Updated: Mar 13
In my last blog, Assertive Communication – (Part 1), three common communication styles were identified: passive, aggressive, and assertive. We highlighted some differences between them and reflected on the style that comes most naturally to each of us.
Although there may be situations where passive or aggressive communication is appropriate, today we’ll look at the three keys to assertive communication – typically the quickest and most effective way to achieve agreement, consensus, or resolution!
1. Be respectful:
Use Your Body Language. Communication isn't just verbal; people are making decisions about you and your intentions before you even say a word! As you approach the other person, keep your spine straight, and head up, leaning forward a bit and moving at an unhurried pace. Respect their personal space and protect yourself by maintaining a safe distance - about six feet. Match their position, either standing or sitting, but don’t cross your arms or legs. Show a pleasant, neutral facial expression and make regular, direct eye contact. Practice assertive body language in front of a mirror or with someone you trust and remember to act confident even if you aren't feeling it!
Show Patience. The fact that the other person’s behaviour is challenging is not an excuse to treat them the same way. Allowing them to fully express themselves will help you understand why they feel the way they do. Interrupting someone almost always results in a missed opportunity to gather more information about the situation. If you are speaking and they interrupt, stop talking and start listening! Choosing to demonstrate patience and a willingness to partner with them on a resolution is not about the other person, it’s about you!
Be a Great Listener. Focus intently on what the other person actually means, rather than what words they are using or how the information is being presented. For example, swearing often means someone is so frustrated that they are struggling to express themselves, and it shouldn’t be considered part of the message they are trying to communicate. Accept their thoughts and feelings, even when you don’t agree with them, or the way they are being expressed. You cannot respond effectively or progress the conversation if you are listening with the intent to reply or rebuke, rather than listening with the intent to understand.
Paraphrase Regularly. This ensures your clarity, helps you stay mentally present, and let the speaker know you are engaged in the conversation. If the only thing you can understand is the emotion, then start with that: “I can tell you’re really angry about this! Is it okay if I ask a few questions to make sure I understand the situation?”
Be Direct. Using ‘I’ statements will let others know what you're thinking or feeling without coming across as judgmental. For example, saying, "I don’t see it the same way" is more likely to be accepted than, "You're wrong.” Following up with a ’we’ statement puts you and the speaker on the same side. “I’m sure we can look at this together and figure something out that will work for both of us.”
Be Clear and Concise. State what you want or need from the other person, keeping your requests simple and specific. Listen carefully to their response and look for something you can agree with. Agreeing with even a small part of their message gives you a starting point. Without judgement, be prepared to offer creative options to issues that come up. Know what you are prepared to compromise on and when you will walk away.
Using these skills to show respect will help you to communicate assertively and reach a resolution that meets the expectations of all parties!
2. Be confident:
Manage the Conversation Fairly. To keep a discussion on track and balanced – especially when someone is angry – is challenging! You must respect yourself, know your role, and be willing to stand up for your interests. You must also be aware of the rights of others and have confidence in your ability to clearly express yourself and partner with personalities that may be very different from your own. Accepting that people always have a good reason for thinking and acting the way they are, will allow you to really listen to their point of view, negotiate fairly with them and work towards a win/win solution.
Practice Saying No. For most of us, turning down requests isn’t easy, but it’s often necessary in both our business and personal lives. When it’s challenging, we sometimes ‘beat around the bush,’ when doing the opposite would be more effective. Don’t hesitate – be direct. In most situations, saying, "No, I can't do that." feels a little too direct, but some alternatives could be, “Unfortunately, I’m not able to right now, but do keep me in mind for the next time.” or “That sounds like a great opportunity, but I just don’t have time right now.” or “I’d be happy to do that for you if it can wait until next week.” An explanation isn’t always necessary or appropriate. When it is, keep it brief.
Rehearse. If it's challenging to communicate clearly, or you get ‘tongue tied’ under pressure, think about some common situations you encounter and write out exactly what you’d like to say. Use that script to practice expressing your ideas out loud. Consider role-playing with someone you trust and ask them for honest feedback.
Start Small. Begin by practicing your new skills in low-risk situations. You might start with a partner or friend before tackling a difficult situation at work. Evaluate your performance afterward and tweak your approach as necessary. If you’re feeling especially brave, have someone else film you and then critique yourself – but be gentle!
Using these skills to show confidence will help you to communicate assertively and reach a resolution that meets the expectations of all parties!
3. Be kind:
Keep it Sincere. Sincere compassion is clear, even to someone who is angry, and the principle of reciprocity is always at work. Reciprocity refers to the ‘social norm’ of responding to actions in a similar manner. This means that when you are nice to people, they feel psychologically obligated to be nice back – although that doesn’t always happen right away. The principle also works negatively, so if you’re rude, the other person may feel like you’ve just given them permission to treat you the same way, or worse!
Keep it Controlled. Conflict is hard for most people, and it can be difficult to keep emotions in check. Maybe you get frustrated or impatient, lash out with anger, or have to fight back tears. Although these feelings are all normal, they can get in the way of effectively resolving conflict. If you feel too emotional to handle a situation, postpone it if possible, and think about what you want to say. When you’re ready, focus on remaining calm. Breathe slowly and deeply, keeping your voice even and firm. Step away to “double check something” if you need a short break to regroup or gather your thoughts.
Keep It Consistent. Whether dealing with a teenager and curfew, a habitually late employee, or a customer who knows they are in the wrong, who hasn’t had their boundaries tested? We’ve all dealt with someone who has believed that, with enough nagging, pleading, or persistence, they could get us to relent. Inconsistent messaging sidetracks assertiveness, so repetition and frequency are critical. Commit to expressing yourself in the same way over and over until they accept that you aren’t going to change your mind and the message is (finally!) received.
Keep it Positive. Life is messy. Sometimes we’re stressed out and dealing with conflicts or complicated relationships at home, work, with our friends or in the community – hopefully not all at once! Of course, no one really enjoys those difficult conversations, but unfortunately, issues don’t usually resolve themselves. Avoidance and negativity can lead to more stress and more complicated interactions, so stop that cycle! Be confident that you have the tools you need. See each situation as an opportunity, rather than something to avoid, and choose to approach people with positive energy and an acceptance of their perspective. Yes, sometimes that will be very challenging, but you might be surprised at how often that ‘principle of reciprocity’ will work for you!
Using these skills to show kindness will help you to communicate assertively and reach a resolution that meets the expectations of all parties!
If you think back to a time when you ‘lost your mind’ with anger (and I’m sure I can’t be the only one who has!) it was probably when things felt totally out of your control. Assertive communication is most important to achieve – and most difficult to practice – in situations where someone is angry or unreasonable. The “trick” is to remember how that felt and to do things differently when we are the person directing the conversation! Others are much more likely to be cooperative, even in their worst moments, when they feel like they have some say in the resolution of the situation, and our assertive communication is the key!
Assertive communicators balance confidence in their own perspective with an appreciation for the views and contributions of others. Being respectful enough to truly see each interaction as a partnership, feeling confident enough to share your power and kind enough to accept a different perspective helps the other person see your behaviour as assertive, rather than passive or aggressive. When we choose to communicate assertively it helps keep everybody safer, and the cycle of cooperation, confidence and success is sure to follow!
P.S. The ‘Five Universal Truths’ blog was a good one, so click here if you missed it, or would like a refresher!