Assertive­ness will help grease the wheels of your ca­reer track. Here’s how to be­come more con­fi­dent in ask­ing for what you need.

Finweek English Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By He­lena Wasser­man edi­to­rial@fin­week.co.za

adecade ago, a mem­ber of an on­line com­mu­nity in the US asked for ad­vice on a mes­sage board. One of his wife’s dis­tant friends had in­vited her­self to stay with them for a lengthy pe­riod and they were look­ing for guid­ance on how to de­cline the re­quest with­out af­fronting the prospec­tive house guest.

Dozens of peo­ple posted ad­vice, but one com­ment – by the writer An­drea Don­deri – went vi­ral, and has prob­a­bly done more for peace, love and un­der­stand­ing in the past 10 years than the Dalai Lama him­self.

Don­deri di­vided the world into two types of peo­ple: Those who feel they can ask for any­thing, and those who are “guessers”. Askers make re­quests of oth­ers, know­ing full well that they will get a “no”. They will ask any­thing – a raise, a bite of your sand­wich – from any­one, re­gard­less of how well they know you. They are com­pletely open to be­ing re­buffed, and their life phi­los­o­phy boils down to “noth­ing ven­tured, noth­ing gained”. Askers are ex­tremely as­sertive and of­ten get what they want – if they don’t, they sim­ply shrug it off.

The sec­ond group are “guessers”. These are peo­ple who prob­a­bly won’t ask you a favour un­less they are pretty sure you will say yes. First prize for them is not even hav­ing to ask for it. Some guessers can be very smart about phras­ing their needs and get­ting you to see what they re­quire.

Don­deri’s post went vi­ral be­cause it ex­plained why hu­man in­ter­ac­tion can go so spec­tac­u­larly wrong.

When an asker meets a guesser the re­sults can be dis­as­trous. One party feels she is sim­ply mak­ing a straight­for­ward re­quest, while the guesser feels ter­ri­bly af­fronted by such an un­rea­son­able de­mand. Al­ready out­raged and dis­turbed, the guesser then has to face the anx­i­ety of for­mu­lat­ing a neg­a­tive re­sponse to counter the asker’s re­quest. Given that a “no” as such causes huge stress for a guesser, they as­sume that the asker is strug­gling with the same ex­treme anx­i­ety about be­ing re­jected. But in­stead of feel­ing gut­ted, the asker will typ­i­cally shrug it off. It never hurts to ask, right?

Don­deri’s the­ory has helped many peo­ple to bet­ter un­der­stand some­one who is on the other side of the ask/guess spec­trum.

Un­der­stand­ing the dif­fer­ent out­looks can re­move much ten­sion in re­la­tion­ships and can also be par­tic­u­larly help­ful in the of­fice.

Much of the stress be­tween col­leagues are due to the mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween guessers, who are very care­ful about mak­ing re­quests and su­per­sen­si­tive about be­ing de­clined, and askers, who sim­ply ask for stuff.

A par­tic­u­larly tricky sit­u­a­tion is when a guesser has an asker for a boss. The guesser may ex­pe­ri­ence their man­ager as ex­tremely de­mand­ing and un­rea­son­able, while the “ask­ing” boss is sim­ply test­ing the wa­ters.

Don­deri her­self said that re­solv­ing the ten­sions be­tween the groups are all about “hav­ing the in­tel­li­gence and per­cep­tion to recog­nise what you need, the courage to ask for it, and the tact to do it grace­fully”.

Askers def­i­nitely have to be aware of the con­ster­na­tion they cause – but in truth, guessers have the big­ger chal­lenge. They need to do the hard work of over­com­ing their sen­si­tiv­ity and hav­ing the self-con­fi­dence to say no. A lack of assertive­ness in these sit­u­a­tions usu­ally stems from low self-con­fi­dence, says Gizelle McIntyre, di­rec­tor of The In­sti­tute of Peo­ple De­vel­op­ment, a train­ing body, in Jo­han­nes­burg.

When you feel un­cer­tain, you bite your tongue when un­fair de­mands are made and re­sent­ment starts to build. “If you don’t as­sert your­self and be­lieve in your own abil­i­ties, chances are that no one else will. You won’t be given the in­ter­est­ing work or chal­leng­ing projects, and an ‘asker’ boss will cap­i­talise on your lack of assertive­ness.” The only way to build your con­fi­dence in the work­place is by start­ing to be­lieve in your own ca­pa­bil­i­ties. This be­gins with mak­ing sure you have equipped your­self with all the nec­es­sary do­main knowl­edge and that you are build­ing up ar­eas of ex­per­tise.

“Con­sider do­ing a course, or get­ting a pro­fes­sional

A par­tic­u­larly tricky sit­u­a­tion is when a guesser has an asker for a boss. The guesser may ex­pe­ri­ence her man­ager as ex­tremely de­mand­ing and un­rea­son­able, while the “ask­ing” boss is sim­ply test­ing the wa­ters.

des­ig­na­tion,” says McIntyre. “Pro­fes­sion­al­i­sa­tion can do won­ders for your con­fi­dence.”

Work at be­ing bet­ter at your job ev­ery day, by be­ing more pre­pared for meet­ings and projects, and by stretch­ing your­self with new chal­lenges ev­ery day. When you can prove to your­self (and oth­ers) that you are ca­pa­ble, this will help with your assertive­ness in the of­fice.

HOW TO SAY NO 1) Be firm and un­emo­tional when you de­cline a de­mand

There is a clear dif­fer­ence be­tween be­ing as­sertive and be­ing ag­gres­sive, says McIntyre. When you say no in an as­sertive, neu­tral way, the per­son on the other end is im­me­di­ately clear on your re­sponse and the rea­sons you are de­clin­ing. An ag­gres­sive re­sponse leaves peo­ple con­fused about what the sub-text is, why you are re­act­ing in that way and what ex­actly you are try­ing to say.

“At all times, keep emo­tion out of your re­sponses. If the other per­son re­acts in anger, this will give you the up­per hand in the in­ter­ac­tion.”

2) Use a declar­a­tive state­ment, chased by an “I feel”

When con­fronted with an un­rea­son­able re­quest (“Can you work through the night on this project?”), start off with a fac­tual state­ment (“I have been work­ing late ev­ery night this past week.”), fol­lowed by an “I feel” state­ment (“I feel that I of­ten have to com­plete the un­fin­ished work of other par­ties.”).

3) Set bound­aries

Be firm about what is ac­cept­able to you.

4) Ver­balise your needs

Don’t de­pend on oth­ers for recog­ni­tion or to give you what you want.

5) Start small

Grow a thicker skin bit by bit: take a stand on some­thing that you feel strongly about (the air con­di­tioner set­ting in the con­fer­ence room), but which won’t ruin your life if no one else agrees with your re­quest.

Gizelle McIntyre Di­rec­tor of The In­sti­tute of Peo­ple De­vel­op­ment

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