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Developing an assertive approach
  1. Kirsty Sturman

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Kirsty Sturman is a training adviser at VDS, with expertise in time and stress management, communication, resilience, leadership and coaching.

Do you often try to keep others happy rather than putting yourself first, and then find you regret it? Do you find yourself saying ‘yes’ when you really wanted to say ‘no’?

Within the veterinary profession we see a lot of caring, supportive and peacemaker personalities who prioritise maintaining harmony and avoiding confrontation, even if it’s at their own expense. If you recognise these traits in yourself, you may be thinking that the only person who comes off badly in this is you. But, let me ask you a question – in these situations, are you really being honest and fair with your colleagues?

What is assertiveness?

To understand how to be more assertive, we need to be clear about what assertiveness is. To be assertive means to be open and honest about our opinions and needs, while having consideration for the needs of others. It is stating clearly, calmly and confidently what we want in a rational manner, while recognising the other person’s point of view, and acknowledging their right to a different viewpoint.

Why do some people find assertiveness difficult?

There are a number of reasons why you may struggle with assertiveness and it’s important to identify these before you can modify your behaviour. Which of the following most common reasons resonate with you?

This monthly wellbeing series is provided by VDS Training. Topics are listed below:

  1. Knowing what you want from life✓

  2. Managing perfectionism✓

  3. Becoming responsibly selfish✓

  4. Getting the most out of your time✓

  5. Feeling in control✓

  6. Setting achievable goals✓

  7. Personal leadership✓

  8. Developing a resilient approach✓

  9. Developing an assertive approach✓

  10. Dealing with difficult clients

  11. Worried about a colleague?

  12. Fulfilment at work

  1. Lack of self-awareness;

  2. Dislike of conflict (including potential conflict) and an inability to handle it;

  3. Not having a clear idea of what you want or need;

  4. Low self-esteem or self-worth.

Being more assertive

Self-awareness is key to assertiveness. You need to know who you are, what your strengths and blind-spots are within your behavioural style, the value you bring to others and also the impact that you have on them.

If you have a more reserved personality type, you may find you will do anything to avoid conflict, not wanting to rock the boat by disagreeing or speaking up. In these situations consider whether the conflict is real or perceived? Is it simply that the person you are dealing with is more direct and to the point and you are perceiving this as conflict?

What do you really want? If you aren’t clear on what you want or need, it’s hard to speak up for it or ask for it.

What are your values? If openness and honesty are important to you, how would you feel if others weren’t being open and honest with you? How would you feel if you found out a family member, colleague or friend was saying ‘yes’ to you when they wished they could say ‘no’, or that they were taking on tasks from you when they had more than enough of their own?

Often changing a few small things makes a big difference. For example, saying ‘no’ can be done in many different ways – you may find saying ‘No I can’t do that today, but I could do it on Thursday’ or ‘Yes I can do that, if you can do this for me’ easier than just saying ‘No I haven’t got time to do that today.’ By rephrasing your response in this way, you give the other person a choice and how they respond is up to them.

Another tip is to buy yourself time to think rationally about what you really want, rather than just providing your default response. Perhaps you could say:

  1. ‘Can I check my diary/schedule and come back to you in an hour?’

  2. ‘Can I get back to you this afternoon?’

Taking a bit of time to think before you give an answer can lead to a more considered response rather than a reactive and unconsidered one.

Find your motivation for change

What impact is not being assertive having on you? How would you and others around you benefit from you improving your assertiveness?

We are not born assertive, it is a conscious choice of behaviour. While some behavioural styles may find assertiveness easier, the challenge for those styles is to not slip from being assertive to being dominant. True assertiveness is a skill we can develop with self-awareness and practise and, when we do communicate better, we feel more fulfilled and, most importantly, we are being true to ourselves.

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