Being "Self-ful"-A Guide to Assertive Communication at Work

Published: May 15, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Mimi Donaldson

Do you find it difficult to let your boss know what you want and need to succeed at your job? Are you unable to speak up when you think you should? Are you frustrated by your powerlessness in some day-to-day interactions?

The art of confidently and comfortably expressing your wants and needs without hurting others or being hurt is a crucial skill. Few of us learned the art of assertive communication from our families. As a result, we are ill prepared to meet the challenges of the workplace, where people need others’ cooperation and buy-in to get results. Priorities compete for attention and the "squeaky wheel" (often the overly aggressive person) gets the grease, especially in an ego-driven environment.

The most important issues in life are about needing or not needing the people we work with. It's about confronting, "assuming," standing one's ground and, most of all, about having the courage to make the correct choices. We have to choose between telling the truth to someone who needs to hear it or leaving the truth unsaid. We must choose between being comfortable and safe or risking discomfort and even the loss of some of our perceived popularity. We also choose, every day, between our hot-button response ("You can take this job and shove it!") or an appropriate response better suited to our long-term purpose.

Patience and Hot Buttons

Maturity is a measurement of patience—how long you can put off immediate gratification. In the workplace, and in our personal lives, it’s a sign of maturity to resist the temptation of a hot-button response in favor of one that supports a long-term result. Being patient requires self-confidence.

Which of the following behavioral responses do you most often choose?

  1. Selfish: This is an infantile response. Small children often start a sentence with “I want.” Being selfish is often regarded as being "aggressive" or, when applied to women, “pushy.”
  2. Selfless: This is the response of choice of the nonassertive person who avoids conflict at any cost. This person doesn’t calmly express needs and wants and is not confident of his or her rights as an employee and as a human being. These rights are: to be treated with respect, to be listened to and taken seriously, to have and express feelings and opinions, to ask for what you want and to get what you pay for (how many of you have paid for a bad haircut—and given a tip?). When we act selflessly, we become a victim at the mercy of any aggressor. They ignore our subtle signals of martyrdom and attend to their own priorities at our expense. People who ask, "Got a minute?" end up taking half an hour because we simply can’t say no.
  3. Self-ful: This is a word I created. It doesn't mean "full of yourself." It describes people who are confident enough to be assertive; to ask for what they need and want without hurting other people. This takes skill and practice. It is the art of saying no to people and having them thank you for it.

Assertive, "self-ful" people use a three-step action method. Here's an example:

Tom knocks on your door, leans in and asks, "Got a minute?" Instead of glancing at your watch and saying, "OK" with a martyred sigh, you look up and analyze the request. You see his lower lip trembling and his eyes filling with tears. You know he wants to talk about his divorce—again—and you have a report to finish. You recognize there’s no way this will not be a 60-second interruption. You resist the reflexive "hot button" response ("You know, you’re getting to be a real drag”) because you depend on Tom in your job and you need to maintain a rapport with him. To be self-ful, take the following three steps:

  1. Acknowledge: Use six-second empathy to tell him you understand how he feels and what he wants. "Tom, you look upset—it looks like you need to talk." This calms him, because now he doesn't have to work to make you understand. You have said, in essence, "I understand your priority and it's important."
  2. Advise: Let him know what your priority is, calmly and self-fully: "Tom, here's the situation. I have a report to finish for the boss and it's due in half an hour." You have understood his need and now you're asking him to understand yours. Most people, when told of your priority, will back off. But not Tom. That's why there's a third step.
  3. Accept or Alter: Accept the interruption with time limits ("I can give you five minutes") or suggest an alternative or option ("I'll come to your cubicle when I've finished the report.").

What about the Boss?

With peers, you can use the "alter" option. Tom may actually thank you and go away happy. With the boss, your best option is almost always to accept. The boss' priorities must become your priorities. However, don't omit the second step. Always advise the boss of your activities and priorities. But never skip step two—that's the "self-ful" step.

Being self-ful allows you to speak up and say what is important to you. It even allows you to correct the boss when you notice an error—and better sooner than later.

About the Author(s)

Mimi Donaldson is a speaker and trainer and is coauthor, with C. Leslie Charles, of the book Bless Your Stress: It Means You're Still Alive. For more information, please visit or call 310-577-0229.