Business depends on good communication. In order to work together, Production must understand Design; Marketing must understand the customers; senior executives must understand everything. You would think that with this great need for understanding, people would place a premium on ‘win-win’ communication in which each party seeks to understand the position of the other. However, business also thrives on competition and in the workplace we often see the ‘win-lose’ principle of competition influencing the way in which we communicate. Let’s think positive, take a closer look and see if we can coach ourselves into better workplace communication.

Assertiveness theory states that we have a number of rights; such as the rights to:

  1. your own feelings, needs and opinions;
  2. ask (not demand);
  3. refuse (say “no”);
  4. make a mistake;
  5. change your mind;

Of course, if you take those rights the other half of the deal is that you also take on the responsibilities of respecting that others have those rights too, and of asserting your own rights in a reasonable manner.

Back in the world of hard-working executives in the business environment, this begs the question: do we have these rights in the workplace? The answer is yes. However, there are factors that can erode those rights. For example, your contract will require of you certain duties; it’s difficult to say “no” to that. The hierarchy may put pressure on your rights: it’s difficult sometimes to refuse the boss’s requests. Deadlines and targets can be stressful and it’s more difficult to be assertive when you feel stressed. Perhaps you want people to like you (a ‘please others’ driver) and worry that they won’t if you don’t help them. Finally, given the state of the economy, you may have concerns about job security.

Therefore one of the big workplace assertiveness issues is the ability to say “no” when faced with unreasonable demands. Here’s a quick guide to standing your ground (when you decide that it’s appropriate to do so) when you feel you’re being asked to do something that is beyond your remit, capacity and/or capability.

First, ask for clarification. Before you refuse, ensure that you understand what is being asked and why (e.g. is the person just trying to offload their own work or is this a ‘drop-everything’ corporate priority?)

Second, say “no” clearly, briefly and calmly, providing reasons for your refusal. The other person has the right to understand your position; after all, they may feel their request is perfectly reasonable. The important thing is to keep the channel of mutual understanding open. Do not apologise repeatedly. By all means, be sorry that you are unable to help them, but be clear about the fact that (based on the information you have) you are unable to help.

Thirdly, be prepared to listen. If they are able to offer new information or reasons then you may feel it reasonable to change your position. But only because you have decided that their request is now reasonable. If it remains contradictory to your job role, business priorities and perhaps even your personal life, why would you change your mind?

The reasoning here is that unassertively saying “yes” to everything doesn’t make good business sense, causes you stress and can become a pattern of office behaviour that is increasingly difficult to break. Sometimes, it is actually thinking positive to say “no”.