How To Be A More Assertive Leader

Have trouble saying “no”? Asking for what you need? Advocating for your position? Maybe you need to be more assertive in your communication. Assertiveness allows you to clearly express your needs, while also taking the needs of others into account. Put another way, assertiveness involves being fully you, respecting both yourself and others, through your words, voice, and body language.

Assertive communication is not only a foundation for well-being, it’s a great tool for effective leadership. It helps you: 

  • Gain self-confidence
  • Earn respect from others
  • Create win-win situations
  • Increase job satisfaction
  • Reduce stress and avoid burnout 
  • Be seen as an honest, high integrity leader

How to become more assertive

You may associate assertiveness with people who are tough, loud, and obnoxious.  But real assertive communication allows you to bring your whole self to the table and speak authentically by clearly defining your expectations, boundaries, and concerns.  By using assertive communication, you also show respect for others through active, empathetic listening, and thoughtful responses. Here’s how to do it:

Get in touch with what you need. Since assertiveness is a path to getting your needs met, start by knowing what those are. If that’s hard, start small. When confronted with a request or choice ask yourself, “What do I need here?” Listen closely, an answer will come. Make sure it factors into your response. 

Ask for it. Now that you know what you need, ask for it. Make a request. To be effective, requests need to include a clear who, what, and when. Who are you asking? What are you asking for, specifically? When do you need it? “Could you finish your edits on that document and get to me by 5pm Friday?” is a clear request. “Let me know what you think about the document” isn’t.

Create explicit agreements. After you make a request, watch for agreement on the other side. Without that, there may be no commitment. Follow up: “Circling back to my email from Tuesday; is that something you can do?” And be clear about your own agreements: give a clear “yes”, “no”, or an alternative where necessary. 

Connect with your opinions. Most people have a point of view, but some are less aware of theirs. To unearth your viewpoint ask yourself, “What do I really think about this?” If nothing comes to mind, ask yourself: “If I did have a point of view, what would it be?”

Speak your truth. Speaking out your point of view is a powerful form of assertiveness. It takes courage. But don’t be afraid of that first thought that comes into your mind, it’s usually the best. If you tend to hold back, you’ll have to push yourself. Still struggling? Prepare more before meetings so you have comments ready. And speak out early in meetings–it makes it easier to contribute.

Practice confident body language.  Sit or stand upright, with open arm posture and connecting eye contact, signaling that you’re engaged and listening. Avoid multitasking. If you’re on video, make sure your face is well-lit, centered in the frame, and easy to see.

Manage your emotions.  If you’re angry, take slow deep breaths into your abdomen to calm the primitive part of your brain. Never send an email when you’re angry. If you have to write it go ahead, but don’t put an address into the “To” field until the next day. Cool off before you communicate.

Set healthy boundaries. Create limits around what you will or will not do. This includes saying “no” at times. The prospect of saying no can bring up all kinds of unsettling emotions, and can be especially tough with your manager or most important client. But consider: if you don’t do it, who else will watch out for your well being? Leaders who set healthy boundaries are healthier people, because those boundaries protect them and enable them to see to their own needs.

Listen with everything you’ve got. While you listen to others, focus on understanding as deeply as possible. Try to avoid formulating your next comments. Briefly paraphrase back what you’ve heard, both facts and emotions: “It sounds like you’ve been working on this a long time, and you’re frustrated that Yee’s team isn’t collaborating. Is that right?” Listen for needs so you can factor them into solutions.

Commit to win-win outcomes. For true assertiveness, it’s not enough for you to advocate for your own needs. Make sure the other person’s needs are met as well. Don’t settle for a solution where either of you loses. A commitment to win-win outcomes helps ensure healthy long-term relationships.

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