Non-Assertive People Aren’t Always Wimps

Non-Assertive People Aren’t Always Wimps

The other day I wrote a response to Elizabeth Harrin’s post about measuring the success of project management training. I’ve been thinking about that post off-and-on since I wrote it. I’ve especially been thinking about the example I gave about a stakeholder who doesn’t want to box himself into a charter.

My comment there was, “take a negotiations class”, which I still think is a good idea. That was an appropriate shape for that article, but I wanted to offer some concrete suggestions in a new post.

As many of you know, I’m back at university and have been taking a Communications class. The text we’ve been using is “Understanding Human Communication” by Adler, Rodman and Sevigny (it’s nice to read a textbook with such a clear, Canadian bent). There’s a section in the book on the characteristics of an assertive message that I really wanted to share with you.


Image courtesy of starush on Flickr.

Why is assertiveness important for a project manager? Well, in the face of resistance, like in the example above, assertiveness can help you push past the barriers project staff use to block your progress. If you find yourself struggling to implement project management techniques, what I’m about to offer may help smooth the waters a little bit.

When we talk about assertiveness, we often think of someone who’s being a wimp or a wallflower. “Stand up for yourself! Be assertive!” Our view on the matter seems to suggest that an absence of assertiveness is related to a flaw in someone’s character. More often than not, however, assertiveness dwindles because of a lack of knowledge rather than a lack of chutzpah.

If you ask a stakeholder to contribute to a charter, the stakeholder will assume you understand your own request. He will assume you know the work involved, its consequences, and most importantly, its impact on him. If you make the request before you’ve taken the time to understand all three of these things, you won’t be able to defend your position. This is a characteristic of assertive dialogue. It contains a description of the consequences.

The statement, “we’d rather not box ourselves into a charter,” contains a reasonable message. It says, “if we want to do a good job on this project, we need freedom and flexibility”. The message is uninformed and counterproductive, but it’s reasonable. Before you can refute that message, you first need to be able to hear it. Assertive dialogue carries your interpretation of the other person’s behaviour. People laugh at me all the time for this, because I often preface my statements with, “what I’m hearing is…” Then I rephrase what I thought the other person said. This gives them an opportunity to clarify their meaning. The only way to get at a hidden message is to dig for it.

Assertive dialogue is behavioural, and not evaluative. This means that when you speak, you refer directly to the words or actions the other person used. This contrasts to judging the other person based on the message you thought you heard. To use our ongoing example, you may assume that your stakeholder is rejecting your charter idea without debate rather than just resisting it for other reasons. It can be tempting to blindly accept that and withdraw. But you can’t know his intent without clarification. Evaluative (judgemental) discourse shuts down a conversation and will likely send you back to your desk wondering what went wrong.

It’s very important to also express your feelings in literal, non-threatening ways that your listener can understand. Reacting to a perceived rebuff without first letting the person you’re speaking with know you feel rebuffed changes the focus of the dialogue to your reaction rather than the subject at hand. In your head, you might say to yourself, “wow, this guy’s an idiot; he doesn’t know that we’re doomed without a charter”. No, quite frankly, he may not know. But to get him to see the light, an angry reaction or emotional statement like “fine, whatever” won’t help your cause.

Lastly (and most importantly), assertive dialogue contains a clear statement of your intentions. If you don’t communicate them, other people can’t guess what they are. You can practice beginning statements with “I want you to know…” This paves the way for others to know what you want.

Put it all together, and you get something like this:

When you say you don’t want to be boxed into a charter [behaviour], it seems you don’t want to proceed with a structured approach for this project [interpretation]. I feel that would be a mistake [feeling], because if we can’t nail down some clear objectives and scope of work [short-term consequence], we’ll likely spend way more money and time than we need to, and might even wind up building the wrong solution [long-term consequence]. I want you to know I’m worried [intention].

So to recap. Assertive dialogue is a critical tool in a project manager’s arsenal. Assertive messages generally carry the following five components:

  • A Behavioural Description (as opposed to an evaluation)
  • Your Interpretation of the Other Person’s Behaviour
  • A Description of Your Feelings
  • A Description of the Consequences
  • A Clear Statement of Your Intentions

Now go forth and assert your way to project success!

I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
  • I hear you saying that assertive dialogue, which is descriptive rather than judgmental, tells how you feel about the other person’s statement, describes the consequences inherent in what has been proposed, and clarifies your intentions vis a vis the proposal, improves the quality and effectiveness of our communications.  Was that your intent?

    Great post, Geoff. 

  • Thank you very much Dave! 🙂 I want you to know that I feel gratitude towards your comment, which appears to be written with an informative yet slightly humorous twist and seems intended to reaffirm the message held within the above blog post. Personally I feel validated that you so accurately depicted my intent. *snicker*

  • “Do I remind you of a therapist?

    I hear you saying that I remind you of a therapist

    Is it my calm demeanor that reminds you of a therapist?

    Unanswered questions remind me of my therapist …”

  • HAHAHAHA that’s fantastic!! Thanks so much for that! 😀 Just what I needed today!

  • Great blog Geoff and so much deep understanding of behavioural psychology I’m wondering if you should be leading the Comms class.

    Have you also noticed that often clashes of understanding come because people have different past experiences and don’t understand  how these differences colour interpretations of attitudes and behaviour?

    For instance, in you quote you might add What are your experiences of project charters? What issues have you or others you know had in previous projects?

    Regards, Jo Ann

  • Curt Finch

    Very interesting Geoff. Something like 80% of the PM’s job is communication, so a new PM is at a disadvantage if he/she can’t express themselves clearly. I’m glad that you indicated that simply being assertive is not enough, a PM must be assertive and clear in purpose to be effective.

  • LOL Thank you very much, Jo Ann! *blush* (I actually did very well in Comms. Final mark isn’t in yet but I’m thinking it might be as high as 98%–had my final exam last Thursday and I’m positive I got perfect!)

    You raise an outstanding point! To make it worse, people don’t properly communicate the reasons for their resistance. If they are bringing past judgments to the table, they may not articulate them because as far as they’re concerned, past judgments are a given. i.e., “The last PM who tried to get me to stick to a charter did a bad job. Therefore charters are bad. Duh!” The reasons for the judgment fall away and with time, only the judgment remains.

    This can take a lot of probing to get at. When you think of it, therapists spend huge amounts of time with their clients working these sorts of things out. We project managers just don’t have that luxury!

    That’s why assertive dialogue is so important…without it, we’d never get anything accomplished!

  • Hi, Curt! Thanks so much for the comment! 🙂

    It’s so true that 80% of the PM’s job is communication. The rest is important, but that 20% seems to be the part that so many focus on. Communication falls by the wayside more often than not. In my opinion, it’s the single biggest reason projects run into trouble (although folks are welcome to argue with me on that).

  • Rick Valerga

    Thanks for sharing this methodology to address this problem, Geoff! I agree that in assertive situations we make the most progress when we look at the problem “from the same side of the table” as the other person.

    I find that this helps both near-term (addressing the issue at hand) and long-term (building a relationship with a key stakeholder).

  • Heya, Rick! It’s true, isn’t it? So much of communication rests on our ability to understand and accurately interpret our counterparty’s meaning. That takes empathy. Uh oh. Sounds like another blog post! LOL

  • Anonymous

    I’m very late commenting; I was to busy for blogs for a while.

    Non-assertive people aren’t always wimps but assertive people may appear to be bullies.  I think your approach is a nice middle ground.