Become More Assertive, One Step at a Time

By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA

Assertiveness is frequently misunderstood. Some people believe you have to be confident to be assertive. But being assertive is less about being confident and more about valuing yourself and your profession. It’s about believing you’re entitled to be somewhere, that you have basic rights as a human being and as a healthcare professional, and that as much as you give respect to others you deserve the same in return. Don’t confuse the concept of assertiveness with aggressiveness, which often is defined as being pushy, boisterous or overbearing.

Becoming more assertive can lead to increased respect and recognition as a person and as a nurse. It can get you more of what you want and need in life. If you feel you are someone who often is the recipient of bullying or belittling by another, acting assertive can help to minimize or avert that. Remember, you cannot change someone else’s behavior, you can change only your own. Becoming more assertive is a process. It’s not something that happens overnight. You can, however, make some small changes now to start moving in the right direction.

Stop apologizing all the time. Many of us have a bad conversational habit of saying “I’m sorry” on a regular basis without even thinking about it. We say, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you,” or “I’m sorry, are you busy right now?” Although we say it in an effort to be polite, it sounds like we’re apologizing. I remember a former supervisor once telling me how her airline reservations had gotten mixed up and she would have to change her travel plans. She seemed quite upset, so I said “I’m so sorry that happened.” She looked at me rather surprised and said “Why are you apologizing? It wasn’t your fault.” Of course that’s not how I meant it, but that’s how it sounded. When you say you’re sorry all the time, it sounds as if you’re taking the blame for everything that happens. It’s annoying to many people, and it makes you seem like a self-appointed scapegoat. Don’t say “I’m sorry” unless you’ve done something for which you truly need to apologize.

Learn to take a compliment. When complimented on a job well done, many managers, project leaders and association executives I’ve known respond, “Oh, I didn’t do anything. It was the team that did all the work.” A more appropriate response would be to say, “Thank you. I had a great team to work with on this.” Accepting a genuine compliment is not a sign of conceit. It’s simply a gracious way of appreciating someone’s acknowledgment of something you did. How many times has someone said to you, “Thanks for what you did for me” and you responded with, “It was nothing” or “Don’t mention it,” thereby minimizing your actions? A more assertive reply would be, “It was my pleasure.” or “I’m happy I was able to help.” This type of response is important because when you deflect a compliment, you’re basically saying, “My actions were meaningless or minimal and unworthy of acknowledgement.”

Don’t be self-deprecating. Merriam-Webster defines self-deprecating as “belittling or undervaluing oneself; excessively modest.” While modesty is an admirable trait, taking it to an extreme is counterproductive. I once attended an awards ceremony sponsored by a local nursing organization. Several RNs were being honored for outstanding work in the field. One nurse walked up to the podium after being introduced and said, “I don’t deserve this award.” In her well-meaning attempt to not appear boastful, she was negating the contributions of all nurses. Her comments were unnecessary and inappropriate. She simply might have said, “I’m honored and humbled by this recognition. I accept this award on behalf of all my fellow nurses who do such outstanding work every day and often remain in the shadows.”

Act confident even if you don’t feel confident. Force yourself to make good eye contact with people and use a steady, audible voice when speaking. Stand or sit erect with your head upright and straight on your shoulders, not tilted to the side or bent forward. Act like you have a right to be there, even if you don’t yet feel that way. If someone attempts to interrupt you while you’re talking, keep talking until you are done and raise the volume of your voice if necessary to be heard. If you stop talking midstream in an effort to be “polite,” you are making a statement that they have more of a right to speak than you do.

Being assertive is not about being combative or aggressive. It’s about firmly holding a belief that you’re someone who matters. Acting in a more assertive manner actually will make you feel more assertive and lead to increased confidence. Just as important, it will help you get noticed and listened to and start to garner the respect you and your profession deserve. Take some small steps in the right direction today.

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