Being Assertive: Asking What You Need in the Laboratory and in Life

By Jennifer Casiano-Matos

On September 18th, 2018, I had an opportunity to participate in a talk about assertiveness at the Office of Intramural Training and Education in NIH. It was conducted by Anne Kirchgessner, one of our career counselors. At the meeting, she talked about how being assertive can help you attain what you need and want. In her own words, “assertiveness is the will of being motivated on what is important for you and staying true to your values.” Everyone can learn to be assertive, however, several factors should be considered such as culture, location, environment, physical and mental health, career stage, and other life events.

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According to Anne, being assertive is simple. It is an honest and appropriate expression of your wants, opinions, feelings, and needs. In many cases, it includes standing up for your own rights and communicating your thoughts clearly while respecting others. It sounds easy in words, right? Our ability to be assertive can sometimes be tempered by a difficult situation.  Keep in mind that it involves courage, practice, and support from others. Even if you haven’t practiced being assertive it can be learned at your own pace and your own time.  Have a positive attitude and hope that the person pays attention to your needs. There are components that must be taken into consideration: eye contact throughout the conversation, good and relaxed posture, facial expression in agreement with the message, modulated tone of voice and timing.

We have been raised in a culture where we do not say our needs to our supervisors. However, if you want to be assertive and speak for yourself it is never too late. Keep in mind that you have the right to

  • be treated with respect and dignity
  • have and express your own feelings and opinions
  • be listened to and taken seriously
  • say: “I don’t understand” or “I disagree”
  • do anything so long as it does not violate the rights of others

Learning to be assertive is a gradual process that starts with small changes. For example, start giving positive comments on lab presentations, feedback on products and performance of group members, or ask people to do small tasks. An example of how you can build an assertive statement can be divided into 3 parts:

  • describe the behavior or situation,
  • describe how it affects you
  • describe what you want (I would prefer,).

Use key phrases like, I want, I believe, I feel, I would like; this will help you focus on yourself, avoid blaming the other person and being clear on your thoughts. You should also be a good listener and focus on the other person, with an active attempt to understand their response.

Quite often, we have different personalities in our lab/work setting. It is important to understand each one of them, especially how we interact, and being assertive, with everyone around us. In my previous post about Strategies for Managing Conflict and Feedback, I discussed how we can manage potential conflict and give positive feedback in our work setting. The main goal is to achieve collaboration or a win-win solution.

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Keep in mind that being assertive will help you in your personal development and your self-esteem. To achieve assertiveness, you can:

  • Ask for help if you need it
  • Express positive thoughts and negative thoughts appropriately
  • Ask questions when in doubt
  • Understand what you want and need
  • Present your opinions even if they are different
  • Say NO if you don’t want to do something
    • Explain how this affect your priorities and life

Finally, let’s not confuse being aggressive with being assertive. Aggressiveness is violating other’s rights while assertiveness is standing up for yourself in ways that respect your rights and feelings and the rights and feelings of others. At the end you will feel good because you are expressing yourself and may get what you want, especially being heard and respect from others. If you are interested in learning more about how to be assertive and how this will help you on achieving your goals you can find more helpful information by watching Amy Cuddy’s Ted talk, where she explains how your body language affects how others see us. You can also watch “The Power of the Pose” for more helpful tips. Being assertive had a great impact on my well-being and I am more respected by others when I practice it.

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