Assertive Leadership

Assertive leadership is often identified as the one skill leaders need to work on. Not only is it an important trait in itself, enabling leaders to communicate effectively and maintain boundaries. Assertiveness also serves as a magnifier of many other leadership strengths. For example, assertive leaders are more likely to embrace innovation, foster collaboration and act with integrity.

Assertive leadership is often misunderstood as requiring pushy or aggressive behaviour. Here are a few surprising facts about what assertive leadership ideally requires.

Assertive Leadership is Curvilinear

A few studies have researched the relationship between assertiveness and leadership in a scientific way. These are:

What they found is that there is both a negative and a positive link between assertiveness and leadership, depending on the quantity of the assertiveness. Too much or too little assertiveness is detrimental to leadership. But the right amount of assertiveness, while largely unnoticed in itself, serves as a platform for other leadership traits. Assertiveness has a curvilinear, or inverted-U-shaped relationship with leadership effectiveness, rather than a linear one in which they are always directly proportional.

One of the authors put it like this:

When leaders get assertiveness wrong, it’s glaring and obvious, but when they get it right, it seems to disappear. We say it’s like salt in a sauce: when there’s too much or too little, it’s hard to notice anything else, but when it’s just right, you notice the other flavors. No one compliments a sauce for being perfectly salted, and it’s just as unusual for a leader’s perfect touch with assertiveness to attract much notice.

By the way, it’s the same with charisma in leadership – too much charisma can make leaders look less effective, just like too little!

Assertiveness Leadership is Calm

It turn out that people want to follow calm, assertive leaders. Both parts of the equation are important. From a biological viewpoint, assertiveness is related high levels of testosterone, while the calmness is related to low levels of cortisol. These might seem like a contradictory emotions. One way of bringing them together is by adopting the right physical posture, sometimes called a power pose. Research has shown that:

Posing in displays of power caused advantaged and adaptive psychological, physiological, and behavioral changes, and these findings suggest that embodiment extends beyond mere thinking and feeling, to physiology and subsequent behavioral choices. That a person can, by assuming two simple 1-min poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful has real-world, actionable implications.

To find out what these poses are, scientists have studied the body language of alphas, or leaders, both in the animal and human realms. Watch this TED Talk by Amy Cuddy to find out more. Or speak to us about training and coaching on body language. You might also want to read one of our 14 blog posts on assertive communication. And discover how Bully Karma can help you unleash assertiveness on the workplace bully!

How to Make Others Trust You

I can personally vouch for three methods. They work. And it ‘s a good job they do too. We could accomplish little in life without trust. Trust is the glue that binds us together.


I extol the virtues of active listening and open-ended questioning as the main stays of inter-personal communication. They are necessary; they are not sufficient. If you use them in total isolation then there is the danger that you will be perceived as interrogating a suspect rather than building rapport. The person on the receiving end will feel attacked and vulnerable. The information flow is one way.

Self-disclosing is using a personal revelation (of feelings, shortcomings, private thoughts, proprietary information, etc) to influence greater openness and confidence between the other person and yourself. For instance, in a conversation you might say something like, I ‘m still quite nervous when I ‘m about to present an idea to someone more senior

Such self-disclosure is a powerful tool for building bridges with people and developing rapport. It works because it conveys your human side. Self-disclosure signals your willingness to trust the other, since you ‘re conveying something personal, something private, about yourself. And in doing so, you are influencing the other person to reciprocate with a similar level of self-disclosure, thereby creating a deepening level of revelation and openness.

Methods of self-disclosure in everyday dialogue are many and varied. At its most basic, it can involve sharing private information with another. I don ‘t mean giving your life-story to the person in the canteen queue. The level of information disclosed should be appropriate and gradual. A little deeper is disclosing your feelings or evaluation of something. In doing so you are sharing more of yourself. The deepest sort of self-disclosure includes admitting one ‘s mistakes and shortcomings, and even admitting the need for help.


In psychology, mirroring is the whole process of imitating someone with the purpose of acquiring empathy and connection i.e. ‘rapport building ‘. This matching of your body language to the person to whom you are speaking can include body posture, movement, voice tone and tempo, and even breathing rate.

I would describe mirroring as ‘synchronised non-verbal communication ‘. It indicates maximum communication with the other person. If you move your arms apart, opening your palms, and they do the same, you are both in synch. The messages and the words of the conversation are being received and accepted by the other. Behaving in a way that is deliberately similar to the other person ‘s behaviour is called ‘pacing ‘.


The final way to build trust cannot be taught in an internet blog or a training workshop. Yet it is the strongest of all. It means doing what you ‘d said you would do. If you don ‘t do this, no amount of fancy techniques of speech or body language will be of any assistance to you.

The ancient Greeks said that there were three modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos and logos. We would call these ethics, emotion and argument. And the greatest of these, both then and now, is ethics.

14 Blog Posts on Assertive Communication

We’ve blogged on the topic of assertive communication for many years, as well as taught courses and led workshops on it. Assertiveness has the power to challenge our thinking at a deep level, and change our behaviour though small adjustments. We love assertiveness so much that we spent the whole of August blogging and tweeting on it, and promoting our coaching service for those who want to improve their assertiveness.

Here’s a collection of our favorite blog posts on assertive communication. I’ve gathered them together under relevant headings. Some blog post titles are self-explanatory while others were written to pique your interest. Give them a peruse and read those ones that interest you. Comments, questions, stories and objections are all welcome.

The Mental Side of Assertiveness

Assertiveness and Emotional Detachment

Bill of Assertive Rights

Fear, Obligation and Guilt

The Resolution of the ‘Adult ‘

A Playful Assertiveness

How to Stop Being Nice

Verbal Assertive Communication

Mohicans Do Not Call Themselves Subject to Much at All

5 Assertiveness Techniques

Non-Verbal Assertive Communication

Assertive Body Language

How to be Brave: The Return

39 Ways to Conquer Fear

Assertive Communication in Different Situations

What is Bullying?

How to Confidently Run Meetings Without the Creeping Ennui

Last Year, I Saved £8000 Pounds Just By Complaining

Coaching and Support at Bully Karma

Finally, I want to highlight the online and person-to-personal coaching service we can provide to help your assertive communication. Maybe you are experiencing aggressive and bullying behaviour in the workplace? Then read this blog about Bully Karma, an online support group for those who are navigating their way through workplace bullying and want to learn new assertiveness skills. You visit Bully Karma on Facebook directly.

If you’d like to talk about any of the issues raised in these blog posts, give us a call.

How to Be Brave

Captain Frederick Marryat (July 10, 1792 August 9, 1848) was an English novelist, a contemporary and acquaintance of Charles Dickens, and is noted today as an early pioneer of the sea story. He is best known for the autobiographical novel Mr Midshipman Easy and his children ‘s novel The Children of the New Forest.

Why am I telling you this? Because it gives some context to one of the powerful quotes on courage and overcoming fear that I ‘ve ever read. These words come from Teddy Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States of America, and an incredibly brave man.

Having been a rather sickly and awkward boy, I was, as a young man, at first nervous and distrustful of my own prowess. I had to train myself painfully and laboriously not merely as regards my body but as regards my soul and spirit

When a boy I read a passage in one of Marryat ‘s books which always impressed me. In this passage, the captain of some small British man-of-war is explaining to the hero how to acquire the quality of fearlessness. He says at the outset almost every man is frightened when he goes into action, but that the course to follow is for the man to keep such a grip on himself that he can act just as if he were not frightened. After this has been kept up long enough, it changes from a pretence to a reality, and the man does in fact become fearless by sheer dint of practising fearlessness when he does not feel it. (I am using my own language, not Marryat ‘s.)

This is the theory upon which I went. There were all kinds of things of which I was afraid at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean ‘ horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid. Most men can have the same experience if they choose.

So, to put it in American English, you ‘fake it until you make it ‘!

In my opinion, it offers one of the chief ways to develop confidence in yourself as an individual. And it ‘s not just fluffy sentiment and wish-fulfilment. There is a sound psychological basis for it. Read what Williams James, American psychologist and philosopher, had to say about it.

Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can regulate the feeling, which is not.

Thus the sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our spontaneous cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there. If such conduct does not make you feel cheerful, nothing else on that occasion can.

So, to feel brave, act as if we were brave, use all of our will to that end, and a courage fit will very likely replace the fit of fear.

These are some of my favourite quotes ever. What do you think of them?

Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash

How to Be Brave: The Return

I’ve had a few positive comments and dozens of views on a blog I wrote in July called How to Be Brave. The gist of it was that it’s possible to overcome the feeling of fear by first of all acting as if you were not afraid. If you can put on a good enough act, then the feelings will fall into place afterwards.

While teaching a course in non-verbal communication recently, a thought struck me. How do you act in a brave or fearless manner? Which specific types of body language can help us out here?


This is the most powerful piece of body language available to us! As that well-known psychologist Greta Garbo said, “Anyone who has a continuous smile on his face conceals a toughness that is almost frightening”. Smiling gives you great power over yourself and others.

Raise your Chin

If you are feeling down, raise your head and hold it in an upright position for a few moments. Notice how your mood will shift almost immediately.

Maintain Eye Contact

When you hold someone’s gaze it means that you are in control, assertive, even challenging. Narrow your eyes to be seen as strong and dominant. Move your gaze smoothly and deliberately. Of all bodily signals, the eyes reveal emotions the most accurately.

Be Still

Small, inconsequential gestures show discomfort, inner turmoil or frustration. Eliminate these micro-gestures by taking action to solve the problems, or learning to be still by shifting your energies to thought. Stillness and quiet signal to others that you are in control, and that it is up to them to make the move.

Stand straight

Posture reflects self-image, confidence, role and emotional state. As Ray Birdwhistell noted, “A person’s posture reflects their past. People who have experienced long-term depression may slouch and drag their bodies around, whereas people who have a positive outlook tend to hold themselves upright.”.

Walk Tall

However you walk, you are being true to your internal rhythms and feelings. By choosing to walk in a certain way you are presenting an image you want other to believe. Quicken your tempo to increase your energy. Or slow it down to show deliberation. Whatever you do, choose it.

Expand Out

Take up space and look as though you are conformable in it. Don’t shrivel up or cringe when others look at you. Hold your arms away from your body and your elbows slightly out from your sides. Plant your feet slightly apart. Be significant!

Pump it Up

The volume that is. If you talk quietly you will ignored, you will sound unsure or others will talk over you. Don’t be afraid to hear yourself speak. I don’t mean that you should scream or resemble a fog-horn. But try raising your voice a little and you will more easily get the attention and time of others.

Try them out. They actually work. I dare you! And, if you need help putting this all in practice, get in touch.

Photo by Nadim Merrikh on Unsplash

Assertiveness and Workplace Confidence

We are holding a workshop – Assertiveness and Workplace Confidence – at QUB, Belfast on Wednesday 18-19 February.

The realities of modern work life – flat structures, tough workloads and the need to exert influence across traditional boundaries – ensure that assertiveness skills are not an optional extra. Aggression is unacceptable; passivity is ineffective. In this workshop you will learn an powerful set of techniques and how to use them in specific workplace scenarios, such as when negotiating or influencing. also covered are the relationships between assertiveness and more general work-related issues, like the conflict created when giving criticism and receiving feedback. Continue reading “Assertiveness and Workplace Confidence”

The Body Language of Power

There was a spate of tabloid stories this week about body language and power, two of my favourite topics. Apparently a study had shown that employers save their best grins for those lower in the pecking order. Like most good science, this seems counter-intuitive. We would guess that a superior would frown to mere minions but save their special smiles for equals. But the reasoning is that powerful people see their peers as a threat and don’t want to seem over-familiar. They can be a friendly as they like to inferiors; they don’t matter enough to warrant a serious demeanor.

I love this intersection between psychology and business. As a trainer, its where I live. So I thought I would dig a little deeper and try to find the original article. The source was a paper at the Society for Neuroscience 2012 given by Evan Carr. The press release put it like this. “Social status and self-perceptions of power affect facial mimicry, such that powerful individuals suppress their smile mimicry towards other high-status people, while powerless individuals mimic everyone ‘s smile.”

In the larger PDF press release, the point is made that whether or not a person mimics the facial expressions of another such as returning a smile appears to depend, in part, on how powerful the mimic feels, and the status of the person they are ‘mirroring’. Carr states that,

Mimicry has been shown to help build relationships, and both power and status seem to affect how we unconsciously employ this strategy. These findings may speak to how social hierarchies often form ‘under the radar ‘ quickly, efficiently, and without awareness.

My favourite piece of research on the power of mirroring was in a paper called Mimicry for money: Behavioral consequences of imitation. Waitresses in a restaurant found that they received up to 70% larger tips if they repeated the customers’ order back at them word-for-word than if they said something like “okay” or “coming right up”. Other research by some of the same researchers can be found in:

My favourite experiment on smiling? Two groups were given the same cartoons to read. One group had to look while holding a pencil in their teeth. The other group held a pencil by their lips.

Guess which group found the cartoons funniest?

(Hint: If you can’t figure it out, observe the shape of your mouth in each pencil position.)

Image credit: macrj.

Body to Body, Funk to Funky

So this week I’m resting frorm the rigours of teaching another public workshop at Queen’s University, Belfast. The subject? Body language. The title? Body to Body: How to Communicate Without Words.

It’s the second time I’ve led this workshop at Queen’s. Both times it’s been the largest, most popular course I’ve ever taught. Both times, the numbers have been well over the 40 mark. But there have been a few changes over the years.

Back in 2006 when I first taught the course I tried to lay a foundation of theory before offering some application and role-play. This time I launched straight into it with a ‘Top Ten Uses of Body Language in Evey-day Life’. Only after this I squeezed in a bit of theory before lunch, mentioning the likes of Mehrabian, Morris and Eckman. After lunch, I hit them with 10 ‘Special Techniques’ of nonverbal-communication they could try out upon unsuspecting friends and colleagues. The day finished with a test and ‘graduation’! Continue reading “Body to Body, Funk to Funky”

Confident Conversations Workshop 2.0


I like designing new workshops and working on new ideas as much as possible. So far, I’ve only repeated one course within the Queen’s University Open Learning Programme. That was my 1-day workshop called Body to Body: How To Communicate Without Words. Read about it here. Now, I intend to add to this repeated course hall of fame. On Saturday, 31 May 2008 I delivered a workshop called Confident Conversations: How to Talk in Any Situation. Or, as I called it my my post-workshop report blog, The Art of Talking Without Talking.

Continue reading “Confident Conversations Workshop 2.0”

Body Language With Benji


If you’re an 80s child like me, you’ll remember Benji, Zax and the Alien Prince. It was a kids sci-fi series about the earth-bound adventures of a dork, a droid, and a disgustingly cute dog called Benji. Benji went on to star in other series and films of his own. In all of them, he repeatedly showed that cutie-pie ‘I’m a little, stray puppy-wuppy, pretty please be my friend’ face till I fainted with saccharine over-exposure. Continue reading “Body Language With Benji”