Being More Assertive: Finding the Sweet Spot

To be successful you must be assertive and confident. Women, however, tend to shy away from being more assertive for fear of being labeled as aggressive.

Assertive women support other women and men

Assertive women follow the 7 Red Shoe Movement Principles

This is similar to the behavior women exhibit when negotiating for themselves. A topic I discussed in the post: 3 Key Negotiating Strategies for Women.

As a result of avoiding being more assertive, women pay a harsh price— they receive negative evaluations, negative attributions and they miss major career opportunities. Watch this video clip “A Man’s a Boss, a Women’s Bossy” for a series of examples of how similar behaviors are perceived as negative in women and celebrated in men.

To avoid being penalized for behaving in ways that are contrary to feminine stereotypes, women hedge their assertiveness and use fewer competitive tactics. Inevitably, these adjustments have a backlash effect that hinders women’s effectiveness in their careers.

What is Assertiveness?

Assertiveness is a communication style in which people put forward their own needs, ideas, and feelings, while respecting the right of others to do the same. Different levels of assertiveness can be applied depending on the situation.

The challenge is that being more assertive goes against the training most women have received from birth – to defer to men and to stay in the background. This passive stand renders women ineffective and denies them of the opportunity to reach their unlimited potential. And even though as women grow these passive behaviors may change, in a professional setting women still tend to defer to men.

Assertive women quote by Lily Benjamin - Assertive women have found the sweet spot in the communication spectrum

Being more assertive offers enormous career advantages for women.

This accommodating behavior is very subtle and mainly communicated via non-verbal messages, which constitutes 93% of any communication (55% body language and 38% tone.) Several specific examples of body-language messages where women miss the chance to be more assertive are: Smiling too much, nodding in agreement even when they are not, little cooing, supportive noises (“mm hmmm, mm hmmm,”) and presenting a tilted head to signal listening, a pose that is recognizable in puppies.

A common example of how tone sends a message that lacks assertiveness is the odd upward lilt that transforms every statement into an insecure-sounding question.

And to briefly touch on the verbal aspect of communication (which only represents 7% of any communication,) a typical example is the use of ego-soothing expressions such as: “Just following up, or piggy backing, on what YOU said….” and so on.

All of these subtle cues, particularly those involved in non-verbal communication, sway women’s communication style to the passive side of the spectrum. As a result of being passive, women get themselves in a position of violating their own rights.

What is the Difference Between Being More Assertive and Being Aggressive?

Assertive quote by Sharon Anthony Bower

It’s critical to avoid confusing being more assertive with being aggressive.

On the other side of the spectrum lays aggressiveness, which is what happens when people (and in the case of this post, women) veer 180 degrees away from a passive style and they come across as forthright and blunt. Aggressive women try to get the upper hand in the conversation and attempt to punish others usually using a lot of “you…” messages and blame. They are often trying to cover their own feelings of inadequacy, frustration, and powerlessness. These women aim to win even if this means disregarding others’ rights, needs, or feelings. As a result of being aggressive, women get themselves in a position of violating the rights of others.

Take the RSM Communication Style Quiz and see where you are in the spectrum.

Key Distinction Between an Aggressive vs. Assertive Woman

There is a misconception that for women to effectively climb the corporate ladder they have to be like men. They need to dress, speak, gesture, use cursing words, have a masculine style of commanding others, etc. Those who give into that stereotype can be easily spotted when they overdo it and end up “eating their own” – being catty and stepping over other women. These individuals can be their worst enemies, sabotaging and undermining their own authority and effectiveness due to their inability of being assertive.

A good way to distinguish aggressive vs assertive women is that assertive women do not “eat their own;” they are actually very supportive of other women, as well as very supportive of men.

Check out the 7 Principles of the Red Shoe Movement

Assertive women don’t blame others, they own their viewpoints by using “I” statements (“I like,” “I want,” “I don’t want,”) they use cooperative phrases (“What are your thoughts on this?”) they make distinctions between facts and opinions (“My experience is different,” “In my opinion…”) rather than using “should” they make suggestions (“How about”, “Would you like to…”), and they seek others’ ideas (“How does this fit with your ideas?”) Assertive women have found the sweet spot in the communication spectrum.

The Sweet Spot: Being More Assertive and Improving Your Effectiveness

Assertive women are keenly aware of the gender-based effect whereas women are often misunderstood and penalized for behaviors accepted in men. They understand the importance of reading their audience, environment, and circumstances. They are like chameleons able to assess the social situation and adapt accordingly, oscillating within the communication spectrum to be more or less assertive. Notice that I didn’t say, “becoming more or less passive, or even more or less aggressive.” Those are never good options. Effectiveness resides on balancing the degree of assertiveness based on the circumstances.

Assertive definition Merriam Webster dictionary - Confident in behavior and style

Find the sweet spot in the communication spectrum to find your assertive style

Strategies to Find the Sweet Spot

Being assertive is not necessarily easy, but it is a skill that can be learned.

Don’t miss this Harvard Business Review article, How to Be Assertive (without loosing yourself).

Developing your assertiveness style starts with a good understanding of who you are and a belief in the value you bring.

1First, “know thyself”

Awareness is 50% of the change. Clarity of your strengths and opportunities always raise your confidence level, giving you a specific direction on what to work on. Here is an assertiveness assessment you can try.

2Learn assertive communication skills

Communicating assertively will give you confidence, strengthen your relationships, and help you be more effective. When done well, you gain the support and respect of others. Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ or ‘yes’, just do both taking others into account.

  • Reflect confidence: stand up straight, look people in the eye, and relax
  • Use a firm, but pleasant, tone
  • Check and validate your assumptions; avoid jumping to conclusions
  • Seek to understand other people’s point of views
  • Think in win-win terms and seek win-win situations

3Debunk myths about assertiveness

The Centre for Clinical Intervention trains on three myths that can be used as a tool to help you know the differences between assertiveness and aggressiveness.

Myths about Assertiveness
Myth Reasoning Fact
“Assertiveness is basically the same as being aggressive.” Some people who are aggressive think they are being assertive because they are stating what their needs are. Yes, both assertive and aggressive communication involves stating your needs. There are very important differences, however, in the words, the tone and in the body language used.
“If I am assertive I will get what I want.” Being assertive does not mean that you always get what you want. There is no guaranteed outcome. Being assertive is about expressing yourself in a way that shows respect for your needs and the needs of others. Sometimes this means you get what you want, sometimes you won’t get what you want, and sometimes you will come to a mutually satisfactory compromise.
“If I am assertive I have to be equally assertive in every situation” Understanding how to be assertive, gives you the choice to critically judge the circumstances and appropriately balance your degree of assertiveness. Sometimes, you may realize that you need to adjust the degree of assertiveness in order to be effective. Learning to be assertive is about providing yourself with a choice!


Everyone has the ability to learn how to be assertive, or effective when being more assertive than they currently are. The key is to self-monitor and adjust according to the situation, remaining fair and empathetic. Your power comes from your self-assurance and not from intimidation or bullying. When you treat others with such fairness and respect, you get that same treatment in return, you are appreciated, and sought out as a thought leader.

3 Key Negotiation Strategies for Women

Can women ever know enough negotiation strategies and tactics to ensure they get what they bargain for?

In this article, I share three negotiation strategies that women can use to get what they bargain for.

The gender pay gap is real and pervasive, and it affects all women. On average, full-time workingwomen earn just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. Though Asian women are also impacted, for Latinas and most women of color is a lot worse.

Negotiation quote by Lily Benjamin - 'Generally speaking, while men negotiate salary, women compromise to avoid being stereotyped."

Being aware of your subconscious need to avoid being stereotyped, will help you improve your negotiation outcomes.

Latinas make 54% of what a white male makes. African-American women make 64%. This substantial gap persists even after education, industry, and work hours are taken into account.

Why women don’t negotiate salary offers?

Research shows that women are more reticent than men to negotiate salary offers. Women may fear being perceived as “pushy,” a social stereotype attributed to women who advocate for themselves in the workplace. This is interesting because studies show that the opposite occurs when women advocate for others; they are rewarded! Generally speaking, while men negotiate salary, women compromise to avoid being stereotyped.

Several studies reveal that the difference in men and women’s propensity to initiate negotiations may be explained by how each gender is treated when they attempt to negotiate. In other words, the propensity to negotiate salary is not necessarily linked to a lack of confidence or negotiation skills on the part of women, but to avoid being stereotyped as pushy.

Three key negotiation strategies that women can consider to successfully advocate for themselves

1Be aware of your personal negotiating style

Because I am a big advocate of self-awareness, I will first suggest that you become aware of your personal negotiation style. There are many negotiation style assessment tests, but a very common one looks at two dimensions: concern for the relationship or cooperativeness and concern for the outcome or assertiveness.

Negotiation diagram by Lily Benjamin

By identifying your negotiation style you’ll be able to devise negotiation strategies that suit you best

Look at the diagram and try to identify your negotiation style. Learn as much as possible about it, and learn different strategies on how to flex it depending on the situation. No one style is superior to another. What is important is that you know the style you are most confident with, and ideally that you have a sense of your counterpart’s style as well. Being able to identify a counterpart’s preferred style and to adapt your own style accordingly can be incredibly helpful in building productive relationships.

The Red Shoe Movement has an online Negotiation Style Quiz. Take it now!

2Know your BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement)

Knowing your own BATNA is basic to negotiating salary an anything else you wish to negotiate. But knowing your counterpart’s BATNA is also critical to the success of your negotiation. After you know both parties BATNAs the best way to aim for a Win-Win is to find the Zone of Possible Agreement (ZOPA.)

BATNA diagram

Finding the Zone of Possible Agreement (ZOPA) is your best negotiation strategy for a win-win outcome


Here’s a great Harvard Business Review article about BATNA

3“Think personally, act communally”

After you identified your negotiating style and both parties’ BATNAs what is left is the dialog where you negotiate. Let’s learn from Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and one of the highest paid executives in Silicon Valley, who once suggested that during negotiations you should “think personally, act communally.”

Sheryl Sandberg negotiation quote- Of course you realize that you're hiring me to run your deal teams, so you want me to be a good negotiator

When negotiating salary, make the value you will add to your organization known

This means that you should communicate your intent to negotiate and the value that this skill will add to the potential employer. For example, after stating her counteroffer, during her negotiations with Facebook Sandberg told them, “Of course you realize that you’re hiring me to run your deal teams, so you want me to be a good negotiator. This is the only time you and I will ever be on opposite sides of the table; I am clear that we are on the same team here.”  This was a persuasive “think personally, act communally” approach of her negotiation process.

Don't miss this earlier post on Salary Negotiation Strategies.

Another way of paraphrasing this dialog is, “This is a very appealing and competitive offer, and this part (be specific) of the compensation is short of my expectation by X amount. (Thinking personally.) Please understand that negotiating is one of the skills I will add to your team and one of the contributions I’ll make in the best interest of the company. (Acting communally.)”

Woman and Man shaking hands cartoon by Natchie

Aim for win-win situations. Drawing by Natchie for Red Shoe Movement. –

This “think personally, act communally” or “I-We” strategy will help you not only reach the ZOPA, but also show your confidence and leave a strong impression. Remember, preparation is the key to success. Prepare thoroughly, be clear about your choices, practice your pitch, and celebrate your success!

10 ways to say no without saying no

Saying no is hard for most women and even harder for some cultural groups who put a lot of value on being liked.

For women and for Latinas in particular, who grew up valuing personal relationships and hearing how important it was to look beautiful, to smile, and be pleasing to others so that everyone would like them,  saying no can equate to social suicide. So, why would you do it? I’m there with you. From turning down presentation opportunities to a night out with friends saying no doesn’t come easy for me either.

But you know what? I’ve learned a long time ago that “no” is the most powerful word in my vocabulary. It helps me stay true to my priorities and avoid the many distractions I can easily fall pray to every time I say “yes” to things that take my focus away. You want to have less stress? You want to integrate work and life? Learn to say no often!

The secret to saying no and feeling great about it is two-fold. On the one hand it helps to say no without saying the word “no.”  On the other hand you must take the time to hear the request, evaluate how it fits within your priorities, and offer an alternative that works better for you. That means that if your conditions are met, you can say yes.

You will see in the “10 ways to say no without saying no” that I include here, that  many of them begin with a “yes.”  The “yes”, however,  comes with conditions that make the other person re-think their request. The goal in all instances is to either get the other person to pull  back their request on their own or to adjust their ask in order to meet your conditions.

Saying NO: Discover the 10 Effective Ways to Say NO

1Yes, and re-prioritize

The fastest way to reduce stress is to say NO | Discover the 10 ways to say no without saying no

Saying no can help you remain focus on your priorities and have less stress in your life.

“Yes! Now tell me which of these five priorities should I drop?”

If your boss asks you to do something and you know you’ll be unable to do that plus what you’re already doing, ask them how they prefer for you to manage the other priorities. That may help change their mind or, get you out of something else.

2Yes. With these conditions

“Yes, sure! But I can only do it next week.” Or with the help of an additional person, or after you finish something else you are doing. The idea is that you can do it only if certain conditions are met. It’s up to you to come up with conditions you know the other person won’t be able to meet. (If you know they have a deadline and you can do it after the deadline.)

3Yes. In exchange I’ll need this
“Yes, sure! I’d love to help your team finish the project. But if I stay tonight, I won’t be here tomorrow morning to help you run the event.” Or any other trade you deem fit. Again, the goal is that if you are going to do something you really don’t want or don’t have time to do, you won’t do something else that affects that person.

Here's a great article about work-life balance /integration.

4Yes. In exchange you have to do this for me

“Yes, sure! I’d love to help you with this. The only thing is that if I do X you’ll have to do Y for me.”

Here you are asking the other person to take on something you have to do and will now drop in order to help them with their project. For example: I’ll write the report for the committee and in exchange you’ll prepare the Power Point for the meeting on Tuesday. If they don’t agree with your exchange, you can easily say: “Then, I’m sorry but I’m going to have to turn you down, because I don’t have time to do both things.”

10 ways to say no and feel great about it | Read everything about the 10 ways to say no without saying no

Practice this ten ways to say no and see your career flourish

5Yes. Plus additional compensation
“Yes, sure! I’d love to take on John’s responsibilities. It will mean that I have to work weekends for two months to do my job and finish his project. So can we talk about how I’d be compensated for that additional time?”

The goal here is to make it clear that you are willing to step in but want to be compensated for the effort it will take. This strategy only works in certain situations, not when you are expected to cover a team member who’s temporarily absent. But keep it in mind for when the situation presents itself.

6Flattered. But will pass

“I’m flattered you thought of me for this. Unfortunately, I’m overcommitted right now, so I’ll have to pass.” A simple, short answer. You can leave it here or do what’s suggested in #7.

7Flattered. Will recommend someone

“I’m flattered but I have a previous commitment. However, I’d like to suggest someone who’d be great for this.” When you recommend someone who can do the job you are solving the other person’s problem. So instead of focusing on your “no” they move on. Not only will they forget faster that you said “no,” but they’ll also be grateful for your help.

Here are some additional ways to say no by Adam Grant

8Flattered. Couldn’t give it my best

“Thank you for thinking of me for this opportunity. Unfortunately, I’m so overcommitted that I wouldn’t be able to give my best to the project. So, I’ll have to pass this time.” Again you can end it there or you can suggest someone else who would do a great job.

Saying no frequently, enables you to say yes to what really matters | Discover the 10 ways to say no without saying no

Saying no frequently, enables you to say yes to what matters

9Flattered. I could train someone else

“Thank you for thinking of me! I would love to do it! Unfortunately right now, I have no time to take it on and do a good job. But I’d be happy to train someone else to do it.” You’re exhibiting good will, team spirit, and appreciation for the opportunity, so in the future they think of you again.

10Let me check my calendar

“I’d love to do it. Let me check my calendar to make sure I have the time.” This is a wonderful way to avoid feeling forced to give an immediate response. (Which more often than not would be a “yes.”) After you take the time to think thoroughly about what was asked of you, you can come back with a reason why you can’t take on one more responsibility, you’re committed for that day, etc.

Believe me, if you start practicing these 10 ways of saying no and you combine them with a smile and a positive body language, you’ll soon feel great about turning down things that swallow your valuable time but are not a priority for your career. You can practice them at home too. You’ll be surprised at how effective the strategy is!

And if you want direct coaching from me and from our team of internationally renowned experts, plus an amazing range of leadership development resources, join the Step Up Program.  You. Amplified!

And if you want direct coaching from Mariela Dabbah and from her team of internationally renowned experts, plus an amazing range of leadership development resources, join the Step Up Program. You. Amplified!

RSM Step Up Program

Leadership Quiz: Do you have what it takes to be a leader?

 What can a leadership quiz tell you about your leadership skills? Take it and find out!

How often do you come across online quizzes that you find yourself answering on the fly? Some of them are fun, some are silly, but the best of them make you think. That’s what we hope this leadership quiz does for you. We hope it makes you think about your leadership skills and your next career step.

Leadership Quiz: Do you have what it takes to be a leader?


Three role models that reveal great female leadership skills. A leadership quiz can provide insights into your own leadership skills. Take it!

A leadership quiz can provide insights into your own leadership skills.

How useful can a leadership quiz be?

A leadership quiz like the one we designed for you can shed light on your inclination, interests, talents, listening skills (a critical leadership skill!) and leadership style. It’s a great way to explore your decision-making skills and whether you are in the right career track.

If, once you answer the leadership quiz you realize that your career could use some tweaks, don’t rush into anything. Do some thorough research before you make any life-changing decisions. Talk to your trusted board of advisors, your mentors, your colleagues, and your former bosses. Let this leadership quiz be the sparkle that ignites a conversation about where you want to go next and what you need to get there. For instance, we consider listening skills to be a very important aspect of a leader and they can be developed with the appropriate training.

Dr.Angelica Perez-Litwin, founder and CEO of the ELLA Institute applies her amazing leadership skills to encourage more women in technology

Dr.Angelica Perez-Litwin, founder and CEO of the ELLA Institute applies her amazing leadership skills to encourage more women in technology

Testing your leadership skills can be fun

The truth is that most of us take a leadership quiz with the hope of discovering something about ourselves that can amaze us and give us the courage to do things we didn’t think we could. (Or to corroborate that we have indeed fabulous leadership skills, or the best listening skills of anyone we know!)

So —although we wouldn’t suggest you give this leadership quiz the power to decide your future— we do highly recommend that you answer it as honestly as possible to get some insights into your leadership skills that can be useful when planning the next steps in your career.


*We wish to thank James Estill of Procter & Gamble for his contributions to this quiz.

Leadership Styles: Identify your Own

By Mariela Dabbah

What traveling styles and leadership styles have in common

I recently traveled to Paris with a friend that I’ve known for over twenty years. Over all those years we had spent a lot of time with each other, but we had never traveled together. Although I knew her well, sharing ten days abroad clearly exposed me to her traveling style: She likes to be on the go, cover as much terrain as possible in one day and is absolutely inexhaustible. I, on the other hand, prefer a slower pace, so that I can absorb the place and its people better. I like to take a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening to write. I enjoy people watching while sipping an espresso and exploring small artistic shops where I get to talk to the owners.

When women respect themselves and craft leadership styles that make use of their unique traits they are rewarded

When women respect themselves and craft leadership styles that make use of their unique traits they are rewarded – Mariela Dabbah

We obviously have very different styles. Neither one is better than the other, but recognizing my style helps me design a satisfying trip. The same is true in business. Our unique leadership styles are forged with a combination of influences — From your upbringing, to your personality, training, experience and so on.  What works for me might not work for you and vice versa. That’s why it’s unwise to try to emulate someone else’s style. Mary yells during her sales meeting to get people motivated? You might turn them off. James swears and promises to quit if he doesn’t get the promotion, and he actual gets the promotion? The same strategy might get you fired. And gender is not the only aspect at play here.

Leadership styles vary wildly from person to person

Leadership styles vary wildly from person to person: Identify, polish and cherish your leadership style. It's uniquely yours. Own it!

Identify, polish and cherish your leadership style. It’s uniquely yours. Own it!

What comes across as authentic when one person does it comes across as being slightly off when you try it unless you  have a similar style. This doesn’t mean that you and I can’t achieve the same goals. My persuasive style may be subtle and yours may be blunt, but at the end of the day what matters is that we can both get our teams to achieve outstanding results.

How to craft leadership styles: Recipe for personal leadership styles

Recipe for personal leadership styles

It can be hard for women to develop their leadership styles when there are few role models of women who lead with a feminine style. We’ve grown used to imitating men’s leadership styles and following their recommendations for successful leadership. But the truth is that more often than not these suggestions don’t work as well for women. If anything, they encourage you to give up some of your most valuable female traits.

When women try to step out of their personal leadership styles to be aggressive, hide their emotions, and have a laser focus on the bottom line while ignoring the human component of their organizations, they are harshly criticized. When they respect themselves and craft leadership styles that make use of all their valuable and unique traits, they are rewarded.

Identifying leadership styles that work for you

That means putting into the blender your education, training, and experience, and also adding your empathy, your consensus building skills, your compassion, and, yes, your emotions. And when we talk about leadership styles, it also means throwing into the blender the memory of the obstacles you overcame to get where you are, the unbelievable tasks you accomplished, and the long list of interests you have outside work. (Like your passion for leaving a better world for the next generation, and for food shows, Zumba, art auctions, and for anything that makes your life easier.) Pushing the “Mix” button on the blender will result in your unique leadership style, the one you must learn to identify, polish and cherish. It’s the one that will always work best for you, because it’s uniquely yours. Own it.