Could you pinpoint the difference between assertive and aggressive if asked? It’s not a trick question. I am genuinely curious because these are two of the most frequently misused words in the English language. In truth, they have very little in common. The former characterises someone as confident, firm and self-assured, while the latter paints the picture of a person whose behaviour is hostile, domineering and even violent. So why am I drawing this comparison? I have been thinking, lately, about why so many people struggle to be honest about what they want or need. All too often, confusion between these two words gets in the way. Most of us would rather bite our tongue, grit our teeth and walk away, than be branded as aggressive. Yet we all deserve to be heard; we all have the right to put our point across. Of course, we won’t always get our way, but we have a responsibility to ourselves, to assert exactly what we expect from any given situation. At least then, we have left nothing unsaid.
Does Culture Play A Part?
In fairness, we are conditioned to think twice before taking assertive action. Cast your mind back to childhood: although it may never have been said in as many words, it is likely that you were shown what it means to be British. Repeatedly. I am, of course, referring to the notion of complaining. As Brits, it is simple. We just don’t do it. How many of you have been out for a sub-par meal, a meal you’ve grumbled about with your dining pals from start to finish? The service was no good, the food was cold, the orders were wrong, the flavour was non-existent, one meal had to go back…you can picture the scene, I’m sure. Now, of those who answered “yes” how many of you will have smiled politely and said: “fine thank you” when the inattentive waiter asked how everything had been? You are not alone. In fact, that’s exactly how I always used to behave.
A few years ago, my partner recognised something in me which opened my eyes. He identified that my own reasons for so readily accepting things that don’t measure up the way they should were attached to a much more complicated set of beliefs that I have carried with me since childhood. Deep down, I never thought I had the right to expect anything more, so I would settle for whatever came my way. To a degree that is true; it isn’t my right or entitlement to have things exactly as I would want them to be, as that suggests an implicit expectation. I am, however, well within my rights to ask for precisely what I want.
Not Your Problem…
There are probably a lot of people thinking: ‘that’s great, but it doesn’t apply to me!’ but you would be surprised. Messages like these are nurtured on such a deeply subconscious level, they are often almost imperceptible. Even in ourselves. Until we decide to look. Once we open our mind to the possibility that there is power in the way we think, that there are lessons in us we’d really rather un-learn, and that we are never too old to challenge our own behaviours, we suddenly become malleable and the potential for change is limitless.
Practise What I Preach
I am on holiday at the moment in Bulgaria, taking a well-earned fortnight off, and the thought came into my head over an air BnB dispute in the capital. We have been using air BnB for six years, beginning when it was still a non-commercial venture enabling quirky individuals to open their homes to travellers from around the globe. Nowadays, it is a huge international company, paying a premium for prime cinema advertising, and charging extortionate service fees on holiday rentals. Though I grumble about said service fees every time I arrive at the checkout, realising that a £28 per night booking has hiked up to £49 per night with no more than the push of a button, experiences like this one remind me why they’re in place. Our flying visit to Sofia was only intended to break up our journey, given that we knew it would take seven hours to cross the country to the coast using public transport. Our centrally located apartment was listed as ‘luxurious, with air con, sleeps four, equipped kitchen….’ it went on. The reality, though, was a different matter entirely. When we arrived at the dark front door from the street, I immediately felt apprehensive. As it turns out, my gut instinct was right. Inside the apartment itself, was a tiny entrance hall which had been made home to a leaky sink unit with a fridge below, a two-person table with only one chair set, a miniscule settee along one wall orientated towards a tiny TV, some funky IKEA light fittings and some designer tiles. The bathroom was actually a cubbyhole-sized wet room, with bad plumbing and an infestation of baby cockroaches. Finally, the air con attributed to the flat was actually a free-standing unit (which sounded like a fighter jet even on its lowest setting) only found in the master bedroom. The same was true of the mosquito screens on the windows, meaning any unlucky inhabitants of the second room would have no air con and wouldn’t be able to open their windows at night. All this, teamed with the two-person table and the solo chair, made the notion of four people staying there comfortably, or even humanely, fairly unlikely. All in all, despite its perfect location, it most certainly did not do what it said on the tin.
The thing most of us agonise over, when it comes to complaining, is how we will be perceived. What I have learnt, is that as long as I stick to the truth, keep calm and factual when describing the problem, be clear about what I want the outcome to be, and ensure I contact the person at the right level to assist me, it is unlikely I will come across as rude, unreasonable or petulant. The simple fact is: nobody can offer me a solution unless I let them know there is a problem. I have reached a point in my life where I am unwilling, in personal and professional scenarios alike, to be taken advantage of. I expect promises made by others to be upheld and I happen to value the services I pay for. I see no need to apologise for that, and I certainly don’t make a secret of it. For those who are wondering what happened in the Sofia story, I complained to the host, detailing the concerns I had regarding the inaccuracy of the listing. I sent photographs of the cockroaches and the leaking sink. She immediately contacted me, offering a refund of a fraction of what we had paid her. We decided we were not satisfied with that, so went back to her with our own suggestion of what we deemed reasonable compensation. When she hadn’t replied after a further twenty-four hours, we contacted air BnB directly, explaining our predicament. Needless to say, air BnB were in agreement that the service we had received had been wholly unacceptable, and we were given a full refund. Lessons Learnt On Holiday This morning, as I watched the sun rise in technicolour from the balcony of our beautiful Black Sea coast apartment, I realised that assertiveness in life is exactly the same as it is in business. That surely means there are as many people struggling with it in the office as in the outside world. The inattentive waiter may actually be the boss, the office junior or even a peer.
Take It To The Office
If an employee produced a piece of work that was not up to scratch – maybe it failed to uphold the company ethos, or perhaps it wasn’t a convincing enough pitch for an account – it would be your duty as Line Manager to steer them on the right path. That wouldn’t be seen as making a complaint, but rather you doing your job. Yet it never ceases to amaze me how many people in employment are left to flounder.
No matter what your level of seniority, we all have strengths and weaknesses. We all have insecurities and areas in which we need support. I have witnessed too many people, in leadership positions, who actually say they would rather let someone learn by the flail-and-fail method than risk rocking the boat of their harmonious working relationship.
In my opinion, sometimes the boat needs a good shake. Of course it is a careful path to tread, avoiding conflict and wanting to maintain mutual respect. That is where those all important definitions enter the equation: the A-word and which one you adopt. There is nothing destructive about identifying an area for improvement and highlighting this to a colleague. To speak with clarity and certainty about the way you would like to see this addressed is not to complain about or negate that person’s previous work. You are simply offering a helping hand in a manner in which they can feel confident and secure. Certainty breeds certainty. Remember, being assertive is not the same as being aggressive. Nor will it paint you in a negative light. It simply shows you to be sure of your beliefs and ideals, while having faith in your ability to identify a goal. These are traits to be admired and respected, and contribute to creating a picture of the competent worker we all want to be, whatever our job title. It is nobody else’s responsibility to recognise what we want; sometimes, we actually need to ask for it. If you or someone in your workplace needs help finding their assertive self, contact me to see how my coaching or group training can help.