Q & A – Developing assertiveness

Q and AQ1. I’m such a people pleaser. I really hate to disappoint others and am useless at saying no. However, this means I often find myself feeling really frustrated about what I’ve agreed to do. How can I stick up for myself without upsetting other people?

A1. Making other people happy is a nice thing to do, and there is certainly a place for it. However, there is a side to extreme people pleasing that has an element of dishonesty about it. For example, you’re not being truthful when you say you are ‘happy to help’, when you’re anything but, or that something is, ‘no trouble’, when you’ve had to rearrange your whole schedule to accommodate it.

Do this for too long, and you can lose sight of what your own priorities are, until perhaps some day you blow up at everyone shouting about being taken advantage of, or retreat into the shadows feeling very uncared for. When what’s really happened is that people have just believed what you said!

Sticking up for yourself takes practise at first, but can be extremely liberating, especially when you realise that most people are perfectly happy to accept ‘no’, or ‘not this week’, or ‘yes but I’d rather do it this way’, for an answer. Try this out and you will probably find that people start to respect the fact that you have other commitments, and ask you less.

The important question to ask is, “if I say yes to that, what am I saying no to?” When you understand what you are giving up to keep other people happy, this can really focus your mind on what you are prepared to do in the future.

The other thing to remember is that people are incredibly resourceful, and if you are not able to help them, they will find other solutions!

All of this applies to work or personal situations. Learn to acknowledge your own priorities, and do people favours, or agree to extras if you want to, or if it suits you, or if you can negotiate something in return. Don’t do it because you think it’s the only option. People used to you saying yes, may need to adjust a bit, but people who care for or respect you will not be upset.

Q2. I think I am very assertive, but I often get accused of being aggressive. What could I be doing wrong?

A2. You say you often get accused of being aggressive, which suggests that several people have given you this feedback, so it’s definitely worth exploring.

Being assertive is about getting more of what you want, while respecting that the other person is entitled to get what they want too. Sometimes when we are passionate about what we want, we can forget to make it clear to the other side that we understand that they need to get something out of it too.

To check if this might be the case with you, think about a situation when this happened recently and ask the following questions:

  • How well did you listen to what the other side wanted.
  • What questions did you ask to find out more about what the other side wanted, and what was important to them?
  • Did you feel you were consulting with them to find mutually agreeable solutions, or were you telling them what you needed them to do?
  • How open were you to being flexible about how things were done?

If your answers to the above questions suggest that there was more telling than consulting on your part, then there might be some truth to the accusation. If you did all of the above, but still got that response, then consider the way you were speaking. Were you using your voice and body language in a forceful way? Sometimes, it’s not what we say but how we say it that makes the biggest impact.

If none of the above apply, and you are still wondering how your good intentions could be mistaken for aggression, it might be worth going back to some of the people who have said this, and asking them for more details to see if you can understand what is happening.

Q3. I work for someone I like and get on with, but every now and then, if they are having a bad day, they take it out on me. They are rude and dismissive, and, on occasions, I have been really upset by them. The next day, it’s like it never happened. What can I do about this?

A3. First thing I’d like to say is it’s never OK for someone to use you as their emotional punch bag, especially at work. The fact that you normally get on with this person makes me think they are not aware of the impact their behaviour is having on you and the only way to address this is to tell them.

Unless you have a recent example that you could bring up, I’d wait till they do it again, then deal with it as follows. First of all, do not speak to them about it until you are both feeling calm. To raise it when either of you is upset is not the best time to try and discuss it. Then I would suggest a three-step approach:

  • Acknowledge that they are stressed and under pressure
  • Explain the problem in terms of the impact it has on you
  • Say what you want.

For example: “I know you were really stressed yesterday, but when you came into my office shouting, it really upset me. I know it wasn’t directed at me, but that doesn’t help how I feel. I really don’t want to be shouted at.”

The person will either take it on board, which in my experience is most likely, or will perhaps get defensive or aggressive. If they do this, you have to ask if you actually want to work with them in the long-term.

Q4. I’ve been working in the same place, doing the same role for three years now. The rate was tight when I started, but now I’m struggling to get by on it. I love working there, but if I can’t get more money, I’ll have to look for something else. How do I tackle this? I don’t want to ask for more money and get thrown out for it.

A4. As long as it’s presented in a reasonable manner, it’s unlikely that you would get ‘thrown out’ for asking for more money. You may even find that they have been expecting you to raise your rates for a while, and will be quite open to the idea.

In case they are not expecting it, you should do some preparation. If you are self employed it is reasonable to calculate how much your relevant expenses have gone up, so you can demonstrate how your rate is going down in real terms as you absorb these costs.

Find out what the going rate is for people doing type of work, see how your rate compares, bearing in mind that you now have much more experience than you did when you first started. Think about examples of how you have helped them, especially if you have gone beyond the terms of your contract or have saved them money.

Then work out how much more you are going to ask for and also what you are going to do if the answer is no. Your plan B, could be to suggest doing what you are doing in less time, or working from home to reduce travel costs. Ultimately one of your options may be to end your contract. Even this can be done politely and professionally if you can explain why working for this rate is no longer financially viable for you.

The important assertive principle to remember is that you are entitled to ask for what you want and, equally, they may have reasons for saying no. Prepare for all eventualities. The more you present this as an opportunity to share information and look for joint solutions, the more likely you will be to reach an amicable solution, for both of you.

Q5. At a recent audition the director was personally very insulting towards me, and left me feeling absolutely horrible, with my confidence in tatters. At the time though I just nodded like he was giving me constructive feedback! What could I have done instead?

A5. This is a tricky one. One of the tough elements of creative work is that the feedback can feel incredibly personal even when it’s not. When someone abuses their position, and actually gives someone personally insulting feedback, this really is not acceptable.

First thing to tackle is how you respond to the comments. Just because someone says something doesn’t make it true. People can say anything they like - it only damages you if you let it! Or in the words of American politician Eleanor Roosevelt: “No-one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

You also need to put these comments in context. How do you rate the opinions of the person who has delivered them? Even if you respect them as a director, would you go to them for advice on a personal matter - do they know you well enough? If not, why should you take their personal remarks to heart? Ask yourself, if these comments were being directed to your best friend, how would you tell them to deal with them?

It can be useful to find some compassion for the person delivering this nasty message. Perhaps they had a raging argument before leaving home that morning, or maybe their boss just hauled them over the coals for something. As comedian Billy Connolly once said, “More to pitied than scolded.” Consider for a moment that the feedback actually had nothing whatsoever to do with you.

Even if they really did have such a strong personal reaction to you that they meant every word, they still had no right to express it. It was unprofessional and rude. What is most important is that you do not take it personally.

What to do about it is another thing. You can deal with it directly with a very British, “How rude!” You could thank them for their feedback, and ask if they have any specific comments regarding your actual performance? It is not useful to respond to the specific personal points they made and it’s certainly not appropriate to fire similar character assessments back.

You may wish to complain about them and there may be advice from your union for situations like this. However, the biggest protection is to rise above it, and not take what’s been said on board as meaningful criticism. This sounds like one nasty, unprofessional individual you have had the misfortune to cross paths with. Put it down to experience and move on.

Q6. I have had a terrible argument with a colleague at work. I feel they do little things all the time that make my life more difficult than it needs to be, and last week it all got too much and I snapped. We both said some awful things. They are on location now, but are due back in another couple of weeks when we will have to work together again. In feels like my one attempt at being assertive has backfired, I’m dreading them coming back and don’t know what to do.

A6. There are two things to address here - how to repair your relationship, so you can both work together comfortably, and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again, with this person, or with anyone else.

You have to honestly assess what went wrong. It sounds from what you said that there were many irritations over a period of time, which you didn’t address. Then, in your own words, you “snapped.”

It’s important to ask if there was anything you could have done earlier that might have averted this clash? An assertive approach would be to deal with the smaller issues as they crop up and not let them build up. Perhaps if you had raised some of them with the other person, and asked what they were trying to achieve, then you might have gained a better understanding about why they were doing what they were doing. You may even find that there were good reasons for it and that they had no idea that they were having a negative impact on you. A calm conversation at an earlier time may well have helped.

How did you broach the subject? You said that you snapped, but were you constructive in what you said, or did you make it personal? Were you speaking in a reasonable tone, or did you go straight to sounding angry?

Imagine you are they and think about the whole situation from their perspective. How do you come across to them? What are your work priorities? How does your role impact theirs? All this can give you some insight into why they did what they did, or why they reacted in the way they did.

If after some reflection you recognise that you were at fault in some way, be prepared to apologise, and ask when would be a good time to chat through what happened so you can work together better. If this came out of the blue to the other person, they are very likely worrying about working with you too.

If you really cannot see anything to blame yourself for, it is still worth being prepared to say you are sorry that the situation got so heated, and arranging a time to discuss it properly.

If you feel you can’t do this, or you try and the person is not open to it, you can involve a third party to mediate between you. What is important is that you both get to express the situation from your own perspectives. The assertive thing to do next is to work out what you have to do to make the relationship an effective working one. What compromises can you both make to ensure you can resolve your issues? You do not have to like each other, but you do have to be able to work together.

Q7. I consider myself an assertive person on the whole, but I’m currently working for someone who manages to make me feel bad if I’m not able to work late every time they ask, and if I try to talk about it, they become sarcastic. I’m really confused about where I stand with them. I don’t know how to deal with it, any ideas?

A7. It sounds like you may be on the receiving end of some manipulative or passive aggressive behaviour. The fact that you ‘feel bad’ and are then subjected to sarcasm, is what makes me suspect manipulative behaviour here. By its very nature this can be very confusing.

The best strategies I can suggest here are about making sure that you are incredibly open, direct and honest with this individual. Be clear about what you can and can’t do, and refuse to feel bad about not being available to work late if you can’t. Unless it’s a contractual requirement, and you do help when you can or want to, then it really isn’t your problem.

If you find yourself feeling confused about something, there is a very high chance that the person is not being clear deliberately. This is the time to say you don’t understand, and repeat back the key points you have heard, particularly if they contradict each other, and ask for clarification.

Being 100% clear, honest and direct when working with someone like this, will very often get them to stop playing their games with you. It’s very hard for them to maintain this approach if you keep shining a halogen light of clarity on it, and showing the behaviour up for what it is.