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Why on earth do PR consultants want to learn to be more assertive?

One of the things I enjoy about being a trainer is that I occasionally get to send myself off for training. It's fun to swap tips, share knowledge and meet people who have a similar obsession with whiteboards. On one such recent course we were chatting about what we'd been up to the previous week. One of the courses I'd given was 'Becoming Assertive for PR Consultants'. On hearing that, one of our little group almost choked on his coffee as he gasped: "Why on earth do PR consultants want to learn to be more assertive?"

Why on earth do PR consultants want to learn to be more assertive?

Behind this simple question lay a couple of misconceptions that crop up all the time

It made me laugh, to be honest. Behind this simple, candidly-expressed question lay a couple of misconceptions that crop up all the time. The first is that 'assertiveness' equates with being bright, sparkly and forthright — often even aggressive — and the second is that PR people are all confident masters of their own ships.

I spend almost all of my professional life working with and alongside PR people. Hell, I even used to be one! You can say many things about our industry, but one thing that we're almost never tagged with is 'shy and retiring'. And yet the courses I provide on becoming assertive continue to attract delegates — a fact which clearly surprised my colleague who prompted today's blog subject.

It's true that if you observe a typical PR assertiveness course alongside one given for a less, shall we say, client-responsive industry, then you would see many initial differences in the behaviour of the delegates. In fact, as a trainer, I rely on it. The delegates that I typically see for this course have no problems in introducing themselves to the group, explaining articulately what they want to get out of the course, and participating fully in the exercises.

Where I've trained people in assertiveness who work in different industries, the picture is often quite different. It's a little harder to ask for upfront discussion and frank exchanges of views. Anyone who's facilitated training will know that you have to work slightly differently to encourage people to participate when the act of getting up and holding court in front of a room is not part of their daily life. With both groups the learning and end results are the same and we manage to have the same amount of fun, but the volume button is slowly cranked up with the non-PR groups, as opposed to starting near 10.

PR people come on an assertiveness course because they need to be performing like articulate, bright and competent people 100% of the timeSo does this tell us anything? So far, not so much. We're still no closer to understanding why a PR consultant would sign up to learn more about assertiveness. But wait, maybe unpicking the reasons why they're there will help. This is where, for me, life becomes a whole lot more interesting. All of a sudden people are describing situations and events where they'd like to become more assertive and exert some consultative control. And they start talking about other people. Yes, some people come on the course because there are certain people, or certain categories of people, in whose presence they become unexpected doormats.

Pushing back on certain clients, delegating to a particular reluctant team member, providing ideas to some managers... can you start to see where this is going? For me, at least, this is where the answer lies. Whilst some people come on the course to learn all-round assertiveness skills, most people sign-up because they are assertive in many situations at work but, with some people or events, they find they just don't make headway and they don't understand how to turn it around.

For me, that hits the spot. Articulate, bright, competent PR people come on an assertiveness course because they need to be performing like articulate, bright and competent people 100% of the time. It's one thing being able to sell-in ideas to the client who's the most like all your friends and with whom you get on well. It's quite another to hold your nerve in front of the client who's least like you and your friends and might, frankly, be a bit scary to boot.

Maybe the true test of assertiveness is being able to behave like a consultant regardless of the situation or the people involved. What do you think?

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