How to Be Assertive, Not Pushy

If you write to customers, clients, employees, or almost anyone on the job, you have times when you need to assert yourself. You have to disagree, delegate, instruct, remind, and say no—in each situation coming across as clear and forceful without pushing into rudeness. The tips below can help in situations when you need to be firm yet courteous.

1. Use good manners. Extending the typical courtesies will save you from coming across as pushy. Begin with a greeting such as “Hello Edward,” “Good morning, Zoya,” or “Dear Max.” When asking for action, always use “please”—even if you are the boss. “Please” does not make you a pushover or mean you are pleading. It says you are polite and professional.

Note: You do not need to repeat “Please” in a series of steps or requested actions. Although “please” is polite, it can take the focus away from the necessary actions when repeated and can come across as mechanical rather than sincere. With a list of tasks, use “Please” just once in an introductory sentence, even with customers. Example:

Please take the steps below to move forward on filling the open position:

  • Accept the meeting invitation from Nicole Squire to go over the requirements. (Nicole will then write the job description for your approval.)
  • Determine the salary with advice from your compensation specialist.
  • [And so on.]

 
Finish by expressing your appreciation. Use more than a brief “Thanks” or “Thank you” to avoid sounding curt. Examples:

• Thanks for your help with the project.
• We appreciate your cooperation.
• I will be grateful for your prompt response.

 

2. Say enough that your readers will be able to understand your meaning and accept it. Too often brevity comes across as bluntness in denials, directives, and other sensitive messages. In the pairs of sentences below, notice how giving more information softens the message without diluting it.

  • We can’t make that change now.
  • At this point in the project, we can't make the change without having to push back the launch date. 
  • The deck damage isn’t covered.
  • The plan does not cover your deck. Here is the paragraph from your policy that states exclusions:
  • Get this done by noon.
  • I need this by noon so we can incorporate the figures into the final report for the board.
  • Your proposal will not work.
  • I have concerns about parts of the proposal, and I would like to meet with you to get your reactions to them.

3. Share your feelings briefly if it will help you convey the message. Sometimes you may struggle with communicating clearly and forcefully because you hate the message you have to convey. It might be to say no, repeat a request, or require action. Acknowledging your feelings can help both you and your reader. Examples:

  • Dr. Ward, I hate to nag, but I have to have your patient notes before the conference tomorrow afternoon.
  • I am sorry to have to ask for your assistance again. Another situation has arisen that requires your expert advice.
  • Terry, I wish I could accommodate your request. Unfortunately, your email went to my spam folder. Now all the tickets have been spoken for.
  • Regrettably, we cannot agree to your request. The contract requires that a $400 fee be assessed in these situations.

Note: Despite your feelings, it is wrong to unite with your reader to criticize your policies. That behavior can undermine people’s view of your organization.

  • Wrong: I agree that our company policy is outdated. I don’t know why we haven’t changed it.
  • Instead: Thank you for your honest feedback on the policy. I have shared it with our directors. At this time, I must apply the terms of the policy as it stands.

4. If you are uncomfortable giving your reader a deadline, try conveying it in a separate sentence. Sometimes writers feel awkward assigning readers a due date, especially readers who are clients or who hold positions of authority. Including a deadline in a separate sentence can be the solution. Examples:

  • I look forward to receiving your final changes. If you send them this week, I will be able to incorporate them over the weekend and get them to the printer on Monday.
  • Would you please let us know your availability to meet with the final candidates? These meetings must take place before the end of the month.
  • Please let me know whether you prefer the first or the second approach. Can you let me know this week so that I can move ahead with the project?

 

5. Avoid blaming the reader. Sometimes writers get tangled up in tone problems because the situation is the reader’s fault. But blaming the reader using language such as “you should have” and “you forgot” is not assertive—it’s rude. These examples show how to state your message without blame:

  • I am sorry that I cannot include the chapter now. I needed it by January 15 to incorporate it.
  • When I made the schedule, I didn’t have your vacation dates. Please give me your future requests at least two weeks in advance, and I will do my best to accommodate you.
  • I have to have this information by 2 p.m. I have attached my original request from February 28 with all the details.
  • We wish we had known about your needs. Unfortunately, we require at least a day’s notice to supply a _______ [fill in the blank].

Applying those five suggestions will make it easier for you to come across clearly and diplomatically in most sensitive situations. If your situations go beyond these suggestions, get my book, Business Writing With Heart: How to Build Great Work Relationships One Message at a Time. It includes complete chapters on sharing bad news, saying no, disagreeing, reminding, and other challenging topics. Review the table of contents and get information to buy it from me. Or buy it from Amazon or your favorite bookseller. 

Do you have tricks or techniques for asserting yourself without being pushy in writing? Please share them!

If you would like to tune up your writing and get expert feedback on it, enroll in my online course Business Writing Tune-Up

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Lynn
Syntax Training

11 COMMENTS

  1. Lynn: As usual, you’ve given me useful advice. I have concluded that your blog is one of my best writing resources. Thanks for another succinct and practical article.

  2. Thanks for your feedback, Becky, Jennifer, and Allison.

    Becky, I agree that these tips apply in conversations too. Nice observation!

    Jennifer, I am glad the “please” suggestion resonated with you. Like you, I have seen communications get off message with too many “pleases.” Also, I understand your concern about “Dear” in an email, and I use your suggested greetings. In a business letter, however, “Dear” is always appropriate as a greeting.

    Allison, you are welcome! Thank you for the positive words.

    Lynn

  3. This is an extremely helpful post! I absolutely love your point, “Despite your feelings, it is wrong to unite with your reader to criticize your policies. That behavior can undermine people’s view of your organization.” I work in customer service at a manufacturing company, and I would never say something disparaging about our company to my customers. When customer service representatives say things like that to me, I always feel that it comes across as unprofessional and reveals a lack of unity and trust within the company. I’m glad to see you point this out, too!

  4. Hi Lisa Marie,

    Thanks for your positive feedback. As someone in customer service, you have unique opportunities to build relationships–and save them, when necessary. Having read your comments over the years, I can tell you know what you are doing.

    I’m sorry for the delay in responding. Although I read your comment when you posted it, I was busy then and forgot to come back to it. I do always appreciate hearing from you.

    Lynn

  5. Hello Lynn,
    Thank you very much for the informative post.

    My query is ‘Is there any difference between using ‘kindly’ and ‘please’.

    Kindly clarify.
    Thank you.

    Best,
    KR

  6. Hi KR,

    “Please” is the more common word. Here’s what Bryan Garner has to say in “Garner’s Modern English Usage,” which I recommend to you:

    “This word is now frequently misplaced in sentences. Traditionally it has meant something close to ‘please,’ as in ‘Kindly take your seats’ (= please take your seats). This usage has long been more common in BrE than in AmE. Perhaps that is why Americans have begun to misplace ‘kindly’ by having it refer not to the person who is requested to do something but to the person doing the requesting–e.g.: ‘We kindly ask you to take your seats.'”

    Of course, in Garner’s example, the correct sentence would be “We ask you to kindly take your seats.”

    Lynn

  7. Lynn, thank you for your very kind, encouraging words. I really appreciate it! It’s hard to believe it has already been several years since I started following your blog. I’ve found so much value in it and continue to look to it as a great resource!

  8. Hello Lynnn,

    your Blog is way better then my business communication classes from MBA.

    you have describe topics in interesting way. Really appreciate your hard work.

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