you need to be more assertive?” The typical responses were: aggressive, competition, win/lose, I have to have answers, prove I’m smarter, I’m judging, I’m being judged. All these inner narratives (assumptions and beliefs) have one thing in common: they are anxiety inducing. No wonder assertiveness often leads to less-than-ideal outcomes and some people avoid it, altogether.

Reframing Assertiveness

The beauty about assertiveness, or as I like to call it, being “tactfully transparent,” is that it can help eliminate doubt, uncertainty, mind-reading, and all those things which contribute to us making incorrect assumptions or jumping to conclusions. Try viewing assertiveness as nothing more than ensuring both sides have all the datapoints they need to have a more effective dialogue. A simple way to do this is to replace our inner, negative narratives about assertiveness and replace them with factually positive assumptions and beliefs which help create our authentic desire to lean into our conversations and, dare I say, be more assertive. For example, highlight a belief in your ability to connect with the other party and that making progress is dependent upon them knowing your rationale, intent, motives, etc, and vice versa.

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When to be Assertive (aka Tactfully Transparent)

Assertiveness ensures nobody must read minds or make assumptions. Sure, there may be instances when being “a bull in a china shop” is, in fact, what needs to happen. Mostly, however, this is not the case. Let’s delve into when it might make sense to lean into our conversations a little bit more than to what we have been accustomed. When you do it right, it will help create a collaborative environment, encouraging everyone to lean in more. It also can help eliminate the idea it’s a competition or jockeying for position. 

Perspective (opinion). When we don’t agree with someone, our typical MO might be to “give our opinions” and, in the process, make it clear we don’t agree with the other person. It’s amazing how humility can go a long way here. Humility enables you to remain curious regardless of what you know or think you know. The next time you don’t agree with someone, try sharing your perspective, instead of your opinion. It could be a very simple tweak. “I’m likely looking at this from a different perspective. Here is what I am seeing.” Notice the absence of the word “but!”

Thought process (explain the journey). Often what comes out of our mouth is preceded by significant mental gymnastics to help us land where we are. The persons listening to you are not able to benefit from what happened in your head prior to what came out of your mouth. I’m not suggesting context is always important. However, it is important to recognize when sharing context our thought process can benefit the conversation. This is what I refer to as “taking someone on your journey.” Help them understand how you’ve landed where you did so they can better appreciate what it is you are trying to convey.      

Observation (“double click”). This one is a pet peeve of mine and I’m partially looking in the mirror as I write this. Have you ever been in a meeting, and you notice the dynamics are off? Maybe the group waits for a person to leave, before they say something like, “Man, that was awkward,” or “What got into Billy?” Yet nobody does anything with what could be an incredibly valuable datapoint. This applies to any observation you have about anything unfolding before your eyes. There is a likely deeper meaning, yet we just focus on what happens at the surface. My advice? Tactfully (without accusations) share what you are observing and lean in to collectively explore what is going on and what can be done. 

Clarification. This is a rather simple and easy-to-execute concept. If someone says something and you are not 100% certain about what they said, or meant, synthesize your understanding to help clarify. This has the additional benefit of making it clear you were listening, making the other person feel heard.

Intent (yours or others). We’ve all had instances where we are wondering “Where is he going with this?” Stop wondering and ask, or tell, depending on which side you are. In a group conversation, it’s valuable for everyone to know in the beginning where you are trying to go by the end of the conversation, so all parties can focus on what they are saying and asking in the proper and focused context.

Other Tactics to Keep in Mind

  • Avoid conversation killers — @Marshall Goldsmith has taught many of us about the three conversation killers: “however,” “but,” and “no.” Here is a reminder. 
  • Replace “why” with “what” and “how” — I propose to add “why” to our list of conversation killers. I’ve written in more detail ( how “why” often implies or feels the presence of judgement, causing negative emotions to surface, inhibiting our ability to remain objective. If you are trying to create a “leaning in” dynamic, try using “what” and “how”.
  • Solution vs problem focused — Whether the context is self or with others, asking “what +1” looks like tends to be a much more productive conversation than “why did -1 happen.” Here is an article which focuses on this. 
  • Listen deeply — It’s not just what someone says, sometimes, their body language or what they don’t say, is more telling.

Speaking of effectively connecting with others, remember the wise words of Maya Angelou.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said,
people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

Like my dad always said, “the tone makes the music.” When connecting with others, it’s all about the dynamics we help create. Next time you want to encourage others to leaning-in in support of a dynamic which facilitates collaboration and critical thinking, what is the first thing you will do differently? 

In one of my next articles, I will focus on how emotional intelligence comes into play in this equation. For more about leadership, communication, and how executive coaching can help, schedule a consultation with Nick.