July 28, 2010

8 tips for assertive communication

I've talked to several people on different occasions recently who have had trouble asserting themselves in a professional setting. Whether it was figuring out how to turn down friend requests on Facebook, or saying no to a request for free assistance or a business partnership, the issue of "hurting people's feelings" reared its head and interfered with a perfectly normal and neutral business conversation.

Specific to women, as this is a big part of our gender socialization, the fear of hurting people's feelings, being rejected or being perceived as aggressive keeps us from asserting ourselves on a regular basis. Do men have this fear? Yes they do, but not as much as women, as assertiveness in men is rewarded, while assertiveness in women is often punished.

Yet assertiveness is one of the most critical skills one can have in business, and as a speaker (and heck... in life, period).

As a speaker, assertiveness comes in handy when negotiating the details of your speaking engagements, when requesting your room to be set up a certain way, when dealing with challenging audience members, when standing up for your ideas in a meeting, and when responding to requests or client projects that are not a good fit for you. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg; there are countless other times when assertiveness is a benefit to speakers and in business.

Let's clarify what I mean by assertiveness.

Assertiveness is saying what you mean and asking for what you want, in a clear, factual and straightforward manner and without apology. It's a neutral way to communicate a positive or negative message without being hurtful to the other person and without letting another person walk all over you. Assertiveness requires respect, honesty, personal responsibility, active listening and often, compromise.

Other communication styles:

Passive communication is when you bend over backwards not to hurt the other person, beat around the bush, avoid honesty, avoid eye contact, apologize for your feelings, ideas or behavior, whine or complain. Passive communication is based on fear of hurting another or fear of rejection, and it's hard to get what you want when your message is unclear and you spend your life avoiding possible conflict.

Aggressive communication is when all you care about is your own needs, doing whatever it takes to get what you want at the expense of the other person. It might involve blaming, judging, humiliation, name-calling or threats. There is a clear lack of respect for the other person's rights, and the aggressor does not take responsibility for her or his own feelings and behaviors. This style of communication is also based on emotion, not facts, and it undermines any trust or respect others may have for you.

Another common style is passive-aggressive communication. This may involve manipulation, dishonesty, sarcasm, sabotage, body language that's incongruent with words, and outright avoidance of real issues. It's a way of attempting to make up for feelings of powerlessness over someone else without exhibiting outright aggression. This communication style also results in a lack of trust and respect from your peers and colleagues.

Women, in particular, are often afraid of being perceived as aggressive when they are actually trying to be assertive, and therefore revert to passive or passive-aggressive communication for comfort and safety. Our culture has come a long way, but many still find it hard to accept assertiveness in women.

Well, too bad.

It's your right to stand up for yourself. It's your right to ask for what you want. And there's a way to do it that is healthy, caring and fosters mutual respect.

Here are a few tips for demonstrating assertive behavior:

1. Listen without interrupting. Let the other person have their say, and really hear what they're saying.

2. State your needs and wants clearly and with respect. Don't apologize for anything. Be honest and fair. (You may want to practice what you're going to say before a situation where assertiveness will be required.) Use "I statements."

3. Ask the person if they need clarification.

4. Stick to your point and don't be led astray by arguments that are not relevant.

5. Stick to the facts of the situation, rather than personal judgments about the other person.

6. Make eye contact, keep your voice calm and your posture relaxed and confident.

7. Make sure your words and body language match. If you're upset about something, don't smile; it's confusing to the other person what you really mean.

8. Always look for the win-win. How can you and the other person both come away with something you want?

Now let's be clear: Assertive communication does not guarantee that you will always get what you want. None of these communication styles guarantees that, and we are still fighting gender stereotypes that reward women for passive behavior. But times are changing, and the only way to keep moving forward is to keep building healthy communication skills -- whether you're male or female.

What assertiveness can get you is respect, healthy relationships, self-confidence, the freedom to express yourself honestly, trust, reduced anxiety, and people who want to work with and be around you.

Those are some pretty sweet rewards.

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2 comments. Please add yours! :

BraveCommLLC said...

Excellent tips! My favorite lines are below. Thanks for giving such practical empowering guidance. I will be sharing this with my blog readers!

"It's your right to stand up for yourself. It's your right to ask for what you want. And there's a way to do it that is healthy, caring and fosters mutual respect.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for your comment and for sharing, Julia!

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