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Work & Life
April 5, 2021
Tips For Making Assertive Requests

Julia Loewi

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Assertive Communication

Have you ever been given a work assignment late on a Friday with a Monday morning deadline?

Maybe you spent the whole weekend working yourself up to address the issue only to lose your nerve Monday morning. Standing up for ourselves can be very scary, especially in the workplace where the consequences can be high. Each of us has a button (or two or three) that, when pushed, leads us to shut down. Fear of looking stupid, avoiding criticism, and wanting to be “likeable" are just a few examples. If you’re not used to standing up for yourself, it can be uncomfortable and scary. You may be worried that you will come across as aggressive and demanding. Not speaking up lets us avoid those uncomfortable feelings in the short term, but what happens over time? For starters, we don’t get our needs met. Bosses and colleagues don’t change their behaviour and we slowly feel more resentful, disconnected, and powerless. It also impacts our self-esteem when we feel invisible or taken for granted at work.

When I first learned about the communication tips below, I remember thinking “I wish they taught this to me in school.” Here are some strategies to use when you want to stand up for yourself at work:

It can be hard to assert ourselves if we don’t have a general outline for how to communicate. Describe. Express. Specify.

Start by describing the situation

Generalizations like “you always ask me to do projects first…” can lead to exception finding (“Not true, I asked Bob first last month this one time…”) that let the other person invalidate your whole argument. Instead describe the most recent issue and describe the behaviour or action “I noticed today you…” or, if there is a pattern of behaviour, try framing it as “frequently” or “more than once.” This will describe the behaviour or action you’re addressing with a concrete and recent example. This concrete example and using specific behavioural description allows you to avoid using labels that hinder the other person’s acceptance of your message

  • Use behavioural descriptions: avoid using labels For example: “I noticed you made that decision on my behalf” rather than “You’re controlling”
  • Avoid generalizations such as, “you always…” or “you never”
  • Avoid “why” questions to reduce the likelihood of the other person becoming defensive.
  • Be specific and objective when describing the behaviour or situation. For example: “You don’t appreciate me and I need to feel appreciated” doesn’t give the listener much direction.
  • Give a concrete example and focus on the most recent incident of the behaviour For example: “I noticed today you….when you do that I feel…”

Use “I” language

Using “I” statements helps make it clear what you want, think and feel. For example: “I feel….” rather than “You make me feel…”. “I feel” statements are powerful because no one can really dispute what you are feeling. This also invites the other person to think about things from your point of view.

  • Avoid “you” statements. These are likely to make the other person defensive, and not fully hear your message For example: “I felt frustrated when you….” rather than “You were being inconsiderate when…”
  • Avoid interpreting the other person’s intention For example: “It upsets me when you make comments like….” rather than “You’re trying to make me feel guilty.”
  • “Own” your request of the other person. For example: “I’d really appreciate it if you…” rather than “You should…”

Be Direct

Communicate your message directly to the intended person, whether it’s your colleague or a supervisor.

  • Be direct, don’t be overly apologetic
  • Make eye contact
  • Try not to be overly wordy otherwise, the message may get lost

Keep on Track

  • Choose a good time and place when you’re likely to get the person’s full attention
  • Only address one issue at a time. Do not bring in past “laundry lists” of grievances.
  • Repeat the request if needed. Use the same statement if necessary (”broken record”)

Be Specific

  • Be specific about the action required from the other person
  • If necessary describe the consequences of the other person’s behaviour. For example: “Otherwise, this may continue to negatively affect our friendship”  

Be Respectful

The key to standing up for yourself at work is to remain respectful to the other person. We can show respect by demonstrating through words and actions that we understand the other person’s point of view, thoughts and feelings about the situation. We can show respect by:

  • Being open and honest
  • Using I statements
  • Naming the emotion word
  • Checking out the impact

Check Impact

Has the other person understood the message you tried to communicate? Is there a gap between what you tried to say and how it was understood?

  • Acknowledge both the feelings shown and expressed by the other person
  • Acknowledge any issues the other person brings up then return to your point
  • Be sure to take into account the rights, needs, and feelings of the other person.

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.

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