Taking the time and headspace to make a more considered response is one of the most assertive things you can do. Be kind to your future self, and try this.

Maybe you’ve read a lot about assertiveness techniques, practiced some assertive conversation starters. You’ve spent time working out your desired outcome, and how you’ll handle it if you don’t get what you want (and if you do!). You are getting better at choosing assertive behaviours when it matters to you.

Then something happens that you weren’t expecting: someone puts you on the spot, or you are asked a question you weren’t ready for. Maybe the question or demand has provoked an emotional response in you that you need to deal with first so you can gain some clarity… and your inner assertiveness scripts disappear in a puff of smoke… leaving you with your default behaviours when you’re under pressure (whether they are passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive).

How can you make assertive behaviour choices when you feel under pressure, and short of time? You need a go-to space-maker. A short phrase that you know so well it comes to you easier than the tune of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song. Create a new default response to replace the unhelpful ones.

And the purpose of this phrase is to temporarily stop time. Many times being put on the spot I have felt the urge to start spilling words in response to a question… but my mouth is often faster than my brain in these instances. My personal default is passive behaviour, followed by regret at what I said, did, or agreed to. What I need is mental space: sometimes only a few moments, sometimes a few hours (and sometimes, let’s face it, a few days).

The key is to make it short, simple, and easy to remember. Here’s mine:

“I need to think about this. I’ll get back to you shortly.”

That’s it. I have it down now to ‘automatic’ when I feel under pressure. Often that pressure is coming from me, and not coming from others. So this puts the breaks on, just long enough to give my brain time to catch up and give me helpful cues like ‘but Sarah, you’re over scheduled for the next three weeks, how can you possibly take on this task?’ or ‘I am so cross that they would even say that to me, and now I need to find a way to tell them that I’m angry (and why) without treating them badly’.

It can be modified in the moment, to respond to different scenarios. On occasion I’ve used variations like these:

“I can’t give you an immediate answer, I’ll gather more information and let you know.”

“I’m upset right now, I’m going to get some air and we can talk when I’m back.”

I even have one for when I’m scoping projects with clients (which could also be used in interviews):

“Please give me a moment – I need to get my thoughts in order so they will make sense to you”

Your turn: Craft yourself a new default for when you’re feeling under pressure to respond in the moment. Practice a few permutations – it needs to be your true voice, not someone else’s. That’s the easy bit. Stage two is to practice, practice, practice, so that it does become your new go-to space-maker. Stage three? Give it a better name than I did 😉

Dr Sarah Robins-Hobden is an escaped academic, helping people close the gap between where they are, and where they want to be, with bespoke coaching and training. Her superpower is empathy, and her kryptonite is her own inner critic. You can find out more here: www.robinshobden.com

Views expressed by the writer are not necessarily the views of the Springboard Consultancy Ltd

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