Women in Business keynoter Marilyn Sherman teaches attendees winning responses to workplace conflicts. 

Tips and tricks on being assertive at work

By Janet Weyandt, YSN

How do you handle a backhanded compliment? What do you do when a coworker or boss insults you? If you were at the Women in Business (WiB) meeting last week at Summit 2023, you’re better equipped to handle all that and more. 

Speaker Marilyn Sherman kept the packed room entertained as she shared tips and techniques for reducing conflict. Designed for workplace interactions, the skills are transferable to any situation where conflict arises. 

Experts often talk about four personality types, but it’s really four behaviors they’re talking about, she said. 

Aggressive people operate on the theory that they count and you don’t, she said. They react with bluster when things don’t go their way, and use demanding, derogatory language. 

Passive people operate on the theory that you count and they don’t. They’re timid and fear rejection and conflict. As a result, they’re often taken advantage of because they don’t say no. 

Sherman, founder of UpFront Presentations, offered a tip for any passive personalities who want to beef up their boundary-setting skills: When someone asks for a favor, don’t respond with a knee-jerk yes. Instead, say “It depends. What do you need?” before you commit. 

Passive-aggressive people’s operating theory is they count, you don’t, but they’re not going to tell you. They either have good intentions and then react badly when something goes wrong or they start out with bad intentions but say the right things to people in power to look good. 

Passive-aggressive people tend to give backhanded compliments, which means saying something insulting in a pleasant way. Sherman’s tip for handling this is to say, “That sounded like an insult. Was that your intent?” Don’t get emotional or say anything else. 

The winning behavior is assertive: I count and you count, Sherman said. 

“Say what you mean, mean what you say and don’t be mean when you say it,” she said. “If more people were assertive we would have a lot less conflict in the world.”

Sherman shared a list of steps for being more assertive, including breathe, deepen your voice and watch your non-verbals. She then invited the women in the room to participate in an interactive exercise. 

Pairing up, one woman would close her fist tightly and the other would try to open it. All over the room, women were struggling to force each other’s hands open, leading to lots of laughter and chatter. 

Afterward, one or two people raised their hands when Sherman asked who had been successful, and the answer was not to force the hand open but simply to ask the other person to please open their fist. That’s the assertive solution: Direct, honest and nice. 

Sherman offered a four-part script for women (and men, too) to use in a confrontation: 

Part 1. Confront the person about their behavior: “When you __” (add troubling behavior)

Part 2. Add your feelings: “I am __”

Part 3. Say what you need or what behavior you want to see: “What I need is __”

Part 4. Conclude with something you value: “Because I __”

It all adds up to something like this: “When you come to work late, I’m concerned because it’s difficult for me to get my own work done. What I need is for you be here on time, every day, unless there is an emergency. Because you add so much to the team, we’re going to start fresh on Monday.” 

Still not sure you can pull it off? Get yourself an anger buddy — someone whose job it is to listen to you vent so you can react assertively to whomever you’re mad at. They should ask you if you’re open to feedback before giving suggestions on how to react. 

The bottom line, Sherman said, is to let go of baggage and ego so you can think straight and respond assertively in a dispute. 

“Conflict doesn’t have to be this huge, awkward, uncomfortable situation,” she said. “Know that when you show respect for yourself and others, you’re not responsible for how they react.”

YSN publisher AVB BrandSource is the nation’s largest merchandising and marketing co-op for independent appliance, mattress, furniture and CE dealers.

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