Don’t confuse assertiveness with aggression

Difficult Conversations in the workplace

Don’t confuse assertiveness with aggression

Is assertiveness training the way towards a more harmonious workplace? We can’t avoid difficult conversations – how you handle them is what matters.

Difficult conversations are part of being assertive – we all have to engage in them. It is almost part of growing up. Everyday we can find an opportunity to avoid a difficult conversation, or get into one. Just having to say no to a personal request, change an appointment or change a date for something re-arranged could get pretty tricky if managed badly.

The workplace takes the whole ball game to another level. This is where mistakes can get measured and monetized – this is where getting your point across with the right tone, appropriate manner and meaning really starts to count.

If you handle that client incorrectly, and they walk, it could spell financial disaster and reputations could be seriously damaged.

We’re not just talking about external relationships here – internal conversations matter too. Telling your colleague you are unhappy with their idea is one thing that can test your nerve, giving your boss notice is another.

Whether we like it or not, we need to manage up to our bosses, down to our suppliers and across with our colleagues.

The organization is, above all, social. It is people.

Peter Drucker

In recent years, one way or another, I have had my fair share of difficult conversations. Some I have handled better than others. Some have affected me – others changed me.

This is where assertiveness training comes in to play: the idea of putting yourself in the driving position – the idea of changing yourself.


I wanted to change the world. But I found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.” Aldous Huxley

So what are the main tenants of assertiveness?

Assertive is about being confident and direct when communicating. You are open to other people’s views even though they may differ to yours.

You do not blame others when things go wrong.

You give and take compliments and criticism.

And here is the nub. Assertiveness is not aggression, which is a pure determination to get your own way, or the opposite of being passive, which is putting your own needs to one side in favour of others.

It is not the ever-present passive aggressive which is the indirect approach of sly and manipulative behaviour – the avoidance approach.

To simplify: assertiveness is the use of the ‘I’ word over the ‘you’ approach.

It is about positively framing the argument from your own perspective rather than using the word ‘you’ in an accusatory fashion.

So where does assertiveness as a concept originate from?

I first came across assertiveness training 20 years ago when a friend of mine passed on a training manual to me after she had completed a course. This friend has to be one of the best negotiators I have worked with, firm and always fair and a consummate professional in getting information across.

‘Have a close look at this Wendy,’ she said. ‘You will thank me for it.’

The first research in assertiveness can be traced back to the 1940s and work with understanding depressed clients.

Assertiveness and the idea that we should be able to advocate for ourselves without harming the rights of others, and controlling aggressive impulses, can be traced back to the 1960s and the advent of Humanist Psychology.

Civil rights movement psychologists in 70s saw assertiveness as a way of protecting human rights, and by the new millennium this interest in assertiveness had really gathered pace.

By now the application of assertiveness had shifted into schools, higher education and HR departments.

As a trainer and coach with Coralstone, my research and experience has provided me with ample opportunity to sharpen my skills professionally in this area.

I have mediated away days for dysfunctional staff groups, handled staff grievances and coached professionals in and out of jobs and different career paths.

I was brought up and educated in the times when young people, and especially girls, were not encouraged to challenge the status quo, let alone speak of personal success. The first person singular was practically forbidden.

What I’ve learnt is that the ‘I’ word is a powerful, assertive tool, leading us away from the finger-jabbing tone of the ‘you’ word. The first person singular takes a powerful of its own and puts you right where you belong – in charge of yourself.

Here follows 10 examples of powerful statements

‘I’ statements mean you take ownership- you statements may lead to an attack and blame

I find..

I am sorry you feel like that

I wish you had not said that

I don’t understand – can you clarify?

I can see how you might think that

I prefer not to answer that

Where do we differ?

No I am sorry I can’t

I would like to help however I have a

Can I get back to you later?

Writer coach and soft skills trainer, Wendy Smith runs training courses in Effective Communications. Assertiveness and Presentation skills.



Networking for impact

networking skills from corastone training

The room is big, the room is full of people and the canapés are being handed round. There are you – alone with glass in hand and not a person you know in sight. Your heart sinks south.

Well, at least the waiting staff smile at you.

“Go network,” chirped the convivial host with a smile that would shame the Cheshire cat – a suggestion adding to a sinking feeling into a bottomless pit of horror.

We have all been there. The one when you just want to curl up into the foetal position and hide. But you can’t. Networking has been with us since we started communicating. People work with people they know, like and – key word here – trust. They network for business leads, to get a job, change careers or find new staff.

Meeting and greeting our fellow colleagues does not need to be like this – akin to the stuff of nightmares. Human interaction – notwithstanding the advance of day-to-day screen life – is the bedrock of relationships. Yes, we form impressions of others by the way they write an email or sound on the phone. But this only a snapshot or a hint – often misleading as to what we really think of them.

How many times have you gone on to meet someone only to find out that you have done a 360-degree turnaround on your initial view. And that can so often be from a negative to a positive view.

When professionals want to get business, they get out and network. We choose to work with people we like and we won’t know that until we have – as they say – seen the whites of their eyes. Chemistry still rules supreme and you can’t get a handle on that through the screen on your laptop or tablet.

So what can we do to take the sting out of this? How can we muster up the confidence to crawl out from underneath a stone? Like all things in life the answer is not rocket science but a well used mantra from the scouting movement – be prepared.

Armed with some pertinent preparation, planning and mental realignment, this can turn out to be your best business night yet. Here follows some useful pointers:

The guest list

Check off the guest list beforehand and work out who you really want to meet. Check their details via LinkedIn to see what you have to offer them, whether there is any common ground in terms of networks, geography or shared educational institutions.

The goal

Several years ago I was fortunate enough to attend training from the powerful and impressive Judi James, author of The Body Language Bible amongst many other titles. Her words have always stayed with me. Her advice was to have a goal of the number of business cards that you will collect in any one evening and do not leave until you have got them. Nothing like a goal to galvanise us into action! However, goals apart, there is still that essential follow up. Business cards are no use clogging up the wallet. Try and revisit them the next day and follow up with an email or a LinkedIn connection to take the story forward.

Find a working partner

If you are on your own, you probably won’t be only the one. Scan the room quickly and approach the other person you see as a solo act. Introduce yourself to them – you have no idea how relieved they will be. One thing I wish I had discovered much earlier in life is that everyone is just getting through but some people do it with more aplomb than others.

The importance of the name

All of us have done it – especially when a little nervous. We are told the person’s name and then we blank. The all-important recall button fails us. ‘What was your name again’ can sound lame, rude and dismissive. There is a reason why sales people repeat your name – to make you feel good and so they don’t forget. Another way round this one is to discreetly ask your working partner to remind you – preferably out of earshot too.

The initial approach

Another Judi James tips – walk tall, walk proud and walk regally. Stretch your hand out and offer a handshake. This needs testing on colleagues. Go for firm rather than crushing, with eye contact and conviction. A diffident physical approach will produce a diffident response.

Listen don’t broadcast

Ask the person you have introduced yourself to a series of open questions and wait until they have answered before responding. So many times we only wait to speak or jump in to take the conversation back to us – this is broadcasting. Listen to what the person is saying and echo some of the words they are using. Summarise what you think they have said to check you have really heard it. This demonstrates attention and empathy.

When asked what you do, have that elevator pitch polished and to the point and relevant to where you happen to be. So often we get carried away about all the things we do – professional work, freelance work, voluntary work – we can confuse before we inform. Indeed this is another time where preparation counts – sort out the relevant elevator pitch before the evening starts.

Give, don’t just take

Finally, networking is not just about taking the oxygen of attention or a great contact for your organisation. It is a chance for you to give back. Offer to send over that piece of information, a connection that can help solve a business problem, a brilliant supplier that can really help.

Remember that results don’t happen overnight. Have patience, be generous and all will be revealed. Your business group will grow, opportunities will crop up and your confidence will head north rather than sink south.

Coralstone Training provides coaching, either one-to-one or in groups, on soft business skills including networking and pitching.