07/29/2010 02:14 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Fine Art of Assertiveness

Good leaders and business owners have learned the power of developing traits that might not match what is typically defined by gender. Unfortunately, this isn't always honored and encouraged, especially for women. There seems to be more receptiveness to men being collaborative, sensitive and nurturing than we allow women to be assertive, decisive and competitive.

I'm not blaming men; women call other women names, too. Anyone who holds onto stereotypes and blocks change is at fault. That is an issue for a future post. Here, I want to talk about female assertiveness. I believe there are ways to be effectively assertive regardless if people like us for it or not.

I remember a great piece of advice a man told me as I was starting my working life in my twenties, "Sometimes you have to be a bitch." Maybe when I'm called this, I should take it as a compliment. Surely there have been times in my career when living up to this moniker served me well. And I know many famous and powerful women who have accomplished great things that have been called this name.

However, since the time I was given this advice, I learned that there is a fine art to being assertive. Although I might be called names regardless of my conduct, I get better results and earn more respect when I am diplomatically assertive. Some people even quit calling me names. Therefore, I would like to share what I learned about being effectively assertive. We may not stop the name-calling, but we might change the world.

My moment of truth came when I was the Manager of Training in a multinational company. I was passionately describing to my boss the virtue of my grand idea and my frustration with the executive team for not "getting it." He took my hand, patted it and said, "Dear, you can quit fighting now. You've made it." Although I didn't care for how he told me, he wisely forced me to look at the difference between forcing my point of view and persuading people to listen to my ideas.

The "pit bull" approach worked to help me be a great individual contributor, which earned me recognition and promotions. In the long run, it didn't help me make the changes I wanted to see in my company and community. There is a difference between being seen as strong-willed and being seen as powerful by my peers, the people I need to support my campaigns to make a difference.

Although men and women will be called different names when they are being assertive, these tips are useful for both genders:

1. Although you are passionate about your beliefs, allow people to disagree. Hear them out. You may have a great argument that will shut them down. Yet shutting them down doesn't build the alignment you need for change. Listen for the fears behind their doubts and the beliefs behind their stories. When you name their worries and acknowledge their beliefs, they feel "seen" and more likely to hear your answer to their concerns and the reasons why you have an alternative viewpoint. Disagreement is needed for smart decision-making. Demanding your point of view keeps you in the dark. You need to make firm decisions. And you need to define to your dissenters how you considered their opinions when making your choice.

2. Once you understand their perspective and concerns, seek the common ground. Tell them, "I can see why you believe the way you do. I am concerned about that too. I want for the same things as you do. My solutions are different than yours because I came to believe something new from these particular experiences..."

3. Choose to lead a revolution instead of a rebellion. Rebellions focus on complaining and blame. You come off as self-righteous even when you feel passionately right about what you see is wrong. Revolution is about inspiring people to come together to create something new. You build on hope and possibility. Of course, you need to be careful about stating the time frames for change so people are not disappointed and lose trust in your promises.

4. Let them call you names. There will always be people who find fault with authority. There will always be people who are intimidated by strength, especially in women. There will always be people who don't want to be accountable for their lives so they want to spend their time looking for what they can attack in other people's words or personalities. Don't give in by mirroring their behaviors. Let them call you whatever they like.

Being effectively assertive doesn't mean backing down. It means you know how to present what you believe in a way that others will hear, understand and hopefully, align with your thinking. When enough of us model this behavior, the name-calling might stop, or not. But at least you will be more effective in leading the changes you want to see.

Marcia Reynolds, PsyD is an executive coach who delivers leadership programs around the world. Read the reviews for her latest book, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction.