Speak Up!

(But don’t suck all the air out of the room)


Finding the appropriate level of assertiveness is a bit of a Goldilocks predicament: How much is too little? How much is too much? And where is the “just right” sweet spot of asserting yourself, in business and in your personal life?

Assertiveness is your ability to express your needs, thoughts and opinions – even when the way you will be received is unknown and potentially negative.

Too little assertiveness can result in (literally) not being heard. An unassertive person may be seen as weak, lacking skills or confidence, or just plain disinterested. 

Too much assertiveness can be perceived as arrogant or even as bullying behavior. It may cause others to be reluctant to work with you and to feel that their participation isn’t welcome and their contributions won’t be valued. 

You may be comfortable with a typical level of assertiveness, stating your needs and beliefs on occasion, but not all the time – or advocating for your point of view, but not strongly. You might see better results in your relationships if you try to increase your assertiveness.

Imagine this: Today’s morning meeting is a brainstorming session about a new company initiative. The boss has made it clear that all ideas are welcome, but you’re not sure that your suggestion is sufficiently developed. Your options:

  1. You don’t contribute to the meeting at all because you’re not 100 percent confident in the value or readiness of your idea. A likely result is that you will appear unprepared and not committed to the goal.

  2. You speak up despite your reservations, expressing confidence that your idea is worth consideration even if not fully developed. You appear engaged and willing to be part of the team.

If you’re shy or insecure, you may need to practice speaking up. Avoid starting sentences with a disclaimer like “this might be a stupid idea.” Also, try not to use questioning “up-talk” at the end of your statements, which creates the impression that you doubt what you say.

If you’re somewhat assertive, try phrasing ideas in a more confident manner:  “Another approach we should consider” or “An additional option worth exploring” or “If we tried this, the result might be…”

If you’re too assertive, you may need to focus more on empathy and impulse control. Engaged and listening to someone other than yourself will create opportunities to have relationships based on shared give-and-take.

Here are some other ways to develop an appropriate level of assertiveness:

  • Challenge yourself to voluntarily offer a thought or position in a meeting or conversation before you are asked. Do so regardless of whether your idea is “fully baked.”

  • Approach someone with whom you disagree to state your opposition in a confident but non-confrontational way.

  • Practice saying no.

  • Find language you’re comfortable with for asserting yourself in respectful ways: “I get what you’re saying, but things look different from my perspective.”

How do you know when assertiveness has become aggressiveness?

Take this short EQ Quiz and find out where you stand:

Alan CohenComment