Welcome to a new series of short pieces aimed to help chemical engineers develop their professional skills. In this piece we look at the power of assertiveness and how we might adopt assertive behaviour to good effect.
LET'S pretend we are in a team of people, working on a technical problem. Things are going well, the project is on track and well resourced, people are relaxed, and the client is making positive noises. Conversations and meetings are convivial. We accept minor differences between us and our colleagues. Now let’s introduce some adversity into the project. Maybe there’s a constraint on resources, or time, coupled with a new team member who is competitive. Quite quickly the team might move to a situation where there is disagreement and tension between the members. Meetings that were once convivial have now turned tense, and the project is now slipping behind, which fuels the tension further.
People respond to disagreement in different ways. Some may adopt passive behaviour, giving in to views of others. Some may adopt aggressive behaviour, trying to impose their views on others. Some may adopt passive-aggressive behaviour in which they exhibit a passive exterior but aggressively try to influence events by subversion. These modes of behaviour are natural responses to tension or the possibility of tension between people. The mode adopted depends on a person’s character and their experiences that have shaped them and helped them cope in the past. The primary thing these behaviours have in common is that they are generally not constructive.
Assertive behaviour offers an alternative pathway for interaction that leads to more constructive outcomes. It is characterised by the recognition that both parties have valid views and opinions, and focusses on the issues rather than the individuals. According to Alberti1, assertiveness is behaviour that enables a person to:
Another way of looking at assertiveness is being able to state positively what you think, or feel, or want. We will return to this shortly. Typical characteristics of the four modes of behaviour can be summed up as follows:
My rights do not matter
I must hide my feelings
Poor eye contact, withdrawn
Hesitant and quiet speech
My rights are most important
Hostility, anger, resentment
Sullen, icy body language
Snide comments and muttering or gossip
All individuals have rights
My desires should not be denied or pursued at the expense of others
Channels frustration to the situation, not the people
Upright, comfortable posture
Direct eye contact
Open body language
Clear, direct, and concise speech
Expresses own views and listens to views of others
So how do we adopt assertive behaviour when faced with a disagreement? These simple steps are a good starting point.
Easy eh? No.
But here’s a really powerful method to craft an assertive statement. We have to make our statements personal. Here’s some examples.
Each of the initial "thoughts" above can be interpreted as criticisms and are likely to result in defensive response degenerating into a sort of “Oh no it wasn’t! Oh yes it was!”
By personalising the statement, expressing what you think or feel or want, the sting of criticism is removed. Furthermore, it is difficult for someone to argue that you do not think or feel or want something. You have got your point across assertively and if you remain in assertive mode the chances are that you will get a positive result from the encounter. Bear in mind that a few other skills might help such as attentive listening, and fluency in body language.
The power of assertiveness is useful in every situation where there is potential for disagreement. That would cover every professional interaction that I can think of, as well as interactions with friends and family outside work. I suggest you think of some current situations of your own, define what you know, think or want, and then spend some time crafting assertive statements as an alternative.
Remember this is a behaviour that can be learned and developed.
1. Alberti, RE (Ed), 1977, Assertiveness: Innovations, Applications, Issues, Atascadero, CA, Impact Publishers
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