‘Bossy’ Isn’t a Dirty Word

How to Be More Assertive in Your Communication

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Any problem can be solved with communication and education. That’s the message Jennifer Danforth began her presentation with at BPC 2021 in Denver. Danforth has always been fascinated with how people communicate. As the proposal director at Woolpert, an architecture, engineering and geospatial firm with offices across North America, she leads a team of 22 professionals. In that role, she’s learned just how important good communication is, and she’s learned how to be assertive — nicely.

This is a particular challenge for proposal managers. We’re given responsibility for creating a proposal, but often don’t have control over all the pieces that go into it. We can’t force subject-matter experts to give us information. We can’t insist that joint venture partners turn their resumes in on time. And we can’t demand to be taken seriously. We can only control the process.

How do we do that? Through assertive communication.

To be assertive, we first have to understand what it means: communicating clearly, setting boundaries and having respect for other people. Understanding your own communication style is also key. How do you interact with other people? How do you build relationships? What do you do when you’re stressed? Once you understand your own communication style, you can better understand how to communicate with others and step up your assertiveness when necessary.

Danforth shared seven tips on how to flex your assertiveness muscle — without making people feel bad.

1. Ask for what you want or need.

Sometimes we expect others to “get” what we’re looking for. But people aren’t mind-readers. State plainly what you’re looking for when you make a request. This gives the other person a clear understanding of exactly what you need.

2. Boundaries are essential.

“No” is a complete sentence. If you don’t have time to do something for someone, tell them so. Alternatively, you might delegate the task to another team member, ask for a longer deadline or refer the requestor to someone else.

3. Stop apologizing.

Asking for space at a table that you’re an expert in does not require an apology. Own your opinions and ideas — they’re just as valid as the next person’s. Prefacing a statement with “I’m sorry to say this, but …” weakens you and the value of your opinion. It also allows bullies in the room to pinpoint you as a victim.

If someone apologizes to you for no reason, help them see the light. Reply with, “You have nothing to apologize for.”

4. Express concerns/negative feelings.

To fix a problem, you need to talk about it, particularly if there’s a disagreement on an RFP requirement. Seek advice from people around you; don’t hide your concerns.

5. Be open to feedback.

The only way you’re going to improve yourself and your communication is to be open to feedback, especially from people you’ve just met. Be willing to listen and adjust your behavior as needed.

6. You can’t control others.

You can influence others, but you can’t control them. Keep the four agreements in mind: Don’t take anything personally, do your best, be impeccable with your words and don’t make assumptions. When you are assertive, there may be some people who get upset. Do it anyway. Being assertive isn’t about them; it’s about you. Their reaction comes from their perspective, which has nothing to do with you.

7. Practice.

You have to practice assertiveness. Try it out on someone. Write a script of what you want to talk about.

So, what’s the caveat? Sometimes being assertive just isn’t going to work, despite how you’ve prepared. You still won’t get what you’re looking for. Remember that this isn’t a reflection of you. The person you’re talking to may not be emotionally capable of understanding what you need or be aware enough to know why.

Step away, take a deep breath and continue your assertiveness practice elsewhere.

Danforth opened the session to audience input, which brought up a couple other points:

  • If someone tells you to calm down, say, “I appreciate that we’re all trying to solve this issue, but telling me to calm down doesn’t help.”
  • If someone says something akin to “I know how frustrated you are right now, but…,” you can say, “Please do not tell me how I feel. I’m trying to solve a problem; don’t mistake my passion for frustration.”

This session took place at APMP’s annual Bid & Proposal Con in October. Save the date for next year’s conference, scheduled for May 22-25, 2022, in Dallas, Texas.


Rachel Thompson is a proposal manager at Dragonfly Editorial.

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