Make My Day – Achieving Assertiveness

PAs by nature are helpful and often acquiescent to their bosses. But, what about when you feel your own needs and priorities are taking second place to everyone else’s? Paul Pennant gives advice on asserting and defending your rights

By Paul Pennant, Managing Director, Indiquo Ltd

If you feel sometimes that your own needs and priorities take second place to pretty well everyone else’s in your organisation, then you’re not alone. After all, the very nature of being a PA is to be helpful and often acquiescent. You work for one, two or occasionally more people and are at their beck and call, to a greater or lesser extent, yet almost invariably no-one reports to you. This means many PAs can feel quite isolated and vulnerable at times. So it’s not surprising that PAs as a breed often find it hard to assert themselves and say ‘No’ or at least ‘Not just at the moment, I’m already fully occupied’.

Achieving a balance between your natural tendency to say ‘Yes’ to pretty well every request for help and still maintain your focus on the needs, priorities and strategic objectives of your boss (or bosses) requires assertiveness. Contrary to what you might think, assertiveness is not simply about learning how to say ‘No’, which could be seen as just negative and unhelpful and make you look bad. Being assertive is more about making it clear that, despite your role of service provider, you have rights equal to those of your colleagues and will defend them. Becoming more assertive does not necessarily mean that you will come out on top in every situation, but it does mean that more often you will achieve acceptable compromise agreements that allow you and those who interact with you to continue to function effectively.

Madeleine Albright was the first female U.S. Secretary of State – arguably the second most powerful job in the world - from 1997-2001 and got her first job in politics in 1976, at the grand old age of 39. You don’t reach such lofty heights without being well-practised in assertiveness and knowing how to say ‘No’ diplomatically to people. So what makes someone assertive? In my view, an assertive person is someone who:

  • Defends their own rights while respecting the rights of others, especially colleagues
  • Takes others into consideration while attaining their goals in an open, non-combative manner
  • Isn’t afraid to express their feelings
  • Makes definite choices and positive decisions

It doesn’t help PAs that they are sometimes confused about their role and think it includes being as helpful as possible to everyone in the group or department. Well, the important thing to remember is that the PA’s role is to be supportive of their boss’ strategic objectives and that must come first and foremost. So if you are in a position to help other people out then do, but if you’re busy helping your boss, there may come times when you need to be a bit more assertive with other colleagues. You may for instance be asked to do something you’re not qualified to do – even by your boss. Don’t be afraid to let the person making the request know. If you find it hard to say ‘No’, then put a positive spin on it by offering the name of someone who you believe can help instead.

Say it - until they are blue in the face
One of the most effective ways of politely but firmly letting a colleague know that you are unable to help on a particular occasion, has become known as the ‘broken’ or ‘scratched’ record, a reference to old vinyl LPs, which would repeat a few seconds of a track endlessly where the groove had been damaged, causing the pickup stylus tracking the groove to skip. Here’s an example: you work for the managing director of your organisation. It’s 3pm and the MD asks you to carry out a project immediately, saying he knows it will take you two hours, but it’s really important. You’re then working solidly until 5pm (which is when you would normally hope to finish work) to complete the project. At 3:10pm, another director comes up to you and says she’s in a real panic, can you help with her project. You say that you’re already working on something for the MD and the director says that you don’t understand, her project is of vital importance. Employing the ‘broken record’, you then repeat that you’re working on a particular project that the MD wants finished today. The persistent director, who’s not yet getting the message, says she just wondered if you had some spare time to help her out. You repeat – again – that you’re working on a project for the MD. At no time do you raise your voice or become rude or get into a conversation – just remain firm. This leaves the pushy director with nowhere to turn and no other way of trying to get to you and she will give up and seek help elsewhere.

PAs, and especially female PAs, who have a particular natural tendency to be helpful and accommodating, fall into the trap of over-explaining themselves. Responding to the persistent director with the question: ‘Well, exactly how important is it?’, is asking for trouble. Likewise, if someone comes up to you waving a piece of paper in your face in the expectation that you will take it from them – don’t, or you have already begun to accept the task they want you to take on.

When PAs are interrupted, they tend to stop whatever they are doing immediately and give the interrupter their full attention, often accompanied by a winning smile, which confers importance on that person and gives them the green light to interrupt them at will. If you’re genuinely busy and need to avoid being interrupted, just pause for a couple of seconds after the interruption, then carry on with what you’re doing. At a convenient moment, stop and then give them your attention with a neutral, business-like look and a simple ‘How can I help you?’. This lets them know how busy you are, without making you seem unwilling to help.

Remember to breathe!
Like everyone, even the coolest, most experienced and level-headed PA can get flustered, when hassled by someone who’s trying to coerce or bully them at work. So, take a deep breath - even close your eyes for a second - and give yourself a chance to collect your thoughts.

Say what you mean – but mean what you say
Sometimes people may feel moved to make comments about your competence at work – even right in front of you – in order to make you feel uncomfortable. Don’t hesitate to confront them in these situations by asking them what they meant by what they said. This is a very simple but powerful assertiveness technique that ensures such people realise you know what they’re doing or trying on, but that they should think twice about trying it with you.

If someone you’re trying to deal with is very upset, then this is an easy way to balance and defuse the situation. As an assertive person, it’s important not only to acknowledge their pain or anxiety, but also to exercise your right to express how you feel, whether it’s to your boss or a colleague. Aggressive people don’t give you the option of letting them know how you feel – and in fact they don’t care how you feel. Obviously you need to remain sensitive to your boss’ needs and the needs of the business.

Seeing eye to eye
Maintaining eye contact plays a key part in helping you be more assertive. As in the animal world generally, breaking eye contact is a sign of submissiveness – and that’s not you, is it?

Stand up – for yourself
If someone comes to your desk and is standing over you, it puts you in a less powerful position, so by standing up you equalise your status and increase your assertiveness. Likewise, if someone phones you and needs firm handling, try standing up while you are talking to them – you will be amazed how much more confident and decisive you feel.

Making elbow room
Depending on the organisation and its culture, it’s not unusual for people to have physical contact at work, which may include touching each other on the shoulder or elbow – both deemed to be safe, non-sexual, points of contact. If people touch your elbow, it releases pheromones in your body – the same chemicals that accompany feelings of falling in love. Although it’s not usually done deliberately by the person touching you, the effect is to make you feel more amiable and co-operative towards them, so that you find it harder to refuse them. So, if someone touches your elbow when they’re asking you to do something, be wary. It may not worry you, but if you’re not comfortable with it, then just step back out of reach. Even in these days of sexual harassment paranoia, some organisations are so touchy-feely in their cultures that no-one thinks twice about such contact and it is seldom misconstrued.

And finally, a goodbye ‘kiss-kiss’
Keep It Short and Simple applies very well to assertiveness, as it’s easy to lose the upper hand when trying to say too much or by over-complicating an argument. A few well-chosen words carry more weight than minutes of waffling, so get your thoughts arranged before you speak and stick to your guns. Once you start applying assertiveness techniques to your working day – and even your personal life - you will feel more in control and consequently happier and more fulfilled – and that has to be a good thing, right?

Paul Pennant has been a highly-successful PA and Office Manager and is now Managing Director of indiquo. With a post-graduate degree in business studies, few if any trainers are better qualified to deliver and lead training workshops for today's PAs. In the past year, Paul has trained PAs from Selfridges, Rugby Football Union, Barclays Bank, Shell, AXA Insurance, ABN AMRO, Lehman Brothers and Carphone Warehouse

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