It is important to learn how to communicate assertively, for yourself and your team

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Strong and confident communication is key to being effective at work: it’s the holy grail of human interaction. Like Goldilocks’s porridge, for the best outcomes, we neither want to handle situations too aggressively nor lack the confidence to get our point across. Luckily, landing in this sweet spot of assertiveness is a skill that can be learnt.

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Natalie Hall and Phanella Fine

The perfect balance

Identifying appropriately assertive communication is not always straightforward as it is so often confused with aggression. In truth, there is a fine line between the two.

One of our favourite ways to conceptualise assertiveness with teams we work with is by using the Talmudic saying: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I?”

Truly assertive communication – the kind that results in great company cultures – is all about balance: we respect our own wants and needs, but also recognise and respect the wants and needs of others in return.

It is the ability to express your opinions positively and with confidence whilst being respectful of others. Aggressive behaviour, on the other hand, wants to come out on top no matter the cost.

Why is assertiveness key?

Evidence for the benefits of assertive communication is, perhaps unsurprisingly, everywhere. By treating others with fairness and respect, assertive leaders have been shown to engender more loyalty, be better liked and achieve better outcomes from solving problems more effectively to negotiating better solutions for their teams.

For more junior employees, being assertive helps to grow your confidence, increases job satisfaction and has even been shown to improve mental health. Clearly, promoting a culture of assertive communication is beneficial to companies across a whole range of metrics, both performance and people-driven.

Be more dog!

Not everyone is comfortable with openly expressing their emotions at work. However, authentic emotional expression is not only one of the quickest ways to grow your assertiveness, but also a core component of emotional intelligence in its own right.

We encourage clients to practise small-scale disagreements. The more comfortable you can get with these smaller assertive interactions, the easier it will be to disagree on something strategic when it matters

To get more comfortable with this, we like to encourage clients to channel their inner dog! As Andrew Salter, a 1950s psychologist and the “father of assertiveness” training said: “If a cat purrs when it is happy and a dog howls when its paw is stepped on, so should a man – or at any rate, scowl.”

Just as a dog greets you with exuberance after even a short time away from home, openly and unreservedly expressing its pleasure in seeing you again, so the assertive communicator expresses their emotions (in a balanced and respectful way) too.

Our prescription for being more dog includes the following exercises:

  • Use more “feeling-talk”, including adjectives in your speech. Instead of “today is Friday”, try “I am so excited, today is Friday and the weekend is here.”
  • Don’t forget facial expression: so much of communication is non-verbal and expressing joy or displeasure on the face drives congruence and authenticity.
  • Contradict and attack: if you disagree with someone, say so. We encourage clients to practise small-scale disagreements as they go about their days. The more comfortable you can get with these smaller assertive interactions, the easier it will be to disagree on something strategic when it matters.
  • Use more “I-talk”: “I want”, “I need” or “I feel” all convey basic assertions and help to get your point across firmly. For example: “I feel strongly that we need to bring in a third party to mediate this disagreement.”
  • Interact with empathy; always strive to understand the other person’s point of view before expressing what you need from them.

Above all, assertive communication relies on each of us having an understanding of our own rights. Companies should ensure that values are clearly communicated and there is a strong culture of recognition and support.

As individuals, in turn, we should have a good understanding of our strengths, alongside a strong belief in our value to our organisation. These two together will create the best environment for assertive communication between everyone – driving wellbeing, strong boundary management and performance across the company as a whole.

And remember, if in doubt, be more dog – eyes open, ears up, ready and waiting to communicate how you feel and what you want, always in a warm and supportive way.

Natalie Hall and Phanella Fine run Up Rising, a human capital consultancy focused on culture and leadership

Every Person Counts

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