Assertiveness: The Lost Art of Communicating

September 2018

“Justin, that was a pretty lousy round of golf you played today.” I said as we walked off the 18thgreen.  “I can’t remember the last time you weren’t at least in the low 80s. What happened?”

“You’re right, my head just wasn’t in it today. That’s what happens when you can’t focus.” Justin replied.

Justin, a young guy in his mid 30s, was a smart and successful lawyer.  Still unmarried, we had met several years earlier on the driving range and it was hard not to strike up a friendship with this very likeable guy. Like me, golf was one of his passions and his game was pretty good. It didn’t get him a college scholarship but he had been able to win a club championship a couple of years ago.  As my own boys weren’t into golf, I guess Justin was the next best thing to a son who enjoyed playing golf with his dad.

“Hey Justin, my spouse is out of town this weekend visiting a girlfriend so if you have time, why don’t we have a beer and grab some dinner at the clubhouse. I’m buying!” I offered. “Sure, I don’t have any plans tonight, so let’s do that.” Justin replied.

Sarah took our orders and returned with our beers. “Here’s to a better round next time.” I said as I raised my glass.  Justin was not amused. “Ok, ok, I’m sorry. I’m getting the sense that you’re not in a happy mood.”

I could tell that something was really weighing on Justin and wanted to help, if I could.

“Out there you mentioned that you couldn’t focus today. What’s going on?” I asked.

“It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.” Justin responded.  “Justin, that’s not a good answer. We’re going to stay here and drink beer until you tell me what’s going on!” I joked.

“Well, I’m really thinking about leaving my law firm and I’m not sure if it’s the right decision or not.” Justin explained.  “Are you serious?” I asked. “This is the first time you’ve ever said anything negative about your firm.  You’ve always told me that you enjoyed your work and your colleagues and I know that you’ve been very successful over the years. Why the change of tune?” I inquired.

Justin took a drink of beer: “I’ve been working for Smith and Goldman for eight years now. I’ve worked my butt off and won all of my cases.  I’ve brought in tons of new clients and made a lot of money for the company. I really don’t understand why they haven’t made me a partner yet.” 

“Ok, I get it: it’s close to midnight and you fear that the pumpkin carriage is going to leave without you!” I joked.  “That really isn’t helpful. I’m thinking about a really important decision and all you can do is make jokes.” Justin scolded.  “You’re right, Justin, this is a serious matter. I’m sorry.” I stated.

“So put some context to this issue, Justin.  What does your boss say about your desire, no, your demand, to become a partner in the firm?” I asked.

Justin hesitated and looked down at his beer. “Well, to be honest with you, I’ve never really told him that I wanted to become a partner.  I just thought they would know that becoming partner is a goal that I have, that every young, hard working lawyer has.” 

Bingo. There it was. We hadn’t finished the first beer and I already recognized Justin’s problem.  I understood it well because it was something that I’ve always struggled with: being more assertive and pushing towards your goals.  As I thought about it I realized that Justin and I were very similar; maybe that’s why I liked him so much.  We both thought that if you worked hard everything else would take care of itself. People would recognize your efforts, reward you and help you achieve your goals. Unfortunately, it wasn’t this simple.

“Justin, can I put on my coaching hat for a minute?” I asked. “Sure, if you think you can help.” Came his reply.  “Ok, you know that I work with personality assessments, right? I’m always trying to understand what makes people tick.” I explained.  “Yes, you’re kind of an unqualified shrink.” He chuckled.  “Ok, ok, very funny.  Work with me here.” I petitioned.

“I want you to visualize something right now. Let’s pretend that your looking out over the vastness of the United States and you see millions of people. You got that picture?’ I asked.  “Sure, go ahead.” Justin agreed.  “And now you draw a line right down the middle, separating all of the people into two equal but separate groups: Got it?” “Yeah, so where are you going with this?” Justin asked, a bit annoyed. 

“For this illustration, the people who are on the left side of the line have the tendency to be more dominant in their behavior and those to the right are typically less dominant. And, those behaviors increase the further away they are from the line. So if someone is far to the left of the line, they are pretty high dominance and those far right of the line are very low with their dominance.” I explained.  

Sarah came with our food and we both ordered another beer. 

“Justin, I’ve known you for a few years now.  You’ve never taken the behavioral assessment that I’ve offered to you, but never the less, I think I know how you’re wired. One of the reasons I enjoy playing golf with you is because you’re pretty laid back and not interested in playing for money. And, I never get the feeling that you want to beat me and prove how good you are. Knowing this about you tells me that you would be on the right side of that line that I was talking about. And I’d imagine that you are pretty far to the right. That’s a great place to be if you want to get along with everyone, when you want to help people or be part of a team. Most people will like you because you’re a humble guy.  Is this making sense?” I asked.

“Yeah, I must admit, you’re turning out to be a pretty good shrink.” Justin noted. 

“Justin, you’re very good at what you do and you’re a hard worker. That’s important for having a good career. But if you really want to be successful – and make it to Partner – you are going to have to become more assertive and push for what you want. This means that you are going to have to push that dominance trait as far to the left as you can, even crossing over that line that splits the high dominance from the low dominance people. It won’t be easy to do and it will take practice. And, it will feel very uncomfortable because this is going against your natural behavior.  The good thing is that you don’t have to change who you are as a person, just adjust and become more assertive in certain situations.  It might only be a thirty-minute meeting with your boss or a 5-minute phone call with a client.  Once you’ve used your assertiveness to state your case, you can relax and be who you naturally are.

I have to do this all the time. You probably won’t remember this, but Iapproached you a few years back on the driving range and struck up the conversation. That wasn’t natural for me to do and I had to push myself to make the introduction. My natural style would have been to say nothing, in which case we wouldn’t be sitting here drinking beers right now.”

I could tell that Justin was reflecting on what I had shared with him. After a few seconds he finally said: “You know, that makes a lot of sense. I can’t just sit back and wait for my boss and the other partners to promote me if I don’t give them a reason to. I need to let them know that I’m ready and expecting them to make this happen. I’ve never really challenged them on my career advancement.” “Just remember, Justin, being assertive doesn’t mean your aggressive. Aggressive is something negative. Assertiveness on the other hand, is something positive that helps you move in the direction that you want to go.” I added.

Sarah stopped by to see if we wanted another beer. “I’m fine but maybe Justin wants another one?”  “No, I’m good.” He said  “ Oh and Sarah, I’ll take the check tonight. My coach earned his dinner tonight!”