Non-Assertive People Aren’t Always Wimps

Posted by in Geoff Crane: The Papercut PM Blog

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!