What is assertiveness?

If you look up the definition of assertiveness in various dictionaries, they will all same something along the lines of being confident. For me, there is one definition that I like a lot as it expresses what I think to be important. It goes along the following lines:

Expressing your feelings in a direct, firm and positive way, while respecting the feelings and beliefs of other people.

From my experience, I tend to find that many people, especially in the software development world, tend to be passive and never really voice their opinions. I know I was and this is something that I'm trying to change.

Signs of lack of assertiveness

You may be wondering to yourself, how do I know if I, or someone else, is lacking assertiveness. The following list are some possible indicators on what to look out for:

  • You never get your point across and have to constantly explain yourself
  • People interrupt you mid-sentence or talk over you
  • People always take advantage of you because you always say "yes" to them
  • You often get described as being too quiet
  • Your subordinates don't follow your lead
  • You feel angry about someone else or blame them for the state of your life
  • You tend to find yourself making a lot of excuses
  • You tend to lose your voice and don't speak what you truly feel

If you regularly find yourself doing one or more of these things, the chances are you are behaving in a passive manner.

The road to assertiveness

Many passive people may see assertiveness in the same light as aggression, which isn't true. For example, lets says your product owner comes to you and asks:

"I would like you to include the elastic search feature in this sprint as it really doesn't seem to be a lot of work"

Now lets say you already had quite a bit of work on your plate this sprint, and in your heart you know that it would be very difficult to do add this additional task, but you responded in a a passive manner anyway. Your response may possibly go along the lines of:

"Okay, I will try to fit it in after I have done the database migrations, add the ability to save customers and bug fixes."

A common reason why people respond like this is because they tend to portray themselves in a negative light and often feel inferior to others. This often stems for poor self-esteem and as a result it causes you to have a strong need to please other people and you place a greater weight on their wishes. You will also notice that people who are passive will also talk to other people about the issue than confront the actual person about it. A more assertive response may have been something as follows:

"Unfortunately, I will not be able to complete the elastic search in the current sprint as I don't have the capacity to complete it. However, we can schedule it for the next sprint."

Am I not being aggressive?

You may be wondering if I were to say that wont I come across as being aggressive or not willing to do the work? What is the difference between being aggressive and assertive? Sharon Anthony Bower describes it quite succinctly in the following way:

The basic difference between being assertive and being aggressive is how our words and behaviour affect the rights and well-being of others.

So, in short, nope you aren't being aggressive. As soon as you start becoming angry, trying to cause physical or emotional damage or control them, then you are being aggressive. Also remember, that you are not portraying yourself as not willing to do the work, as more than likely the person is trying to take advantage of you and your passivity.

A good guideline is that the outcome for an assertive person would be a win-win situation for both people. However, having a passive or aggressive person will usually result in a win-lose situation.

If you find that the person is being rather aggressive with you when acting in an assertive manner, what you can do to help solve the issue is to step back and ask them to explain their point of view first. In this way you can find out their motives and where these emotions are coming from. It is also important that you don't feed off the other persons aggression and change from being assertive to aggressive. This is a common behaviour that happens and takes some practice to prevent.

So that wraps up another post. If you have any comments, please list them in the section below.

Until next time...keep learning!

Mauro Da Silva

Learning everyday about software development, leadership & self improvement

South Africa