What is assertiveness?There is no exact definition of an assertive person. The most assertive person at work could be completely different around friends and family, and vice versa. In general, people who say what they mean, take action when they think it is needed and aren’t afraid to have an opinion are assertive. For our purposes we can define assertiveness as the ideal halfway state between aggression and passivity. The assertive person is not afraid to speak up but does so in a way that does not hurt other people's feelings.
Why are passive people often ignored?Probably because the very people who would most benefit from assertiveness training are the last people to go looking for it! We all know shy, timid people; people who apologise before asking a question or offering an opinion, people who tag along on the edge of the party. They are life’s followers. They may be perfectly good, if not excellent, at their job. Indeed they may be unusually diligent - we might write them off as quiet people or even praise them for their modesty.
Or, we might become (subconsciously) irritated by them, by their inability to make up their minds, by their constant requests for advice or assistance, by the way they never take the lead. We might want to tell these people to snap out of it, to pull themselves together.
In truth, neither accepting nor chiding them is the answer. Shyness is almost certainly the results of a constant, nagging anxiety. Even though a particular employee can do the job perfectly well, he or she is plagued by constant doubts. They know that these doubts are without foundation, but the anxiety is still there. Being unable to conquer these doubts can lead to anger and frustration, which is internalised and which adds to the anxiety.
Unfortunately, lacking assertiveness is, in fact, a vicious circle. Passive people are not going to ask for assertiveness training. If they could assert themselves enough to ask, then the problem would be half-solved.
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How does assertiveness training work?It might sound rather New Age, but assertiveness training is actually really helpful. During the course, delegates are taught to envision ways of behaviour that are confident but non-threatening, and they are helped by role play with their instructor.
They can discuss and debate possible objections to the new modes of behaviour. They also learn that these new modes of behaviour will, in the short term, lead to a decrease in their anxiety. In this way, the vicious circle we discussed above, is put into reverse.
Training can take place on a one-to-one basis, or in group sessions, depending on the needs of the individual. At the start of the course, some form of initial assessment will be carried out in order for the trainer to identify precisely what help the employee needs in order to become more assertive. At the end of the course, another assessment is carried out to see how far the delegate has come.
What are its benefits?Amazingly, assertive behaviour can be applied in various aspects of a person’s life. The man who annoyed his colleagues by constantly asking for help with IT and office machinery enrols on a course at night school. Pretty soon he is teaching new employees how to work the machines that once terrified him. From being a useful, but passive member of the team, he is now not only assertive but has also acquired a new set of skills. This makes him feel better – an example of positive reinforcement – and it makes him better company and a better employee.
Assertiveness training also provides a person with the skills needed to deal effectively with customers, which is always a tricky area. For a passive person it can be all too easy to agree to a customer’s every demands or to make over-compensatory gestures in the case of a misunderstanding. Such actions can at the very least cost the company money and can at the worst be damaging to business. An employee versed in assertiveness training will, on the other hand, be able to make an honest apology to the client but will also be able to say no to unreasonable demands without losing custom.
Why should you invest in assertiveness training?We all know that human beings are not perfect and that they are not likely to become so any time soon. In a busy workplace, who has time to worry about whether Steve in Customer Service could be helped to become more assertive in his dealings with customers, or whether Laura in HR needs help to speak to clients? It is, however, foolish to neglect the hidden potential that lies dormant among the passive members of your workforce. Think of the changes that assertiveness training could bring about and you will soon see the subject differently.
The formerly quiet type who has received assertiveness training will become a more effective member of the team at work. Those insights and opinions which they have been keeping quiet all these years, for fear that they might be reprimanded or shouted down, will emerge into the light of day, expressed in moderate, positive terms.
Assertiveness training can bring this potential to the surface. Employees who were once shy now make an active effort to bring more to their team and the company as a whole. Colleagues who dreaded interacting with customers are now more than happy to pick up the phone and are thus building winning relationships. Your company is becoming not only more efficient and productive, but also a happier place to work. Come to think of it, perhaps the two are one and the same.