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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Aug 19, 2018

This week we’re looking at assertiveness - what it is and how we can build it in ourselves and in others.

Welcome to episode six of the Leadership Today podcast. Each week we provide practical advice to address some of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we’re looking at assertiveness - what it is and how we can build it in ourselves and in others.

Assertiveness is one of those areas that people often receive feedback about - “you need to become more assertive” someone helpfully tells you. However people often don't know what to do with that feedback.  What would it mean for me to be more assertive, and how do I build my assertiveness?

We often assume that being more assertive is just about being more confident, or sticking up for ourselves, or being a bit more pushy. But the key to developing assertiveness often lies in more deeply understanding the other person’s perspective. This can seem a little counterintuitive though - isn’t investing more time into understanding the other person’s perspective making us less assertive?

Well another way of thinking about assertiveness is to consider what a truly assertive conversation would look like. It wouldn’t necessarily be aggressive, or pushy, or one sided. In fact, an assertive conversation would be one where both people have their perspectives on the table, and are then actively engaged in taking things forward. 

Assertiveness isn’t about me winning and you losing - it’s about both of us understanding where the other person is coming from, and then working together on a way forward.

To help illustrate, I’d like you to picture a horizontal line. At the left end of the line is a position we could describe as ‘passive’ - where I approach the conversation 100% interested in your perspective, and 0% interested in sharing my own perspective. In the passive position, the balance of interests is completely weighted towards the other person.

At the right end of the line is a position we’ll call ‘aggressive’ - that’s where I approach the conversation with 0% interest in your perspective, and 100% invested in sharing my own perspective. In the aggressive position I’m not even listening to you, and the balance of interests is completely weighted towards my own needs. 

It’s important to recognise that neither of these positions is assertive - passive is not assertive, and aggressive is not assertive. What’s needed is a balance in the interests and needs between the two or more parties involved.

Assertiveness is about ensuring my needs and interests are 100% on the table, and that your needs and interests are also 100% on the table. It’s only in this balance that assertiveness is achieved. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that we will agree with each other, but that’s not what assertiveness is about. Assertiveness is ensuring we’re clear on everyone’s positions and we can tackle differences as a shared problem.

Here’s an example. 

I’ve setup a regular meeting with my team that happens on the first Tuesday of every month at 2pm. I’ve set this meeting up as a priority, emphasising the importance of keeping it at the same time, and not shifting it. People can dial into the meeting, but the meeting time is going to stay at the same time every time, at least through to the end of this quarter. Things have been going well for the first couple of months, with attendance and engagement at the meetings improved. People are appreciating the meeting being kept as a priority.

Then, in the lead up to the fourth meeting, I notice that a fundraising afternoon tea has been proposed for the first Tuesday of next month at, well you guessed it, 2pm. 

In this example, a passive approach would be to cancel or reschedule my own meeting - to put my own interests at 0%, and the interests of the person organising the afternoon tea at 100%. In contrast, an aggressive approach would be to tell my team members that they’re not even allowed to attend the afternoon tea, and still hold my meeting at the same time. I’m sure you’ll agree that neither of those approaches sounds optimal.

An assertive approach would involve meeting with the person responsible for scheduling the afternoon tea. I could initially point out the clash in times, but then spend the first part of the conversation finding out more about the fundraiser and what they’re hoping to achieve. I could then share my vision for the regular meetings I’m having with my team. 

Now, in a perfect world, the other person might shift their fundraiser to another time, and I might be able to help promote the event with my team - that would be a win win. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Perhaps the person has already ordered catering for that time, or prepared flyers to hand out. Remember, assertiveness isn’t about always getting our way - it’s about getting all the information out from both perspectives. If the clash can’t be resolved, I may still choose to move the meeting time for this month. But at least I have been assertive. 

However the situation plays out, we all walk away understanding each others’ perspectives.

I hope that discussion about assertiveness was helpful. If you’re normally more towards the passive end of the line, this week you might make an additional effort to have your needs and interests tabled. And if you’re normally at the aggressive end of the line, you might want to spend more time trying to understand the other person’s perspective and how your interests may actually be aligned.

In next week's episode of the podcast we're going to be talking influencing. And if you are enjoying the podcast, remember to recommend it to your friends as well - I really appreciate it.