How to Improve Assertive Communication Skills for Better Relationships

In a work environment, it is essential that employees communicate openly and honestly. This kind of communication includes being open about one’s needs and expectations in a work environment. It also includes communicating when one is struggling with a product, colleague or client.

This is called assertive communication.

What Is Assertive Communication?

Assertive communication is the ability to directly and honestly communicate a range of emotions.

It is the ability to self-advocate or take a stand with and for oneself. While assertive communication is essential for the individual, it is good for the organization as well.

When we practice assertive communication, we reduce stress and anxiety, and we perform better. We also allow others to support us by fulfilling our requests or to grow by receiving feedback on areas where improvement is needed.

When we practice assertive communication, we feel better, even if the situation does not really change. When we stand up for ourselves and voice out our needs, we take an important and empowering step.

As executive leadership consultant and fellow Lifehack contributor Malachi Thompson noted in his article How to Be Assertive and Stand up for Yourself the Smart Way:

“Don’t make the error of thinking effective assertiveness means convincing and winning over others to adopt your values and point of view.”

Assertive Communication Boosts Employee Morale

When employees practice assertive communication, morale improves. It is impossible for team members to be truly happy if they are unable to communicate honestly about their experience.

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When employees are fearful that honesty and openness can result in retaliation, they remain quiet or just go along to get along. They may be physically present but mentally checked out. When this happens, employees could see problems coming a mile away but will remain quiet due to fear.

Employees may see opportunities yet fail to innovate because they do not feel safe doing so.

The thinking goes something like this:

“If I experiment, can I risk being wrong?”

“If I experiment, will I be recognized for my contributions or overlooked?

“If I step outside of the box, will my colleagues or supervisor view me as a threat?”

For the benefit of the individual and the entity the person works for, assertive communication is imperative. But how do we cultivate for people not prone to being assertive or communicating assertively?

How to Develop Assertive Communication

1. Understand What You Want

To develop assertive communication, take time to get clear on what you want and why. When we are not clear on what we want, we are more susceptible to the whims of others. But when we know what we want, we have a starting point from which to assess all opportunities and situations.

2. Get Clear on Your Personal Values

Similarly, get clear on your values. The values that you set for yourself will guide what you tolerate and what you simply are unable to accommodate. Before immediately responding to a request or question, think about whether the request violates your values, is in line with your values or aligns with what you want.

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3. Start with People Whom You Trust

To develop assertive communication, start gradually and with trusted people. Practice stating what you want to people who have demonstrated their profound respect and support of you.

Start with people whom you trust. Find the people who supported you before and those who act in your best interest. Because these people are considered safe, asserting your desires with them requires little risk.

Once you communicate what you want and need, supportive colleagues and friends will do their best to meet your needs. As you gain practice with people who support you, you will gain more confidence as well. In time, you will gradually tolerate more risks in trusting people.

The Underbelly of Assertive Communication

While assertive communication is beneficial, there is an underbelly associated with it. Most people struggle with receiving and giving direct feedback. They hedge when they should specifically cite what they want, or they bristle when others share their honest thoughts and feelings.

For people who were raised in environments where expressing one’s emotion was discouraged, being told to be open can feel risky and foreign. For people who were taught that there is space for all emotions, communicating honestly may be like second nature.

The rest of us are somewhere in between. To cultivate an environment where team members practice assertive communication, managers must understand something about their employees’ backgrounds, culture, and upbringing. This will help inform resistance to assertive communication and devise strategies to foster a better environment.

Another rarely discussed aspect of assertive communication is the way societal norms and cultural expectations influence how we perceive people who practice assertive communication.

What Do I Mean?

I have spent much of my career manipulating how to speak appropriately in the workplace. I do not mean being articulate or, as my mother would say, speaking the King’s English.

No, I mean communicating without being labeled “bossy,” “aggressive” or “inappropriate.” I grew up in an environment where people spoke clearly about how they felt. They did so with little fluff, and I carried that communication style into the workplace.

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My formative career experience involved managers and organizational leaders who pulled no punches in communicating their wants and expectations. Consequently, I thought the way I grew up and the leaders I worked for were the norms in terms of how to communicate.

As I progressed through my career, I learned that perceptions and communication styles could sometimes be gendered and racialized. A white person could say something and would be perceived one way, and I could say the same thing and be perceived in an entirely different way.

“Angry Black Woman” Label and Assertive Communication

Further, separate and apart from my upbringing, black women broadly have had to be mindful of our communication styles due to unfair labels and negative stereotypes.

Many black women spend a significant portion of their lives dodging the “angry black woman” label. This relentless stereotype has trailed black women for decades, making it difficult for people to hear our honest feedback without coloring it through the lens of “she’s just angry.”

We calculate how and when to raise dissent and ponder whether doing so will earn us that unenviable label. This means every conversation involves a risk. Whether individuals are communicating preferences to a teacher or advocating for their child with medical professionals, every bit of input must be carefully assessed through the “niceness” or “polite” lens: am I saying this appropriately, am I saying it politely, etc.

This is not helped by the fact that, in some workplaces, when Black women express their feedback, they can be shut down, labeled “aggressive,” “difficult” or “problem employees.”

Model Minority and Assertive Communication

Many Asian Americans have navigated the model minority myth. The myth suggests that they are the prized minority.

What happens when people who believe in the model minority myth or view Asian Americans this way experience assertive communication from a member of this community?

They could be dumbfounded, or they could resent the person for stepping outside of the lines created for them. The bottom line is that managers who subscribe to the thinking that Asian Americans are the model minority may only be able to experience and relate to people who show up one way – passive, compliant and docile.

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Gender and Assertive Communication

If you couple these stereotypes with gender norms for women, you know that communicating can be a morass.

In a March 29 White House briefing on the coronavirus, President Donald Trump admonished PBS News Hour White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, to “Be nice. Don’t be Threatening…That’s why you used to work for the Times and now you work for someone else”. This suggests that her transition from the New York Times to PBS News Hour was somehow connected to how she treated others.

Trump’s comments came after Alcindor assertively reminded the President that he had said “some of the equipment that states requested, they don’t actually need.” She struggled to finish her sentence before Trump cut in to chide her.

As the most powerful executive in the nation, the President’s passive-aggressive and undermining treatment of a Black woman journalist sets a terrible example of what is and what is not appropriate. That he told her to “be nice,” is emblematic of what women, women of color and Black women experience in many workplaces.

Genders dictate a narrow role for women and place a premium on patriarchy. I say all of this to point out that while assertive communication is ideal, we must be conscious of what it looks like on people of different genders and people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

That means that if we say we value assertive communication, we must value it on all people, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race or background.

Final Thoughts

In closing, assertive communication is so important that it is worth understanding how to do it right – not only for oneself but for the people around you as well. When you understand the underbelly to assertive communication, you may respond to your colleagues with more understanding, empathy, and patience.

In the end, everyone benefits – you, your colleagues and your company or organization.

More Tips to Improve Your Communication Skills

Featured photo credit: Christina @ wocintechchat.com via unsplash.com

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