How To Be More Assertive At Work: Is It Parallel To Aggressive?

How To Be More Assertive At Work: Is It Parallel To Aggressive?


If you find it hard to speak up for yourself or take control of a situation, especially at work, know that you aren’t alone.  Many people wish they knew how to be assertive in professional situations, without seeming overbearing and pushy, or having to step too far outside their comfort zone.

Psychologists have a name for the personality trait that makes it uncomfortable to advocate for yourself; they call it “agreeableness.”  People who have a high level of it want to get along with others and be well-liked, but that can sometimes lead to being put in tough situations because you aren’t comfortable sticking up for yourself or saying no at work.

Over time, passive behavior like this can lead to some negative consequences.  You might feel stressed or burned out because people take advantage of you, and you may also find yourself getting passed over for promotions or raises because you don’t have a visible leadership role in your company.

The good news is, being more assertive at work doesn’t mean being aggressive or unlikeable. Instead, it means you learn ways to communicate openly and effectively which will help the team as a whole.  

Although it’s not difficult, you’ll likely need to step outside your comfort zone to do it initially.  Here are some ways that you can mentally prepare to be more assertive, and things you can do on a regular basis to make it happen.

Repeat After Me:  I am a Rockstar

I am a Rockstar

One of the first and most important steps to empowering yourself to be more outspoken in the workplace is to recognize your value as a person, an employee, and a member of the team as a whole.

Silence the negative voices that might be trying to tell you things like “you’re not good enough,” “you can’t do that,” or “no one wants to hear your opinion.”  Not only are they likely untrue, but they are creating a barrier that’s preventing you from speaking up.

Instead, think about how to contribute to your role and other value you could potentially add to your company.  You have talents that no one else possesses and a perspective that is unique, and your voice deserves to be heard.

Research Your Rights

woman researching

Another empowering step is to do some research to understand what you’re entitled to as an employee at your workplace.  This is particularly important if you’re feeling pressured, unsupported, or even abused by colleagues or superiors.

Read over documents like:

  • Your job description
  • Your employee policy manual
  • Posters in the lunch room or break room

They will help you understand what legal and ethical boundaries are in place to protect you and your employer.

This is particularly helpful if you have a specific grievance or issue that you’re having trouble addressing.  For example, if you have a boss who is encouraging you to skip your lunch breaks and work through them instead, these materials will help you to know if that expectation violates laws in your state.  

Arming yourself with knowledge can help make you more confident when it’s time to stand up for yourself in every situation.

Understand Your Boundaries and Respect Them

team having a meeting

One common reason people who are generally agreeable want to learn how to be assertive is that they’re experiencing stress and burn out on the job.  Take a few minutes to analyze your personal boundaries and catalog places where you feel like your employer is asking too much. 

For some people, things like missing family events with their children or not having adequate time to recover after an illness are scenarios that inspire them to stand up for themselves.  For others, it could be an expectation to respond to emails or phone calls around the clock, which makes it impossible to achieve a work/life balance or even get a good night of sleep.

If there are specific situations where you feel like your boundaries aren’t being respected, these are areas that you will benefit from addressing sooner rather than later in a clear, respectful, and assertive manner with your employer.


active listening

If asserting yourself is outside your comfort zone, taking the time to prepare and practice before the confrontation is a critical step that will make you feel confident, and ensure the conversation goes in a positive direction.

Start by asking yourself what you hope to gain from the discussion. What is your goal, what do you want to say, and how do you plan to phrase it. 

Some people like visualizing various scenarios in their mind to help them prepare for how the conversation will go.  Play out the best case scenario, and also mentally practice other scenes where things get scary or intimidating.

Techniques like speaking out loud in front of a mirror, or role-playing with a friend or loved one you trust are invaluable as they will help you be concise, clear, and confident when the time comes.  

It’s important during this step not to skip or skim over things that make you uncomfortable.  If you practice the difficult parts of the conversation ahead of time, you will be less nervous and stressed should they come up during the real thing.

Use Clear Language

People who are naturally assertive may not realize that they have that quality.  Instead, many of them simply consider themselves to be excellent communicators.

One of the reasons these types of people are so good at getting what they want is because they don’t use hedging phrases when they ask for it. 

Qualifying expressions like “technically,” “kind of,” “sort of,” or “literally” water down the concept you’re trying to express and sound less clear than your point would without them.

For example, saying something like “I kind of want to take the Friday after Thanksgiving off of work” is a statement that may be easier for a supervisor to deny than “I want to take the Friday after Thanksgiving off of work.” 

Likewise, telling your boss that you “literally don’t have the support to get this project done on time” makes it seem like you need to qualify the statement.  Simply communicating that you need more help or else you will miss the deadline is a more straightforward way to get results.

Project Confidence

woman smiling

We’ve all heard the saying “fake it ‘till you make it,” and when it's referring to confidence, that can be key.  If you’re struggling with how to be assertive at work, start by projecting confidence in everything you do. You may not always feel it, but you can at least look the part.

Make eye contact when you communicate, stand tall, and don’t fidget when making requests.  Remember to speak clearly, and take care not to talk too fast or mumble inaudibly as that can dilute your message.

Supply a Reason for Your Request

One easy way to harness a little extra authority is by supplying a reason to explain your request at work.  It doesn’t need to be a long, drawn-out justification, but should be a statement that gets to the point of why what you’re saying is necessary and matters.

Doing this causes a psychological shift in the person or people with which you’re speaking.  Providing a reason takes them from a space of having to answer a yes or no question to a place of logic where they would have to argue with your reasoning in order to deny your thought or request.

Not only does providing sound reasoning help you get your way more often, but it will also establish you as someone who makes logical, well thought out suggestions in the workplace.

Remember, if You Don’t Ask, You’ll Never Know

two men communicating

While it’s both normal and okay to feel nervous when approaching your employer or your boss with a request, it’s also important to remember that it’s all right to ask.  Part of managing a team is working with your employees to ensure everyone has what they need, and your supervisor expects that you’ll have to come to them with issues from time to time.

You aren’t doing anything wrong by asking, and if you don’t approach them, you will never have an answer.  The worst case scenario is that they will tell you “no,” and even then, it’s likely not personal.

If you look at it in reverse, you’ll realize that your managers don’t have any issue asking you to do things for them or the company.  Therefore, you shouldn’t feel bad or uncomfortable doing the same.

Assertive Doesn’t Equal Aggressive

Another reason that many people are uncomfortable speaking up is that they don’t want to be viewed as someone who is aggressive, pushy, or even disrespectful.  Remember, being assertive doesn’t mean that you’re bossy.  Instead, it signifies that you are able to clearly communicate your feelings and thoughts to your colleagues and employers.

It’s possible to be a well-liked person while also asserting yourself.  You can disagree with a co-worker, business decision, and even your boss in a professional manner that facilitates a deeper conversation that could lead to an unexpectedly brilliant outcome.

It’s a Process

Learning how to be assertive doesn’t happen overnight, and honing the combination of confidence and communication techniques it takes to be effective is an ongoing process.  Be patient with yourself as you begin to make changes, and forgive yourself if you have some missteps and awkward conversations along the way. 

Author: Jon Stahl