(by Yumna Aysen)

As a business coach, much of my work revolves around helping my clients set and achieve goals. But the gap between these two points (setting and achieving) can be a big one.

Assertiveness is one of the key components required when turning intentions into reality.

The problem is that in a society that has long assigned certain “acceptable” qualities to the different genders,  assertiveness is something that many women feel uncomfortable displaying. But it is a vital attribute to adopt as part of the journey of claiming an equal role in the workplace (and everywhere else).

1. Understanding assertiveness

The definition of assertiveness is an important place to start. I believe that if we don’t understand what assertiveness is, it can prevent us from practising it in our daily lives.

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According to Inc. Magazine, “Assertiveness is an interpersonal skill in which you demonstrate the healthy confidence to stand up for yourself while still respecting the rights of others. When you are assertive, you are neither passive nor aggressive, but direct and honest”.

I think there are two key words here – “healthy” and “skill”. Knowing that you have the right to have your say shows your self-respect, and the fact that it’s a skill means it can be learnt and perfected.

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2. You have the right to an opinion

Believing this is the key to ensuring you feel empowered to fulfil your role in the workplace. But the fear of judgment and criticism is often a reason why people (and particularly women) are hesitant to communicate their thoughts.

Of course most of us want to be liked, but know that having an opinion – and feeling free to share it in an appropriate environment and in an appropriate way — does not make you rude or bossy. Instead, it shows that you value yourself and your place in the world.

3. Practise making your voice heard

It’s often hard to put yourself out there – especially in a corporate environment — but the more you do it, the easier it gets. As women, we tend to downplay ourselves. This only results in self-sabotage. If you want to be taken seriously in the world, it’s important that you speak up for yourself. As author Sheryl Sandberg says, “Nobody gets to the corner office by sitting on the side.” You get there by insisting on sitting at the table.

If speaking up is hard for you, it might be difficult at first, but true magic and self-growth happens outside your comfort zone. Just taking small steps in your daily conversations will make you more confident with expressing your opinion.

4. You don’t always have to apologise

We know that saying “sorry” often is a very South African trait, and more often than not it’s women saying it. We seem to apologise for everything that we do, which goes hand-in-hand with downplaying ourselves. It’s a habit that many of us have to unlearn because it happens so unconsciously. There is absolutely no need preface everything you say with, “I’m sorry”. Pay attention to the language you are using, because it tells people how you expect to be treated!

5. The strength in admitting uncertainty

This is something that I speak about a lot. I sometimes wonder if this fear of admitting uncertainty stems from our experience at school, where many of us were afraid to ask questions for fear of being labelled “dumb”. On the contrary, asking questions is a sign of strength and confidence.

No one, not even the CEO, knows everything. It’s ok to admit that you don’t know something – and that’s why it’s always recommended to surround yourself with other people who are good at what they do. It’s important to be a forever learner and to ask a lot of questions. Even experts in their field should be asking questions if they want to learn and grow.

6. Own your accomplishments

Women also tend to feel that if we speak about our accomplishments we’ll be labelled as arrogant and full of ourselves. But having a healthy dose of ego and owning your accomplishments is beautiful.

You should be proud of what you’ve accomplished, especially considering the amount of work that you’ve put into doing so. You should say with confidence, “I’ve BUILT this!” Sheryl Sandberg said that, “Women attribute their success to external factors, while men attribute their success to themselves. Women say, ‘someone helped me’, ‘I got lucky.’  It’s time that we take a little bit of credit for ourselves.