As we were preparing for our planned tour to America to attend the convocation ceremony of our son Ajinkya, who completed his MS, the biggest challenge was getting through the visa interview. We approached a travel agent (a company known for its good service) and one of its employees gave us the estimate of rupees thirty-three thousand, the total for both me and wife as the package charges for the visa. (I had a fair idea that it cost around the US $160 per head). I was not satisfied and found this price to be exorbitantly high. So, I asked him what were the only visa charges (so that I can derive how much money his company is making as their service charges). But this fellow was reluctant and kept on saying ‘this is all-inclusive, we never give a breakup of the total charge and this includes pickup of your passport from US consulate and also the visa interview counseling charges’, etc. But I wouldn’t relent and told him that unless I get the breakup I wouldn’t be interested in his services and that I would lookout for some other travel agent.
The employee did give me some discount (without revealing the break-up) but I was not happy and only after he expressed his inability to go any further, I directly got in touch with the owner of the travel agency (I knew the owner personally, but never wanted to call him directly as this action would have undermined his employee’s authority). Ultimately, I got a very good discount from the owner for the package deal and the travel agency offered reasonable service charges and we got the best of services from his employee too.
One more recent incident was when some of our school friends met after many years and we decided to have a party at a decent bar in the city. One of the friends who is a non-alcoholic drinker ordered some mocktail which was very highly-priced at rupees six hundred or so. The mocktail was served in a nice conical glass with a long, lanky leg and a flat stand to make it sit comfortably on the table. As our friend started sipping it, it was nice and chilled. However, as he had gulped only two to three sips, he started getting the air sound from the straw. On more close scrutiny, he found that there was a large ball of ice at the bottom of the conical glass which was not visible earlier due to the colorful mocktail. The drink had literally vanished within seconds. We realized the restaurant’s trick of fooling customers by serving just trickles of drink and filling in space with a useless ice ball. It was as though we were paying for the ice ball and getting about ten ml to drink free along with it.
The friend who was having that drink is a mild guy and a submissive character. He said, “it’s ok, leave it”. But we all friends were not the ones to give up so easily. We called the waiter and showed him the size of the ice ball in relation to the drink and asked him to replace it with a glass full of mocktail without any ice. We told him that we will put ice cubes as required ourselves. He did not budge. Then, we called the manager of the restaurant, and calmly explained to him, he was convinced- the result was our friend got a new glassful mocktail without paying anything extra for it.
One more incident which I remember is about fifteen years back when I was working as the sales manager in one of the companies. At one of the customer’s visits to Nagpur for closing a deal, we were surprised when the customer expressed his dissatisfaction with the local engineer in giving the after-sales service for the earlier supplies.
After the meeting got over, I asked the engineer to come along with me to the site where our equipment (a higher rating three-phase Online UPS system) was commissioned. I asked him to list down all the steps that he would carry out if the equipment had a breakdown. Poor guy had it all wrong. Then I asked him who trained him in the factory? To my utter shock; he was deputed to Nagpur without any training on an urgent basis just to show to the customers that we had a local service center, based on which we tried to get some sales orders. On further questioning, he revealed that he didn’t have the full tool kit as well.
I came back to Mumbai and told the whole story to our MD as I was reporting to him directly and it was a small company. He said ok “let’s sack the engineer”. Then I told the boss- “that’s not the solution. If we have not trained the engineer and sent him directly on the field, it’s our fault and not the engineer’s. You cannot send a soldier directly on the war front without fully equipping him through military training”. Boss agreed and the engineer was recalled and put through full one month’s rigorous training at the factory and during this time a substitute engineer was placed in Nagpur.
In all the above three examples, I and my friends showed a quality called assertiveness, one of the most important domains of emotional intelligence. If you have this quality in you, you don’t allow anybody to take advantage of or to take you for a royal ride. You have the courage to call a spade a spade without buckling under pressure from anybody. You are not afraid to stand for yourself and others if you think that anything that is happening around you is not correct.
Assertiveness can be defined as the ability to express your beliefs and thoughts openly by voicing your opinions, and not fearing to disagree with a majority feeling. To take a definite stand against something that is not as per your set values, in spite of being emotionally difficult to cope with or even when you may have to suffer financial losses in doing so. Assertive people are not afraid or shy of expressing their feelings and beliefs and in doing so they will never be aggressive or abusive.
Assertive people are sometimes labeled as being overtly fussy over small things and are advised instead to believe in the concept of “letting go” of everything. But they normally will stick to their stand and see to it that they themselves or their team members/close ones are treated with full respect and dignity.
The figure below shows different aspects and characteristics of assertiveness and are discussed as under. To imbibe assertiveness, we need to have the following qualities as very basic requirements.
- Self-regard: is to have the conviction that basically you are good and you deserve the best. You accept yourself with all your limitations and still feel okay about it (no guilt or shame) and are aware of your strengths. People who have high self-regard don’t find it difficult to accept their mistakes and they are confident of asking for help and/or saying something which they may not have understood and ask for more information. They never think that, asking questions such as “What’s that? I don’t know” or “Who is that, can you please tell me more about that person?” will make a fool of themselves. For them, ignorance is not a crime.
They feel fulfilled and satisfied with themselves and their lives. A person with self-regard never shows-off or throws his/her weight around to expect people to bow over his/her big-fat egos. They don’t need to flaunt even if they have it.
People with no self-regard try to get ahead in life by doing it all by themselves and don’t ask for any help from others. They normally fail, because of their inability to unearth their own shortcomings and blind spots- those areas where others could give them feedback/pin-point their mistakes. Basically, these people are insecure and hence find it very difficult to delegate and work as a team with others. Many leaders in corporates fail just because they refuse to admit their mistakes and blame others for those and just blow trumpets of their so-called strengths so as to conceal their own limitations and follies. Such people are not open to criticism and hence their progress in life will be limited.
- Self-awareness: since assertiveness means you need to express your feelings openly without any fear or prejudice, you need to be connected to your feelings and be able to recognize them. Unless you have some basic level of self-awareness it’s difficult to push yourself to stand up for your own rights, your own causes, and your values.
- Impulse Control: it is very easy to lose your cool and there could be a strong urge to react in the heat of the moment when expressing disapproval. But sometimes the key is to have enough impulse control to get angry (if at all necessary just to send a message to the other party that you cannot be suppressed or forced into submission) only to the extent required, without allowing yourself to go totally mad and engaging/continuing yourself into the dialogue/debate/discussions in a cool but assured way to express your desires in an appropriate manner and intensity.
- Communicate/connect: Since we have been talking about being able to express your opinions and feelings freely, the ability to communicate very clearly, to the point and in an unambiguous manner is the whole mark of assertiveness.
- Sensitive: while assertiveness is being able to put forth your opinions and points without any hesitation, it doesn’t mean that you can bulldoze others and have your way. Assertive people are sensitive to the feelings of others and while they may disagree with them, they respect the other person’s point of view and are sensitive to their needs. E.g. in the first example of the travel agency, I fully respected the limitations of the employee to give discounts beyond a certain point and never did talk about him to his boss.
This is typically the case in sales when we have a win-win situation when needs of both parties are at least partially satisfied with the customer not squeezing the vendor too much for pricing and other commercial terms like payments, delivery and warranty and still getting the best product and service at a decent price. The vendor is also happy to offer the best product and services without cutting any corners as he is quite satisfied with his margins.
- Non- Aggressive: Many times, assertiveness is misunderstood as being aggressive, and hence many people shy away from the idea of being assertive as they think that they may offend or hurt the other person.
Well, as mentioned above, if you are not sensitive to the feelings and thoughts of other people, and try to enforce your decisions and beliefs on others like a dictator, then certainly it is aggressive behavior.
I would like to narrate a story of an aggressive boss and his team member, let’s call him Mr. X when he was at the receiving end of aggressive behavior from his boss. It so happened that Mr. X and his wife decided to go to Goa for a short vacation of three days to celebrate their wedding anniversary. X decided to take an off on Monday to make it happen. So, accordingly, he went to the boss on Friday afternoon to take permission for the leave on Monday. He had not taken any leave for more than eight months and was so sure that his leave will be sanctioned, that he had all travel and hotel bookings done well in advance. But to his surprise, the moment he asked for leave on Monday, his boss got so wild on him and shot back as follows:
Boss: “How can you even think of asking for a leave on a month-end? Don’t you understand the pressure I am under? You are least bothered about the monthly sales figures and just so irresponsible. I have to answer to the top management because of you being so careless.”
Mr.X: Sir, but I have already sent you and factory the list of orders booked and to be invoiced in this month and no more orders are expected on the last day of the month i.e. Monday. Further, I am on course to complete my sales target for this quarter.
Boss: So, you have got the audacity to say that I should not expect any further orders from you this month. Don’t you have any responsibility for the regional target as well?
X: Sir, it’s my wedding anniversary and we have planned to take a weekend off to Goa with all the bookings done. Further, I have not taken any leave in the last eight months.
Boss: Do you think you have done any favor to me by not taking any leave? What should I do if it’s your anniversary? Did you ask me before doing all the bookings?
X: Sir, but these bookings were done by me about three months back to take advantage of the discounted pricing. There was no point in taking leave approval for just one CL (casual leave) three months ago.
Boss: Nothing doing, you are not going anywhere, just cancel the tickets- I don’t care.
Boss just bulldozed X, leaving no room for negotiations. His behavior left a bitter taste in him, not to mention the disappointment he and his family went through for the canceled short vacation.
What would have been a better assertive approach from the boss?
Let’s check this:
Boss: Oh, you want a leave on Monday which is the last day of the month. I know that you have given me and the factory list of all the orders booked and those that can be billed in this month, however, before leaving for home today just check if we can book a few more orders which can be billed immediately in this month itself. We need some quick orders to compensate for the shortfall in other regions.
X: Sure Sir. I will once again talk to some of my regular customers for pending orders and dealers if they can place some stock orders immediately. Let me try and get at least five Lacs worth of orders.
Boss: Good. Please close maximum orders and be in touch with the office, for any last-minute billing help required. Hope you are carrying your laptop and office mobile with you?
X: Yes Sir, I will be always reachable over the phone and mails and can operate from my Hotel.
Boss: Good. Wish you a Happy wedding Anniversary in advance.
X: Thanks a ton, Sir.
X would have been more loyal to the boss and the organization in the future and go that extra mile for him and putting that much more effort, beyond the call of the duty. His boss would have made him feel heard, respected, empathized with, and understood.
But instead, he used his position for being intimidating, demanding, and demeaning X rather than making him a participant in seeking solutions for the problem. Aggressive people only believe in taking and offering nothing or little in return to satisfy their personal agenda. Over a period of time, people develop resentment, bitterness, and ultimately hatred for such aggressors. They become more and more repulsive. People feel isolated and alienated in their company /working under them.
Let’s now summarize the difference between aggressive and assertive behaviors.
Aggressive behavior stems from the feeling of low self-confidence, insecurity, and poor self-regard.
Conclusions: Like all the other emotional intelligence skills assertiveness also can be learned and practiced even if it is not there inherent inside of you. Assertiveness is a state of mind. The key to success is to be clear what you want, believe in, and ask for it without any hesitation or fear. People will be more than happy to give you or help you get what you want as long as you are considerate and respecting the feelings and needs of others.