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Do you always make yourself heard at work? Are you always able to express yourself clearly and openly?

Or do you hold back? Say ‘yes’, when you mean ‘no’? Put on a ‘work personality’ different to that which you display in your private life?

In asking people which personal attribute they would most like to improve at work, ‘assertiveness’ is one of the most prominent. So what blocks you from being assertive at work? For me, it is down to the fears we have around others’ reactions to our open communication. Therefore, if you want to be more assertive, you have to be able to examine and find how these fears are affecting you.

Here are two tools I’ve used in helping me assert myself better:

  1. Finding your fears – Bring to mind a person, or group of people, you struggle to assert yourself with at work. Make a list of the adjectives you are afraid they will think of you if you speak your truth,
  • For example, “If I say what I really feel about this project, I am afraid they will think I am…..stupid, wrong, difficult, unhelpful.
  • Take this list and ask yourself, “Where is it in my life that I am sometimes ‘stupid’, ‘wrong’, ‘difficult’ and ‘unhelpful’?” Find three specific examples (or more) for each of these judgments.

When you can really look at these judgements in yourself, and see where they are true for you, are you still so afraid of what your colleagues might think of you? Or can you now see that what they may say about you are things you’ve already told yourself, in which case, where’s the problem?

  1. Worst that can happen – Make a list of the worst things that can happen if you speak your truth at work, eg.
  • People won’t like me
  • I will be sidelined for promotion
  • I’ll lose my job

And then identify three reasons why each of these things would be the ‘best that can happen’ to you. What would be good about losing your job? About being overlooked for promotion? Often the mind doesn’t want to go there and we resist looking. But the truth is, all of these outcomes can and do happen to many people every year. When you really look, can you see how you would survive, and maybe even prosper if any of these outcomes were to come true?


Duncan Lewin is an ex-Deloitte consultant specialised in helping people improve their skills in giving and receiving feedback, managing conflict more productively and handling difficult conversations. He delivers Symposium training courses on feedback and emotional intelligence.

A former ‘feedback-phobic’, Duncan was terrible at handling feedback and criticism. Like many, he had two ways of responding: aggressive and argumentative, or passive and resentful. Neither worked, and both left him stressed. Eventually the stress got too much and he began a deep, personal journey in finding a new way of relating to feedback and conflicting opinions. The results have been startling; Duncan now actively seeks feedback, feels comfortable with conflict and has learnt how to handle even the most difficult conversations with (he hopes!) assertiveness and grace.

He works with a range of clients including BT, Accenture, Exxon Mobil and Canary Wharf Group.

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