Last week I was delivering a training day which focussed on assertiveness for half a day. Out of the 10 delegates for the afternoon only one was male and most of them were in their 20s. The majority of them were confident and mixed easily with the delegates they didn’t know. However, when asked to give a two-minute presentation about themself and their role at work, concentrating on their skills and abilities most of themwere very shy and avoided talking about themselves. One delegate didn’t manage to say anything at all – I’m not that scary really!

This set me thinking back on my career and the type of challenges I faced early on. Having completed a 4 year degree course in Engineering I was used to being in a man’s world but even so some of the attitudes I faced at work took me my surprise. In the late 80’s, calendars of topless women were still common on operational sites and the assumption was that a woman on site must be a secretary or from the lab and certainly could be nothing to do with management. When I was given a front line management job, most of the team had never worked for a woman, certainly not one who was younger than them. I faced several challenges to my position right away – demands for regular meetings within an implicit threat that there may be industrial relations problems without them.

During these early days, I instinctively fell back into the assertive ways I’d learnt when I was a student. My response to the meetings “request” was that I’d be willing to have a meeting when one was needed, at a time convenient to both sides, but I did not want to schedule regular meetings. At a monthly team meeting, when I didn’t have a ready answer to a question my response was “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you”. The response from the shop steward was “You’re management, you don’t say you don’t know”

Looking round organisations and their styles, I often wonder how much easier things would be if  the relationships were more respectful and both sides were honest about their views and needs.  I still see so many problems caused by people not thinking about their face to face meetings with their colleagues or managers. There can be a tendency to fly by the seat of your pants and then not listen to what the other person is saying, so things can descend into a downwards spiral of frustration and dissatisfaction.

So what were the tips that the delegates seemed to find useful:

  • Make sure you respect the other person’s point of view – “I can see that you’re busy with the month end report”….
  • But also make your own needs clear – “but I do have something I need to discuss with you”
  • Remember you are aiming for a win-win situation – “How about booking an appointment with you for the day after the report goes out?”
  • Thinking through what you are going to say to someone is a good habit to get into, it doesn’t mean you are a poor communicator
  • You always have the choice to be assertive or not. Some days you might not want to tackle the person who pushes in front of you in the canteen, it’s up to you.
  • If a colleague is pushing you to take on some work, you don’t have to commit yourself right away. Ask for time to think about it and agree when you will get back to them.
  • There are always some people who get what they want by being manipulative, moaning or whining. It can be tempting to adopt the same behaviour but taking the assertive approach will pay off in the long run. You will earn people’s respect and ensure you are a valued member of the team.

Would working culture be improved if all school children were taught an assertive approach to communication?

Do women at work need extra support to overcome prejudices and assumptions about their abilities?

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