How do I know when I'm being self-assertive vs. being a jerk?
March 11, 2008 10:00 PM   Subscribe

How do I know when I'm being self-assertive vs. being a jerk?

This question has plagued me for a long time, but I currently find myself in a job where it's become pretty central. For the first time in my life, I'm working in a relatively small and pretty unstructured environment where there's no clear path to making my needs/wants known.

I feel like I'm missing some sort of internal barometer here, that I lack an innate sense the difference between not speaking up and being too much of a "squeaky wheel." As such, I almost always err on the side of not speaking up, but I feel like this needs to change in order for me stay afloat -- if I don't assert myself, I feel my requests for support/help/assistance/etc. will remain at the bottom of everyone's priority list, but if I'm too overbearing, I fear I'm going to come across as a jerk, overly sensitive, or both.

What social cues or internal signals should I look for to help me determine whether I'm being appropriately assertive or too demanding?
posted by treepour to Human Relations (11 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I think this is a vexed topic for many people. The Book of No (link to a review. The book contains short narrative scenarios of situations where you might be tempted to give in, and walks you through ways of saying "no".) and other similar self-help books might be useful here.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:23 PM on March 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

You could take the quiz.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:35 PM on March 11, 2008

Your question confuses me a little, but let me proceed by giving you advice framed in the context of broadcast. (who your wheel squeaks at)

Should you have a need, be sure to convey it only to the most critical figure in its fulfillment, and then reiterate it only by basing further commentary on your establishe I shared with you? Well, pal, lately there's been new development Y, can you please empathize and assist? I'm counting on your understanding... I was thiking you might help by clever benevolent suggestion here]"

Be patient, be prudent, and you won't be a squeaky wheel. The person whom you target as the ally, the actor, will be flattered by your assessment of their power, and will hopefully respond in such a way as to prove their power for good to one and all. The others will be unaffected. Man, office politics is grim shit.

As for cues of when you're crossing a line of assholery, there's really no short list of tricks I can recommend. You need to constantly consider the feelings and insecurities of those around you, if you want to avoid making people feel crummy. People do just feel crummy without good reason, and so if you sit down and make a little list of insecurities you observe in these relevant people, and commit to handling them gingerly in future, you might find your empathy "faking it till you are making it" and stuff. "amanda seems to feel talked-down to easily," or "Jack doesn't like being confronted abruptly" are useful observations you might be able to get a handle on and bear in mind.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:36 AM on March 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

argh, how aggravating, my touchpad woes.

establishe ^^d concerns, as in "Hey, Manager Chad, recall the concernds about support coverage ^^ I shared
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:40 AM on March 12, 2008

Assert early, assert often- but only if what you are asserting is common sense, best for the group's goals. You don't have to be a jerk about it, just express your point of view calmly, citing common sense as your backup.

Most times the others in the group want someone to lead.
posted by mattoxic at 4:43 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Where I've worked, the assertive people have:

-- made their needs known once, see if they're met and then only speak again if their needs aren't weren't met the first time (or if they have new needs).

-- they confine their comments to their needs. They don't add all sorts of gratuitous stuff -- long stories, etc.

-- they explain simply and clearly why they have their needs. There are only one meaningful reasons for needs in a workplace: (1) I need X because it will help me do my job. Personal needs are fair game, but express them in terms of work: "I need a day off so that I can help my sick mother. That will allow me to focus more on my work when I get back."

-- they keep calm. Assertive is not the same as aggressive. If they express a need and it's ignored, they don't say, "HEY! I'm talking here!" They calmly re-assert their need.

-- it it's clear that no one can focus on the need right now, they drop it TEMPORARILY and bring it up later. (Unless it's an emergency).

-- they only talk to the specific person or people who can meet the need. If explaining the need will take a long time, they don't do it during a big meeting with lots of people who can't help. Instead, they pull the potentially-helpful people aside, after the meeting, and have a private discussion with them.

-- they do homework. Try to figure out ahead-of-time what will meet the need. Figure out minimum requirements and best-case-scenarios. But be open to discussion.

-- they don't put people between a rock and a hard place: "I must have my need met in this particular way, or I'm quitting!" Even if things are that dire, try, "I'm having trouble getting my work done while X is going on."

-- they listen to other people. No matter how important your needs are, other people have their needs, too. State your needs and then give others a chance to respond. Take their responses seriously, even if they don't meet your needs.
posted by grumblebee at 5:28 AM on March 12, 2008 [72 favorites]

Treepour, listen to grumblebee, he speaks the truth.

The only thing I'd add to that list is, look for ways to solve both your problem and someone else's at once, if and where possible.
posted by LN at 5:34 AM on March 12, 2008

Best answer: For the first time in my life, I'm working in a relatively small and pretty unstructured environment where there's no clear path to making my needs/wants known.

Questions that you might want to ask yourself:

Are other people likely to be having the same problem?

Is there actually a group of problems here that would be better solved by a scheduled meeting or training session?

Are there enough miscellaneous things coming up that a regular scheduled weekly or fortnightly meeting is required?

I can't remember a boss ever getting in the way of me organizing a meeting when I could make a good case that it was genuinely needed.

I almost always err on the side of not speaking up, but I feel like this needs to change in order for me stay afloat

You're right - if you don't take action to get what you need at work, it's going to end up seriously impairing your productivity and happiness. Generally speaking, being intelligent about how you batch together related issues, being grateful for other people's time, and knowing when you need to just drop the subject for the time being will get you a long way.
posted by tomcooke at 5:52 AM on March 12, 2008

One of the best books I've read on assertiveness is Speaking the Truth in Love by Haugk and Koch. It's written from a Christian perspective with scriptural references, which may or may not work for you. Even if that's not your bag, I'd recommend the book for the real world applicable exercises for self-examination and objective internal gauges of "assertive vs. jerky".
posted by dblslash at 7:54 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Generally speaking, when you're boosting your own self-esteem by tearing away at another's, you're being a jerk. (And this is very, very common -- I'd even call it "normal behavior", unfortunately.) When you're stating your own desires and getting stuff done for yourself, you're being self-assertive.

In business, then, if you're putting somebody down or depriving them of resources to get what you want, you're being a jerk. If you're simply getting what you want, you're being self-assertive. And, yeah, this gets blurry when you're dealing with shared resources.
posted by LordSludge at 10:04 AM on March 12, 2008

Response by poster: Great answers, all, thank you so much!
posted by treepour at 10:11 PM on March 12, 2008

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