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I consider myself a confident person in the workplace. Even though I do not consider myself an expert in my field, I really like discussing at the same level with experts in my job.

But when I'm really sure about something, I find it hard to be assertive without being rude. I know this problem is well-known (being assertive and humble at the same time), and I've searched all over the Internet for an answer.

Unfortunately every day I'm more convinced that people these days tend to take things personally, so you can't be assertive without being interpreted as rude/arrogant. So I'd prefer avoiding some uncomfortable situations and swallow my opinions.

I'm really not satisfied about all this... I still think sometimes you have to show some assertivness to get others to listen carefully to what you're saying (generally when they're experts and you're not).

I need some help about knowing how to handle these situations. Avoiding pushing the thin line of assertivness and arrogance is hard for me.

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don't feel bad -- many of us are in the exact same bucket. not that you shouldn't work on correcting the habit –  amphibient Dec 8 '12 at 17:36
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This question appears to be off-topic because it doesn't exclusively pertain to the workplace. –  Jim G. Jul 14 '13 at 13:21
    
@JimG. I agree. I think it would be a good fit for the Etiquette.SE site if that gets launched though. –  starsplusplus Feb 20 at 17:02

6 Answers 6

Summary

  1. Accept it is partially your problem too
  2. Review your communication as best possible from a "what does this come across as" perspective
  3. Focus on why vs what
  4. (practical non-comprehensive list of suggestions)
  5. Practice, practice, practice

Step One

Before we start, let's address this:

Unfortunately every day I'm more convinced that people these days tend to take things personally, so you can't be assertive without being interpreted as rude/arrogant. So I'd prefer avoiding some uncomfortable situations and swallow my opinions.

You fundamentally believe this problem is not your problem but with others based on this wording. People always take things personally, this is part of being a person. When someone goes "you are wrong" people almost universally dislike it.

People are people. You cannot force the rest of society to change - yes, there are people who you can say "you are wrong, idiot" to in nearly these exact many words. However this is not the majority of people.

So, this can be summarized as

  • Understand you have a responsibility in conveying your thoughts in a non-rude way. Problems with how you are received are not 100% the other person's problem

This seems so incredibly obvious but it is our tendency to think "why can't they just listen to me, I'm obviously right! This is so frustrating omg they are an idiot!" rather than even question whether we are mis-communicating ourselves.

Step Two

If you have any emails which you think has potential to be rude, read them. Read them outloud or with a friend or coworker or to yourself. Force yourself to read them asking, "how would most people receive this - are my word choices such that I come across as arrogant?"

You will almost assuredly be surprised by this. We speak in our own language - we speak in a similar fashion to how we want to be spoken to. We write emails in the same way. Oftentimes this documentation can show you some of the ways you do come across as arrogant (because it is documented electronically).

Finally, if you have the ability to, ask your coworkers (or perhaps friends/family if this might be weird for the workplace environment you are in) to very assertive in giving you verbal and immediate feedback on when you are doing this. People who are this way do not tend to be so only in one aspect of their life.

  • Get feedback on either non-verbal or verbal to become more aware of your own communication style and how it is received

Step Three

Up to this point we've not even addressed how to better interact with people. Briefly in the above.

Understand that in general, it is better to convince someone rather than to simply tell them. For example, if I were to write this post as done in the summary as opposed to the lengthy version, you might read it and go "meh" or "screw you" or whatever. But having a more lengthy explanation - I am in some sense correcting you - which allows you to learn is key.

Try to adopt this style, especially as you indicate you are not an expert.

  • Try to communicate more on the why than the what

Step Four

Some very practical ways you can do this:

  • Admit you are wrong and/or apologize/thank your coworkers when this happens. People who are willing to admit they are wrong are a lot easier to listen to when they come across as "I'm right" than people who only do "I'm right"ism
  • Take two seconds whenever you have the impulse to correct someone or tell them they are wrong or say how awesome you are, and ask yourself, "am I going to be perceived as arrogant?" Literally pause. This is not a joking suggestion - you will find yourself much more aware of your communication style and NOT jump into the rudeness at all if you force yourself to be aware of it. This is also considerably harder than it sounds to actually do
  • Focus on listening and understanding things which you consider wrong or critiques/rebuttals to your positions. Concentrate on understanding the opposite viewpoints, regardless of how wrong, rather than thinking through how to best respond immediately.
  • Adopt a style of communication focused on what I discuss in Step 3. Try to work with rather than against people when discussing things or arguing.
  • Ask questions and let people argue against themselves. This seems obvious, but, oftentimes it is easy to change someone's mind by asking questions to give them cause to more fully consider things.
  • Rephrase things people say in such a way to clarify and point out your position or their mistakes. "So if I understand you correctly, you are suggesting this - have you considered another option?" People like being affirmed. Showing you understand what they said can go a long way.

Step Five

Practice.

You are asking to change behavior and personality which is likely ingrained from years and decades of life experiences. It's not going away overnight.


I've actively worked on this myself both personally and with close friends. This issue is not one which is easy to deal with in the workplace (nor personal environment). And, unfortunately, sometimes, people just don't want to learn, don't want to change their mind, won't take differing opinions, and won't work as a team. You have to accept that while you are partially responsible for all interactions you have some people put in 0% themselves.

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I tend to think of this as an issue of "perception filters"; two people can have very different perceptions of the same conversation, based on a whole range of factors that can include personality, stress levels and cultural background. What one person sees as logical and reasonable, another may find insulting.

I think one of the hardest things to master in the workplace - or indeed in life - is how to vary your communication style, so that you can communicate highly effectively with a range of different people.

Most management/leadership training tends to use some kind of personality profiling (such as DOPE, or MBTI) initially as a way of helping you understand that while we are all individuals, there are some broad traits or groupings that can be used to help you identify what communication approach is likely to be effective.

When I started to get trained in these (and being coached does help) as well as the Process Communication Model, for the first time I started to understand both my own (sometimes irrational) reactions and those of others - there were models and rules that I could be trained in, learn and apply. And they work.

Similarly, there are a few simple, and key language techniques that you can learn to apply that are also highly effective. They feel horrible false at first, but with practice become quite natural - and, I have discovered, start to spread through the team a bit like a virus.

There's a key bit of advice in Covey's "Seven Habits" : "Seek first to understand, then be understood."

If you are a fast thinker and fast talker, one of the key issue here is that people may think that you haven't listened to or understood their viewpoint. There is also a possibility, of course, that they are right.

One way to manage this is:

- before you disagree with someone, reflect their viewpoint back to them as it shows you have fully understood and acknowledged their position. "So, you are saying that we should focus in the European market first.."

- use the "however technqiue" "So, you are saying that we should focus in the European market first, however.."

- then present your idea, but as a point of view, "So you are saying that we should focus on the European market first, however, from my perspective, I think that's a big risk because of the state of the Euro..."

In my team this has become a bit like a code, that we all adopt, so that we can disagree and discuss things we think are really important - even when under pressure - without the conversation heating up. And it works too.

So I'd suggest :

  • be reassured that many of us go through this in our careers
  • find out about your own communication style; DOPE (above) is a good start
  • when you start with this, it may feel a bit weird, but stick with it
  • look for different styles in others (these show up clearest under stress)
  • practice reflecting back others ideas before presenting your own
  • practice presenting your viewpoint as just that

As a final point - be aware of the "cultural framework." There's a saying that "the English are too polite to be honest, and the Dutch are too honest to be polite" Having lived and worked in both countries there's some truth to this, and its repeated across many countries and cultures.

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I have struggled also.

In situations where I wish or need to be assertive, I usually use a leading sentence such as:

  • Please allow me to be candid...
  • I am confused, can you explain to me why...
  • This may be naive but I thought that...
  • Please allow me to get on my soap box...
  • With your permission, I would like to point out...
  • I don't understand...
  • I am trying to learn more...
  • Correct me if I am wrong but...
  • John will correct me if I am wrong but...

Basically, whenever I intend to be assertive and regardless of my level of confidence in my knowledge, I am trying to learn more from the person I am dialoguing with. It helps to ask questions and it helps to explain candidly that you are willing to learn and what you are about to do.

I also encourage assertiveness in others. When I use those sentences, I explicitly give them permission to correct me and give them an opportunity to demonstrate where I am wrong.

Most of the time, I remain calm and make an effort not to raise my voice. I also make sure not to interrupt the other person when they are making their argument.

Finally, I easily admit when I am wrong and thank individuals when they point out this fact. I love being wrong because it means that I am learning something new.

Over the years, I have been able to have great conversation with individuals who have found me aggressive at first and the biggest compliment I get nowadays is: With David, we know where we stand.

Let me know if I am wrong... :-)

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I think there is some good advice in the other answers, but I'm going to give what I think is the best advice. There are lots and lots of courses on this subject, and I would advise you to take one if this is an issue for you. Poor communication with your peers is as likely to hold back your career as the lack of any technical skill.

There are online courses, and of course book, but in this particular case I think an in-person course is far superior. Google should be able to find one for you. "assertiveness" is a good keyword. While "assertivness training" is usually thought of as getting timid people to speak up, it's also about getting confident (and overconfident) people to modulate their approach. Many courses on this have titles like "working with people" or "managing interpersonal communication" You might even be able to persuade your company to pay, if you ask and there is a training budget.

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+1 for your realization that you're not the expert as this is the first failure point for countless teams/debates/projects. This is one thing you should play into an advantage. Every professional has an ego, however small. Someone who reckons he's a subject matter expert will like to have another person defer to him in matters concerning. From this position, you can quietly slip in your ideas and questions to your "mentor".

Oh how do you do this thing? Oh? Because I saw somewhere on the inter web that it's better done this way. Whaddya think? You're the expert. Wink, wink.

Another point to note is that no one likes to be called out in public. No one. I make it a point to can it until after team meetings to consult with my supervisor on glaring misconceptions he had during the meeting. I'm not saying watch everyone drive off a cliff but do not make someone or group of people out to look funny in public cold light of day. Ask questions that will hopefully lead to the discovery of the fact that you already know , instead of pointedly stating that everyone else is wrong.

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There is a difference between emphasis on facts and personal attacks.

Offensive: "Don't you know you're supposed to index the table?" Implication - "You're an idiot.".

Assertive: "Without the index, the table scan runs for an hour. With the index, the table scan runs in 15 seconds. This gets the query to finish in six minutes."

In this context, written backup is precious. I had a teacher make an invalid statement about how Cobol records were processed, and I could put my finger on the sentence in the textbook that explained it correctly. If you know you're right, back it up with documentation or demos.

Pin down the numbers or the trail of documents. When writing your assertions, keep them short and sweet.

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Wording is very important and making the issue something that is not directed at a person is very insightful. –  ojblass Jul 14 '13 at 19:12

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