Applying Assertiveness in the Workplace – A Practical Guide for Business Analysts

by Michael Weuffen,

Business Analysts Pty Ltd Consultant

 

Part 1 of 3

It is a paramount responsibility of the consulting business analyst to constantly strive to understand and deliver to customers’ expectations. As soon as you say ‘that stakeholder is just difficult’ or ‘the PM has unreasonable expectations’, and you haven’t had a proactive conversation with that stakeholder to address that conflict or expectation, you are failing to discharge your primary responsibility, both as a consultant and as a Business Analyst.

1) What is Assertiveness?

At one time or another we have all been advised that we should be more or less assertive. But what exactly is assertiveness? Assertiveness is a communication style. It refers to an ability to express your feelings, thoughts, beliefs or opinions in an open manner that doesn’t violate the rights of others. Human communication occurs on a continuum from passive, through assertive, to aggressive. Passive behaviour places you and your employer in a vulnerable position. When being passive, you may be failing to express relevant concerns or contain unreasonable demands. Equally, being aggressive is disrespectful and can close lines of communication. Both place you in the unenviable position where failure is a very real possibility.

In contrast, assertiveness is located between these communication dichotomies. Here, your actions and words facilitate engagement, embracing honest and respectful communication, which is essential for all successful programs of work.

 

Figure 1: Assertiveness Model

 

2) Assertiveness: A communication style

Assertiveness is a learned behaviour and thinking style. We are born assertive. Infants cry when they need something. Over time, they adapt their behaviour to fit in with responses they receive from their environment. As we mature, we increasingly adapt and comply with social norms. If your family taught you that you should always please others before yourself, then you may find it hard to be assertive about your needs. If your family or cultural group believe that you shouldn’t express negative emotions, then you will learn not to express negative emotions. Becoming self-aware of your learned communication and behavioural responses is the first step in becoming appropriately assertive.

 

3) Barriers to becoming assertive

Let us explore self-beliefs which prevent many of us from improving our assertive communication skills. Deficits in assertive communication skills are often related to limiting self-beliefs.

Belief 1: “Assertiveness is being aggressive”

Some people who are aggressive think they are being assertive because they are articulating their needs. It is true that both assertive and aggressive communication involves stating your needs; however, there are very important differences between stating your needs assertively and stating them aggressively. There are differences in the words used, the tone taken, and the body language used.

Belief 2: “I will get what I want as long as I am assertive”

Being assertive does not mean that you always get what you want. In fact, being assertive is not a guarantee of any outcome at all. This self-belief often results in an aggressive and dogmatic style. Being assertive is about expressing yourself in a manner that respects both your personal goals and the needs of others. You may get what you require but sometimes you need to come to a mutually satisfactory compromise.

Belief 3: “I have to be assertive in every situation”

Understanding how to be assertive provides you with the choice of when and how to be assertive. It does not mean you have to be assertive in every situation. You may come to the realisation in certain situations that being assertive is not helpful. For example, if someone is very angry, then being passive at that time may be beneficial. Understanding your emotional reactions will assist you to make responses that are considered and situationally appropriate. “Diplomacy is more than saying or doing the right things at the right time, it is avoiding saying or doing the wrong things at any time.” – Bo Bennett.

Belief 4: “I’m not skilled enough to be assertive”

Self-defeating beliefs are disablers. We might have unrealistic beliefs and negative self-statements about being assertive, our ability to be assertive, or the things that might happen if we are assertive. This is often a major cause of acting non-assertively. For example: “If I am assertive, I might damage my working relationship with my client.” If you are unable to be assertive, you are reducing communication with your client and missing opportunities to improve outcomes. Part two of this blog will provide some simple methods to help improve your skills.

Belief 5: “I am too anxious or stressed”

It may be that we know how to be assertive, but we get so anxious that we find we can’t carry out the behaviour. We may be so stressed that it becomes difficult to think and act clearly. We need to learn how to manage our anxiety and reduce the physical stress in our bodies. The Australian Psychological Society online is a great stating point for improving stress management. You should also speak to your supervisor. Cognitive Rehearsal (Section 5) will also assist with self-management.

Belief 6: “Assertiveness is not viewed favourably in my culture”

There can also be strong cultural and generational influences on our behaviour. If you are from one of these cultures, or if you are working with people of these cultures, it is important to weight up the pros and cons about being assertive in each situation. You may find that the pros of working within cultural values outweigh the pros of being assertive. Older generations may also find it difficult to be assertive. Men were once taught that it was weak to express their emotions and women were taught that it was aggressive to state their needs or opinions. Lifelong beliefs such as these can be difficult to modify, but with identification of these beliefs and some effort, we can all grow.

 

4) Assertiveness in the workplace

“Ours is a world where people don’t know what they want and are willing to go through hell to get it.” – Don Marquis

There is no doubt balancing the needs and desires of our customers is a challenge, particularly as a Consultant, where we not only represent ourselves, but also our employer. Beyond maintaining personal and professional integrity, we must ensure that the scope of commercially agreed deliverables is maintained, and scope creep minimised. However, we must also ensure that the customer is satisfied with our deliverables and is ultimately satisfied by our service. One of our core values of our company is to meet agreed expectations which takes considerable amount of assertiveness, communication, iterative confirmation, influence, confidence in our methods, tools, techniques, and experience and humility.

Here, the value of assertive communication cannot be underestimated. Assertive communication will keep communication flowing, reduce misunderstandings and result in better outcomes.

So, you may ask…how do I act more assertively?

 

5) Becoming more assertive

“The only war is within. When you are ready to fight it, the field awaits.”― Agnostic Zetetic

How do I change my thinking?

First, change your thinking. Identifying your unhelpful beliefs is the first step towards changing them. In fact, for some people, just realising that they have been thinking this way can be enough to help them change and think in a different way.

However, for most people, just realising they have been thinking in an unhelpful way isn’t enough to change the thinking. In Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), one way of addressing unhelpful thoughts is to challenge them head on. This is also called disputation. Challenging or disputation works on the principle that most of our thoughts and behaviours are based on learned beliefs, rather than facts. This means that they can (and shoud) be questioned, rather than just blindly accepted, particularly if they are causing us distress.

To challenge or dispute your thoughts requires you examine the evidence for and against the thoughts. You evaluate them as if you were a detective or a lawyer. You are trying to get to the bottom of the truth of the thought.

Cognitive Rehearsal

Cognitive Rehearsal is possibly the simplest method of CBT which can be applied without a therapist. To apply this technique, recall a problematic situation from your past. Think about how it could have been managed differently. Mentally rehearse positive outcomes; rehearsing positive thoughts helps change your thought processes. The power of imagination proves to be of huge value when you are doing this type of exercise.

Example: My colleague was angry and started picking on me. I got angry and told them to go away. They told me to go away, so I told them to grow up. We didn’t speak for the next week, which slowed down the project.

Thinking differently: My colleague appeared angry. Instead of ignoring them, I asked if there was anything I could do to help. I asked them if they were okay. They disclosed that that had a problem at home. Their anger was in fact a materialisation of stress. Conversation opened the way to a collaborative discussion.

 

Conclusion

In part one of this assertiveness blog, we have introduced the concept that assertiveness is a communication style. The goal is to keep two-way communication open, resulting in positive outcomes for ourselves, our employer and our clients. We learnt that we may have limiting self-beliefs and learned behaviours which prevent us from improving our assertive communication skills. Assertive behaviours must also be considered in a cultural context. Not all techniques are appropriate for each consultant or client in every circumstance.

We also learnt that self-refection is the first step to thinking differently. Challenge or dispute your thoughts to determine facts rather than opinions and emotional reactions. Spend some time deconstructing negative interactions and rehearse different behaviours, which will improve the quality of your communication with others.

Once we have established the right mind-set, we are ready to develop practical skills. In the next part of this blog we will explore some useful assertiveness techniques. These techniques can be used across a wide range of situations and will help us to think differently about how we engage with others.

 

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