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The Fine Art of Female Assertiveness

How to get your way by being diplomatically assertive

Women often have a smaller range of acceptable behaviors at work than men. If they are too nice, they are seen as weak or manipulative. If they are too aggressive, they are judged as acting like men or typical bitches.

On the other hand, when men show traits of empathy, generosity and nurturing, they are credited for being progressive. If they are commanding, decisive and competitive, they are just a product of their testosterone.

I'm not blaming men for this inequity. We are all to blame for holding on to some stereotypes and blocking change. That is an issue for a future post. Here, I want to talk about female assertiveness.

As I was starting my working life in my twenties, a man thirty years older than me gave me an important piece of advice, "Sometimes you have to be a bitch." I quickly learned he was correct, but how I expressed my "bitchiness" depended on my position and the situation. There was a difference between being a bitch and being diplomatically assertive.

In other words, there is a fine art to female assertiveness. Although you might still be judged negatively by some for being direct and bold at any time, when you are diplomatically assertive, you are more likely to get what you want.

I learned this distinction when I was the Manager of Training for a multinational semiconductor corporation. I was passionately describing to my boss the virtue of my grand idea and my frustration with the executive team for not "getting it." He took my hand, patted it and said, "Dear, you can quit fighting now. You've made it." Although I didn't care for how he told me, he wisely forced me to look at the difference between forcing my point of view and persuading people to listen to my ideas.

The "pit bull" approach worked to help me be a great individual contributor, which earned me recognition and promotions even if I made few friends. I'm sure many people called me a bitch but by most standards, I was successful.

In the long run, my forcefulness didn't help me make the changes I wanted to see in my company. There is a difference between being strong-willed and being seen as powerful by my peers, the people I needed to support my campaigns to make a bigger difference.

These tips are useful for both genders:

  1. Although you are passionate about your beliefs, allow people to disagree. Hear them out. You may have a great argument that will shut them down. Yet shutting them down doesn't build the alignment you need for change. Listen for the fears behind their doubts and the beliefs behind their stories. When you name their worries and acknowledge their beliefs, they feel "seen" and more likely to hear your answer to their concerns and the reasons why you have an alternative viewpoint. Disagreement is needed for smart decision-making. Demanding your point of view is right over another keeps you in the dark. You need to make firm decisions. And you need to define to your dissenters how you considered their opinions when making your choice.
  2. Once you understand their perspective and concerns, seek the common ground. Tell them, "I can see why you believe the way you do. I am concerned about that too. I want for the same things as you do. My solutions are different than yours because I came to believe something new from these particular experiences..."
  3. Choose to lead a revolution instead of a rebellion. Rebellions focus on complaining and blame. You come off as self-righteous even when you feel passionately right about what you see is wrong. Revolution is about inspiring people to come together to create something new. You build on hope and possibility. Of course, you need to be careful about stating the timeframes for change so people are not disappointed and lose trust in your promises.
  4. Let them call you names. There will always be people who find fault with authority. There will always be people who are intimidated by strength, especially in women. There will always be people who don't want to be accountable for their lives so they want to spend their time looking for what they can attack in other's people words or personalities. Don't give in by mirroring their behaviors. Let them call you whatever they like.

Being diplomatically assertive doesn't mean backing down. It means you know how to present what you believe in a way that others will hear, understand and hopefully, align with your thinking. When enough of us model this behavior, the name-calling might stop, or not. But at least leading change will be easier.

We may not stop the name-calling, but we might change the world.

Adapted from Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction.

More from Marcia Reynolds Psy.D.
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