Cool and logical or a towering fury? How to be more effective when you assert yourself

If you fear a loss of control, you can often end up being aggressive in your behaviour towards others. Here’s why staying cool and logical is the best way to assert yourself.

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

Warren Buffett

Have you ever wondered why you can react perfectly coolly, logically and reasonably with certain people and situations, while with other people or other apparently similar situations you are reduced to a stammering wreck – or towering fury?

Assuming that you agree with me that it would be better if you were able to act coolly, logically and reasonably in the vast majority of situations (perhaps excluding actual physical threat, or a person who is totally beyond rational conversation), then it’s a good idea to examine what’s going on in these situations.

Assertive, Passive, Aggressive

We call the cool, logical and reasonable response being assertive, and it can extend anywhere from quietly and courteously refusing to do something you don’t want to do, right through to very strongly asserting your viewpoint or your wishes.

Behaviour where you back down in the face of someone else’s demands or opinion and are left with a loss of self-esteem, or feeling as if you haven’t expressed yourself fully, we call passive behaviour.

Aggressive behaviour is when you assert your wishes or opinion so strongly that you cross a line and leave another person feeling a loss of self-esteem or that they haven’t been able to express themselves fully.

The definition of being assertive is ‘having or showing a confident and forceful personality’: you express your needs while allowing the other person to express theirs. As a leader, you need to learn to be assertive in a wide range of situations and, as your organisation grows, with a wide range of different types of people. Often the organisation leaders I speak to discover that as they get further out of their normal skill range as their company grows, they find themselves either backing down much more often than they would like, or getting exasperated and snappy with people out of the frustration of not knowing how to deal with new and complex issues.

It’s important to recognise that your version of being aggressive may not take the form of shouting loudly or overtly losing your temper. Being sarcastic or cold with people are forms of aggression, often called passive-aggressive. Apply the test of whether you left the person feeling good about themselves, and you may quickly see that you use aggression more often than you think.

Passive behaviour often masquerades as ‘being nice’, ‘being one of the gang’ or ‘being easy-going’. The test in this case is whether you end up feeling as if you always give in and never get what you need.

So let’s assume that, like me, you think it would be a good idea to extend the range of situations and people where you can use assertive behaviour reliably and consistently most of the time. What steps do you need to take?

The first thing to explore is why you react differently in some situations than others. Why do you sometimes fail to stand up for yourself, and sometimes lose your cool, in apparently similar situations? Any responses other than assertive ones usually come from some kind of fear.

If you tend to the easy-going, passive end of the spectrum as an organisational leader it’s often from the fear of becoming unpopular, or being rejected by the people who used to be your peers and workmates. Or you may be afraid of rejection if you pick up the phone to certain prospects – if they sound busy or snappy, for example.

If your responses tend towards the aggressive, it’s very often from a fear of loss of control – “why won’t they do what I want?” – so you escalate your communication in the hope that you can force others through sheer force of personality. Explore your inner fears and motivations and start to challenge dysfunctional thoughts, and thereby behaviour, maybe with the help of a coach, until the unexpressed fear no longer runs the show.

Some hints:

  • The key word to use is: ‘I’. In aggressive and passive mode, we tend to use the word ‘you’, which can sound like an attack, or hide behind the collective – “we all think…” Instead, try “I feel…”, “I believe…”, “I think…”, “In my opinion…”
  • Don’t say “You should do this…” or “You ought to do that…” – it can be interpreted as aggressive. Try saying “I would like you to do this” or “I feel it would be a good idea if you……”
  • Don’t state your opinion or perception as the truth. Rather state it as something you believe or feel. The other person will be much more likely to listen to you without getting defensive.
  • If someone is doing something that upsets you, try using this four-part ‘I’-statement:
    • When you……. (tell them what they do – the facts)
    • I feel……… (tell them how you feel – your emotional reaction)
    • Because……… (tell them why you feel like that – your fear, belief or perception)
    • And I end up……(tell them how you end up acting or behaving as a result)

Then you can make a straight request as to what you would like them to do instead.

For example: “When you ignore the security rules, I feel worried because I worry that I can’t do my job properly, and I end up getting snappy with you. Please would you follow the procedures in future?”

  • Body language is important. Sometimes your state of mind will show in your body language, even if you think you are controlling the words that come out of your mouth. Conduct a check when you want to be assertive: use normal eye contact and a relaxed, upright posture. Keep your voice even and normal and don’t stand too close to the other person.


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