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How to be Assertive and Remain True to Yourself

Assertiveness refers to how strongly you are expected to voice your point of view in a particular situation. It also refers to how direct you are expected to be. Unfortunately, because of cultural differences, you may find it extremely uncomfortable being assertive at work.

Here are quotes from our interviews with foreign-born engineers in Silicon Valley. They attest to the fact that high tech companies in general value direct, open, self-critical, and even confrontational communication.

  • It’s hard to be a foreigner here...he can really get bashed down.

  • Asians are really awed and swayed by authority.

  • We need to be able to push back.

  • Some people here are aggressive, arrogant, obnoxious…we get intimidated.

  • People are so argumentative here...we need debating skills.

So what can you do?

We recommend six strategies for asserting yourself. Equally important, we also describe a three-step process to maintain your cultural integrity while adapting your behavior to the situation at hand.

Six Strategies for Asserting Yourself

In asserting yourself, you give information about how you see things and what you want. You persuade and influence others.

If necessary, you point out negative consequences in order to produce your desired result. Your goal is to have an impact on the situation and on the other individuals involved.

Here are six strategies for accomplishing this – from easy to more challenging. You don’t have to do them all at once. You might want to practice first during informal conversations with friends and colleagues before using these strategies in challenging situations at work.

  1. Speak up more often. Instead of simply listening, express an opinion. It could be as simple as saying, “Yes, I agree with you. I also think….”

  2. Tell more and ask less. Say “Here’s what I think we need to do,” instead of “What do you think of this idea?”

  3. Make statements clear, definite statements. Avoid using these words: try, perhaps, maybe, possibly.

  4. Voice your disagreements. If you disagree with something, come right out and say so. State your opinions frankly, but tactfully. Be clear about what you want and how you feel.

  5. Don’t gloss over problems. Face conflicts openly. Deal with problems as soon as possible.

  6. Integrate an assertive style with an assertive message. Make eye contact. Look at the people you’re talking to. Stand or sit up straight, not slouched. Use a tone of voice that is firm and somewhat louder than your usual tone of voice. Use gestures that are natural, comfortable, and compatible with your message.

With time and practice, you will be able to develop these assertive skills and become more effective in the high tech environment.

However, the process of learning and practicing may be stressful because being assertive may contradict many of your cultural values. For example, in many Asian countries, asking critical questions of someone in authority is considered disrespectful.

You also need a process that helps you flex your styles across cultures without losing yourselves in the process.

Three-Step Process for Adapting Your Behavior While Remaining True to Yourself

We at Moving Up in America teach a process for maintaining your cultural integrity while, at the same time, adapting your behavior sufficiently to meet expectations at work.

Here is the three-step process:

  1. Diagnose the level of assertiveness expected in a particular situation. What are the specific behaviors that are expected?

  2. Identify your challenges in adapting your behavior to what’s expected in a particular situation. What makes you uncomfortable? How much adaptation is possible within your comfort zone? Can you give yourself permission to deviate somewhat from your native culture’s norms?

  3. Rehearse the assertive behavior you have decided on with a trusted friend or colleague. What went well? What didn’t go so well?

In summary, you analyze the situation, decide how much change you are comfortable with, and then practice.

When you finally try out your new assertive behaviors in the real situation, you will experience less stress, and you will minimize internal conflict.

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