As a leader, you understand the importance of building healthy personal and professional relationships. Using assertive communication allows you to not only build relationships but to exude confidence, persuade others, diffuse conflict, motivate your team, and provide feedback.
Assertive communication is a method of productively promoting ideas while recognizing the thoughts and feelings of those impacted by the discussion.
People who initiate assertive conversations are actively engaged and interested in the discussion, and strongly assert their position while expressing empathy at the same time. While there are many technical components and cultural norms involved in assertive communication, my foreign clients have asked for a blog post that focuses on tips and best practices in the United States. This is my attempt to satisfy that request and, as always, I invite your thoughts and feedback.
In an assertive conversation, it is common to hear phrases like: “I understand your difficulty, but I cannot agree with your solution. Let’s discuss this further and look at other options.” In these types of conversations, everyone is eager to participate and there is a show of empathy. Assertive communication is different than aggressive communication where one or more participants may feel harassed, threatened, shamed, or bullied.
Assertiveness involves non-threatening body language and vocal information that opens the door to healthy communication.
Body language includes eye contact, posture, gestures, and facial expression. Vocal information includes intonation, volume, pace, and emphasis. Let’s look at how to enhance each of these skills so that you can have a greater impact on your relationships.
- Eye contact: Maintain reasonably steady eye contact but remember that it’s not a stare-down. Direct and unbroken eye contact can be perceived as aggressive, but no eye contact can appear as weak and submissive. Break eye contact naturally, maybe to view notes, or something relevant to what you are talking about. Try not to break eye contact to view a point behind the person you are talking to, the clock, or your watch. This gives the impression that you are not interested, not listening, and in a hurry to wrap up the conversation.
- Stance/posture: Try to maintain a position of about 45 degrees to the person you are talking to, and do not stand directly face to face or turn away from them. Do not stand above the other person, especially if they are sitting and you are standing. Try to maintain a distance of at least two feet from the other person. Any closer and you may be invading their personal space, which could seem aggressive. (You can experiment with this by standing closer than two feet and watch the other person automatically back away). Keep your hands away from your face and (women) do not flip or touch your hair. These habits can make you look passive, nervous, or flirty. Remain relaxed but do not slouch.
- Signs and Gestures: Use open hand gestures and extend the hands toward the other person. This shows a willingness to share and understand. Avoid pointing your finger at someone or clenching your fists. Although, in the right context, the clenched fist can show passion and commitment to a point of view. Be aware of shrugging your shoulders as this can show a lack of commitment or interest.
- Facial expression: Movement is the key. Tense facial muscles, like frowning or tight lips, demonstrate aggression, whereas a totally relaxed face shows no commitment and boredom. Biting the lip will demonstrate insecurity and, therefore, weakness. Whenever possible, use a variety of facial expressions with lots of movement.
- Intonation: Use a variety of tone, as it demonstrates interest and enthusiasm. This supports a willingness to understand others while demonstrating a real belief and commitment in your own point of view. Avoid raising the tone on the last word or words of a sentence, as this turns a statement into a question and suggests you are asking for consent rather than making a definite statement. This is sometimes referred to as “uptalk.” Try saying the following statement, first, taking the intonation down on the words “two o’clock,” then taking the intonation up on the words “two o’clock.”
… and I will call you back tomorrow afternoon, at two o’clock.
See how the first states that you will telephone at two o’clock, and the second asks if it is OK for you to telephone at two o’clock.
- Volume: Shouting can be aggressive but being too quiet shows a lack of certainty and weakness. Keep the volume strong but not too loud.
- Pace: Talking too quickly can demonstrate nervousness or appear dismissive or arrogant, whereas hesitancy or interrupted speech shows a lack of confidence in your own position. Try to keep a controlled pace – not too fast but moving through what you have to say with confidence.
- Emphasis: Emphasize words that say what you are going to do, rather than what you are not going to do. When making requests emphasize what you want the other person to do, instead of what you want them not to do. Put an emphasis on words of recognition, words that support your position, and words that clearly state what you want to happen.
Using assertive communication will enhance your relationships, improve your confidence, and help you persuade and motivate others. Which of these skills can you start practicing immediately?