When I was 13 years old, I went on a retreat. At the start of the retreat, we were put into the same group and had to remain in that same group throughout. In our final group exercise, we had to come together with our group leaders. One person would be asked to leave the room so that the rest of the group could pick an animal that he or she could be compared with, and to explain why. Believe it or not, I still use this as a team-building exercise for already existing teams if I deem the individuals in the team to be mature enough to see the analogousness of it, because I appreciated what it did for my confidence and for my trust in my little group. It’s surprisingly effective! When it came time for me to be compared with an animal, I was not expecting the comparison I received! I was compared to a nightingale. The group listed many reasons for the comparison, but the one word that really stood out for me was ‘optimistic’. In some mystical way, that word has shaped my life; my beliefs, my attitudes, my behaviour. Until I first entered the corporate world, I was as liberated in my ‘yes-ness’ and optimism as I was in my creativity. And then… I learned all about risk.
About positive assertive communication and the ‘NO’
What has this story got to do with positive assertiveness or saying ‘no’? Let us first establish what they are. Assertive Communication is a style of communication in which a person stands up for and respects their own needs and wants, whilst also taking into consideration the needs and wants of others, without behaving passively or aggressively. Positive Assertive Communication is about framing your thinking in a way that inspires a movement of love in your heart – so that your ‘no’ doesn’t close you off, but opens and frees you up to something (or someone) else! When you look at all the definitions on the web for the word NO, you’ll find the key word that stands out is negative (e.g. a negative vote or decision; an act or instance of refusing or denying… etc). These acts essentially block and close up – not just the other person, but yourself as well. As a natural ‘yes’ person, I have had to learn how and more importantly when to say ‘no’. We find ‘no’ more so in the corporate sector than in the charity sector, where there is naturally more generosity and spirit to serve within the organisational culture, and desire to make a difference.
Positive assertiveness is now something that more and more people are looking to assimilate into their personal and working lives. That’s why I am launching my first positive assertiveness & boundary setting workshop on Saturday 27th June 2020 at 3pm on Zoom. It will be an interactive opportunity to explore practical ways of positive assertiveness, as well as the ‘why’ for it all. The purpose of this blog is to speak a little more about the ‘no’ in relation to leadership, and when it is necessary to use it. This is where I say: Dear leader, use positive assertiveness at all times. When necessary, use ‘no’.
When is it appropriate to use ‘no’, then?
The leadership styles (I won’t go into leadership or management styles in this blog post) in which we would most frequently see ‘no’ is in the authoritative and bureaucratic styles of leadership. The best leaders in the world know how to use all 5 styles of leadership to suit the situation and the people, and have nailed their communication styles in order to implement the best courses of action in their team. Of course, this isn’t a step-by-step formula that leaders learn. They learned this through experience and decent self-knowledge! In management training, managers identify the two most common ‘no’ styles of management in the ‘tell’ or ‘sell’ management styles. Again, the best managers in the world master all 5 styles of management to suit the situation and the stakeholders involved. So when ought the ‘no’ come into ones leadership or management? Here are 3 key moments when the invitation of positive assertiveness needs to be put aside and a ‘no’ steps up:
- When there is a high risk of danger or severe hurt to yourself or to others. So many people knock health and safety. But guys, it’s a no-brainer. This shouldn’t be classed as a ‘duty of care’ exercise at all. It should be built into our intrinsic nature to care for and protect each other from danger or hurt for the due reason that we are human beings. When I’m driving on the road, I seriously appreciate ‘no’ signage – because it’s a prevention and deterrent to me putting myself in danger. This ‘no’ is a crisis prevention or crisis management measure. If a leader/manager sees a catastrophe or a crisis impending (i.e. it will happen, and it’s not speculative), they will rightly start putting on the breaks. What’s important here is that the good leader/manager will brief their team, ensuring that the team are fully communicated with and feel a part of the crisis prevention.
- When positive assertiveness has been exhausted. I get it. Sometimes, there is only so much positive assertiveness that can be applied until a ‘no’ must kick in. Someone who has set a boundary and now needs to make sure the other person understands and respects that boundary must do so by communicating that with them. My workshop explores how to do that positively in more detail. But what happens if the recipient isn’t responding as you would like to the positive assertiveness? There are two further courses of action. The first course could be to use a slightly more aggressive assertiveness. At no stage should the assertiveness be passive. One ought always to be aware of and sensitised to their impact on the other person. To be passive assertive is to allow oneself to be indifferent to their impact on the other. This is neither caring nor emotionally intelligent! Slightly aggressive assertiveness pushes on the firmest edge of ‘firm’ and the most uncomfortable end of ‘comfort’. The second course could be to put in the strict ‘no’. Just remember two main things if this option is the last recourse to action: a) The ‘no’ must come from a place of goodwill for others and the main people involved, not from an abuse of manipulation, control and/or power, and; b) it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. It’s worth thinking how the other person would best respond before jumping into this last resort.
- Compliance. We touched on this briefly with health and safety in point 1. When it comes to compliance, there is no airy-fairy way of ensuring legislation is complied with, unless there is clarity on the boundary. These sets of rules are not optional. Most people will see the benefit of the rules quite naturally, but some people do like to consider themselves as ‘rule-breakers’, and get a kick out of pushing their limits. At some point, the ‘no’ kicks in here. If you are a parent, this balance is one you will already be familiar with. The only difference is that you’re not parenting a toddler, but managing/leading grown ups. Having said that, some of the best leaders and managers in the world are looked up to as ‘father-figures’ and ‘mother-figures’, and there is something very beautiful and life-giving about that.
Risk management plays a big part in the ‘no’ word or action. Good leaders and managers have superhero risk mitigation and management skills – either learned through study, experience or naturally developed whilst growing up. It is for this reason that ‘no’ can and should be used, when necessary.
What if I’m the person used to being told ‘no’, and it really gets to me?
Flip the other side of the coin… if you are the recipient of the ‘no’, then the method I use to give the other person the benefit of the doubt as to whether his/her ‘no’ was personal (on either side) or not, is to think about all the risks that the ‘no’ was preventing. Undertaking this small analysis tells you much more about the priorities of the leader and any underlying issues than most outward communication from the leader would. That is, unless your leader or manager is very open and very honest (I appreciate these leaders very much!). The reason why I brought up the ‘no’ as a personal affront or defence, is because in some cases, a manager might feel threatened in some way by their direct report, and so they develop a habit of saying ‘no’ to their direct report; even if the direct report’s suggestion or action is actually good for the team and the organisational mission. This is personal. On the other extreme, the direct report is constantly being told ‘no’ without any clear business justification. This is likely to be personal. A key example of this latter one would be racism or any other form of discrimination in a team. If any of these are you, then I recommend coaching to address those issues and to help you make the right decisions for yourself moving forward.
I’m Claz, a Professional Career Coach based in West London, accredited in the UK. I am also a Life & Wellbeing Coach, working with individuals as well as organisations. You can contact me through my website www.touchofclarity.com. Sign up to my first positive assertiveness & boundary-setting workshop on Saturday 27th June 2020 at 15:00 on Zoom to learn more about the fundamentals alluded to in this post.