People often soften their language because they’re afraid of conflict or being seen as rude. But not being assertive at work usually results in overstepped boundaries and frustration.
For instance, Meredith loves her job.
Sometimes, she has to work long hours during the week, but her company has a results-only policy where employees are allowed to work from home as long as their performance and productivity doesn’t falter.
After working at the company for about a year, Meredith decided that she would like to work at home on Fridays. Her boss approved, and like many of my clients, Meredith was excited to have more flexibility in her schedule.
She dreamed of spending Summer Fridays with her friends in the city who always got off work at noon, of working remotely at a beach house before a long weekend, or even just having the time to attend an afternoon yoga class that wasn’t as busy as the one at 6pm.
But in reality, Meredith was stuck working most Fridays. Though she always reserved (and paid for!) a spot in her favorite yoga class, she rarely made it because a colleague who was at the same level as her had a habit of scheduling meetings last minute.
In our coaching session, Meredith was incredibly frustrated because in her mind, she had already asked him to stop. “I sent an email that said, ‘Don’t you think these meetings would be more productive earlier in the week?’ But I guess he didn’t get it.”
Like many of the clients I work with, Meredith softened what she really wanted to say because she was afraid of conflict and offending people. Her email didn’t say, “I’m not available for meetings on Friday afternoons anymore.” That was the boundary she wanted and needed, but couldn’t assert.
Stop Suggesting and Start Asserting
The tricky part of assertive communication is that a lot of us think we’re doing it when we aren’t. But don’t worry, you’re not alone—many people find it challenging to project assertiveness precisely because it requires you to walk a fine line between being pushy and pacifying.
For Meredith, I immediately noticed that her first email was passive and came from a passive position: It might be more efficient if… I asked her to craft a statement that was both diplomatic and constructive, respecting her colleague and offering clear options to help them find a middle ground with getting the meeting scheduled.
The next time Meredith’s colleague requested a meeting on Friday afternoon last minute, she waited 15 minutes and then sent a more direct email to the entire team. The email said, “I’m not available to take calls on Fridays. However, since these concerns tend to come up every week, I’ll be adding a recurring meeting to our team calendar on Thursday to handle this moving forward. I’ve taken a look at everyone’s calendars. It seems like 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. is open. Please respond with your preference.”
Instead of just pushing back, Meredith assertively offered a solution to the team’s problem. In all likelihood, her colleagues probably didn’t like the Friday afternoon meetings very much either.
Build a “To-Don’t List”
When it comes to assertive communication—and communicating about boundaries—you have to get clear on what you want first, before you can share it with other people. A great way to keep your boundaries strong is to create a list of things you don’t want to do anymore or a “To-Don’t List.”
Grab a sheet of paper or open a fresh document on your computer. Start with the, “I am no longer going to…” and fill in the blank. Write until you have at least three items down.
Examples of boundaries:
I am no longer going to be the one who gets the team coffee.
- I am no longer going to always host family gatherings.
- I am no longer going to do all the chores at home.
- I am no longer be responsible for reserving conference rooms.
- I am no longer going to distribute materials before a big meeting.
Once you have your to-don’t list (and it can be long or short), jot down some initial action steps that you can take to make sure you don’t fall back into the habit of doing these tasks.
For example, if Meredith had “I am no longer making myself available for Friday meetings” on her to-don’t list, then she would block out her work calendar on Fridays. Then her colleagues could see she was unavailable and not expect her to attend a meeting scheduled on short notice.
Getting clear on what you will and won’t do is hard, especially for conditioned people-pleasers. But an essential first step is to be assertive at work to get what you want and need.