The idea of rights at work might sound odd. Like most of us, I’m clear about my responsibilities but no-one really talks about rights at work.
In simple terms, this is about your right to do your job.

So the next question is what prevents you from doing your job?

Before we get to the detail of asserting ourselves, what does non-assertiveness look like? Let’s say someone said they’d do some work for you, and now it’s late. You need the work they promised - what are your options? 

You could ask nicely. Perhaps you’ve done that a few times and got nowhere. Maybe they didn’t like you asking and told you that you’d have to wait longer than you originally promised. It’s pretty understandable that this is irritating. You might get angry. You might try sarcasm. Maybe you just give up altogether and work with someone else. Everything (except for the first polite request) is non-assertive. Sarcasm, anger and avoidance are not helpful ways of responding to a situation like this.

An assertive approach here would be to make your request clearly and simply without any ‘edge’ (judgement, sarcasm, pleading, people-pleasing) and sticking to your request in the face of any non-assertive responses you get. You might tell the other person about how you feel about them not doing what they did. You might also set consequences for the future in terms of how you will work with them.

Does being assertive always get you what you want?

More often than not, it gets you what you ask for or a least a workable compromise. Like most things in life though there are no guarantees.

Can you be too assertive?

The principle of assertiveness says no, you can’t. You just get clearer and simpler and continue to avoid adding any ‘edge’ to your message. If there’s anything like anger or sarcasm or endless placating, then you’re no longer being assertive.

So how can you increase your assertiveness at work?

When you are practicing being assertive it’s much easier to start with simple things before tackling more challenging situations. Doing this lets you experience the process, find a way of saying things that suits your style and handle any rejection easily as the stakes are still manageable. When you feel confident, you can start working on increasingly challenging situations. In other words, you are setting yourself up for success (not necessarily getting what you want) by making it easy for you to manage your emotions and stay clear.

How do I know when to assert myself?

You can use ‘The rule of 3’ to help you decide when it’s time to assert yourself.
To be fair it’s not really a rule, more of a guide. All it means is if something happens 3 times then feel free to address it. The first time is probably a ‘blip’, the second time tells you something is going on and the third time is clearly a pattern. Of course this only apples to small situations. If it’s serious, then just take action. However, for everything else let the first couple of incidents pass. The third time it happens is when you step in with an assertive response.
In a way this is a variation on the ‘lasso technique’ this time rather than concentrating on just the words you widen your focus and take behaviour and tone into account.

So now you know what needs addressing, and you can spot the situations when it crops up - what next?

Prepare and practice

Oscar Wilde refined his witticisms well in advance of using them so they seemed spontaneous and natural. You can do the same.

  • Decide in advance what you are going to say and do.
  • Adjust your words and phrasing by remembering to keep it short and simple. 

This reduces the chances for misunderstanding and makes it hard for the other person to avoid your message. 

While you are doing all this preparation, I suggest planning your follow-up response too. They might surprise you and agree with what you say. If you only prepared for resistance, you might find yourself being caught of guard and end up saying something you didn’t need to. On the other hand, if they push back you can retain your calm approach because you are ready for them.

Use a 'broken record'

The broken record technique is an assertiveness approach that sounds simple but makes a big impact.

It gets its name from the way a scratched record would skip back and repeat a fragment of audio in a loop. Nowadays records are a thing of the past so I sometimes call this technique the ‘dog with a bone’ because we don’t let go easily of the point we want to make.\

All you do is make your assertive statement. Listen to what the other person has to say then repeat your statement. Try to keep the phrase the same each time - it gets more powerful with repetition. Feel free to acknowledge what they said then get straight back to repeating what you said.

Here’s an example. Remember you’ve decided to focus on this situation because the same thing has happened a couple of times already.

them - I’m sorry, I know I said I'd have the report today, but I've just not got the time to do it.

you - I can see you’re busy, but I need the information we agreed today

them - it’s been a terrible week, and we are very short staffed

you - I know you’re busy, but I need the information we agreed today

them - I don’t have time for this - you’ll get it when you get it!

you - I only want what we agreed - I need the information today.

The goal keep things simple and light. No anger or over apologising is needed at all. Furthermore, notice there’s no ‘this is the third time you’ve let me down’ in here either because that’s judgemental and they can then change the subject to ‘you're so rude’ etc. Keep it calm, neutral and repeat.

In my experience in only takes two repeats for them to hear you and respond to your request. There’s something about using the same words that make your message come over loud and clear without having to resort to unhelpful emotions.

Try this out on something simple, where the stakes are low. Practice the phrase so you can do it without any ‘edge’ creeping in. Even better try to test what you are going to say on a volunteer beforehand and get some practice in.

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