The Catch-22: Confidence & Assertiveness

11 August 2022 | 4 min read | Careers
Olivia Evans-McCaffery

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“Perfectionism is the enemy of confidence,” is how Emma Ewing MPRCA opened her training class to a dozen PR professionals seeking to simultaneously develop themselves and their careers.

An Oxford definition of confidence is ‘a feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities’. In parallel, the definition of being assertive is ‘having or showing a confident and forceful personality’. One would assume both come hand in hand – after all, how can you be an assertive person without being a confident one?

Ewing finds a tie between the two, defining assertiveness as communicating clearly, strongly, and decisively, in a polite and respectful manner. Other suggestions from the attendees included the ability (or courage) to negotiate, having true self-belief and high self-esteem, participating in conflicting debates, standing up to one’s senior, and being honest.

In the PR industry, confidence is often assumed and expected of its professionals – stereotypically, anyway – Ab Fab’s Eddie and Patsy, and Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones exude the ‘PR-esque’ confidence through unreserved and audacious conduct and humour – served with a Cosmopolitan on the side.

Believe it or not, these portrayals of PR consultants are not truly representative. There are many high-powered, confident, and assertive professionals within the industry who use the skills they’ve developed to secure great results for their firms and clients. However, these traits aren’t something we all possess naturally – confidence is a quality grown and built on over time.

Growing confidence comes from practicing assertiveness, Ewing says, so there is science behind the motto ‘fake it ‘til you make it’.

Practicing being assertive (even if by faking it), a way of communicating in a polite yet decisive manner, grows and strengthens the muscle. Over time, confidence will sprout, and the development of ourselves and our careers will flourish.

The thing is, people-pleasing is great as a junior. Willingness to prove one’s capability, tick the boxes of others, and be seen as the ever-bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed go-to is what is needed at the beginning of a career. It starts things off on the right foot. But Ewing says it won’t get you any further.

Mastering the art of assertiveness and developing a high sense of self-belief and esteem is what will take you from the middle-management rung of the ladder, to the end of your career.

As a framework used to grasp the barriers to confidence and assertiveness, Ewing outlines the differences between our ‘inner game’ and ‘outer game’. Our ‘inner game’ consists of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. What we think, what we think others think, and how we feel. The ‘outer game’ is made up of words, actions, and definitive signs. What we say, our body language, and what others say.

Confidence is a combination of both the inner and outer game. It’s very much situational – for example, some may find they are more confident in a certain place or with a certain person than others. But if you wait to be confident, you’ll only hold yourself and your career back. The trick, Ewing says, is working on the outer game, which is much more effective.

Through the outer game’s assertiveness, Ewing says confidence is grown. A tricky feat for some, but there are small ways one can build up their assertiveness repertoire; through making a readiness checklist, for example, i.e., planning a meeting or conversation, bookended with assertive yet polite statements tailored to certain outcomes.

Specifically, in a situation which requires you to address an issue, Ewing advises to use the ‘Impact, Specify, Consequences‘ method.

  • Impact – outline the effects of the issue, for example, “I feel…”
  • Specify – iterate what you would like to happen or change.
  • Consequences – outline the positive consequences of reaching an agreement and, only if appropriate, the negatives. Avoid ultimatums at all costs.

Ewing also suggests owning one’s uncertainty; despite what some believe, no one truly knows everything there is to know, so owning the gaps in your knowledge and pledging to fill it shows a level of self-awareness and assurance.

The takeaway: The key to becoming confident and assertive is through building on your external outputs. With a stronger outer game, the inner game will eventually catch up.