Assertive Communication

One of the most common areas for development that arises when coaching executives is the need for more assertiveness. The problem is that “assertive” is often confused with “aggressive” or dictatorial.

Those that subscribe to an aggressive style to produce results may well deliver the goods in the short term. However, over the long term, team members will feel disrespected, become demoralized and look for opportunities outside the organisation. The longer term outcome is a steady decline in results as attrition rates climb, which also affects members of related departments as they see their colleagues being victims of aggressive or bullying behaviour. Such behaviour is a common career derailer, particularly for those in senior positions or those who are highly ambitious.

At the other end of the spectrum are passive managers. Managers who fail to assert themselves have a similar, negative impact on morale and productivity. Passive managers can be indecisive, poor mentors, uninspiring and equally as damaging as Mr. Aggressive. Team members working for a passive manager may find it hard to gain support for their ideas and initiatives, be uncertain about where their focus should be and concerned about the ability of their manager to represent their needs and concerns at senior level.

Assertive managers are able to lead, direct and motivate without the need to bang the table, play the dictator or criticize their direct reports. Some managers however, hesitate to embrace assertiveness because they mistakenly equate it to aggressive behaviour. Assertiveness and aggression are two entirely different things. Whilst aggression is emotional and counter-productive, assertiveness is all about clarity of communication and intent. An assertive statement or request has five key elements:

1/ It is not open to misinterpretation.

2/ There is absolute clarity of what the speaker requires from the listener.

3/ It is free of negative or aggressive emotion.

4/ Body language is congruent with the spoken words.

5/ Words used and body language show respect to the receiver.

As well as enabling a manager to give clear, unequivocal direction and leadership, assertiveness has an important role to play in giving positive motivational messages to team members. Compare the following two statements:

“Jim, well done on the ABC company project”.

“Jim, I’m really impressed with the way you concluded the ABC project. Your powers of diplomacy at senior level with the customer where exemplary. Well done”.

Which one will have the greater impact on Jim? The first statement is congratulatory but is more of a throw away comment. It is praise and therefore somewhat motivational, but look at the power of the second statement. It conveys a greater level of appreciation but more than that, also points out a particular skill that Jim has demonstrated. Does Jim know exactly what he excelled at by the second statement? What skill is Jim going to focus on developing further? How much confidence will he have in his powers of diplomacy the next time he is put in critical situation with a customer? This is an example of the positive, motivational power of assertive communication.

On the other side of the coin, managers sometimes need to correct team members’ errors or tackle poor performance. Assertive communication is key in giving constructive feedback to improve performance and provide direction. Consider the two following statements:

“Bob, that report you produced was just a load of waffle. It’s no use to me. Do it again”.

“Bob, the report you produced needs more facts and statistics to be impactful. I would like you to redo it split into three chapters, history of the business to date, current situation and projections up to 2008. Include graphs of revenue and profit in each chapter. I need it to be completed by next Friday. I hope everything is clear but if not, please let me know?”

The first statement merely tells Bob he’s done a bad job and has not met expectations. It tells him nothing about what needs to be done to correct his error. The second statement points out exactly what has gone wrong, what needs to be done and how to put things right. Which statement is the more respectful towards Bob? Which statement is going to help Bob with report writing in the future?

Another situation where assertiveness is essential is the ability to say “no” to requests from colleagues. A frequent complaint from my clients is that they are constantly interrupted by people wandering into their office and wanting time to discuss an issue there and then. Typically they react in one of two ways. One is to say, in an impatient tone of voice, “I’m sorry I’m up to my eyes here. No time. It will have to wait”. [Aggressive]. The other approach is to say, “OK. What’s the problem?” [Passive] In the first instance the person wanting attention goes away feeling that they are unimportant and somewhat offended by the unconditional rejection. In the second, the manager relents and is diverted from the task they were focused on, ending up with impromptu discussions that steal time from priority work.

The assertive manager handles interruptions by saying, “I have some priority tasks I need to deal with right now and I should be finished by lunchtime. If you come back at 2pm we’ll shut the door and you’ll have my full attention. Is that OK?” The assertive response shuts down the interruption but at the same time shows respect for the individual and the issue they want to discuss. Of course, the response that comes back might be, “But it will only take a minute.” The assertive repost is to restate the initial invitation to come back at 2pm making sure that tone and expression match the positive intention of the words.

Body language is also an important component of assertiveness. As any seminar on communication skills will tell you, 70%+ of what people receive from our messages is through body language. In assertive communication both verbal and body language must match to be effective. Keep in mind the following when it comes to assertive body language:

•Friendly facial expression to show respect to the listener. [But be careful not to smile widely when dealing with a serious situation.]

•Maintain eye contact to show that you are actively listening to the other person.

•Adopt a relaxed but upright stance when making your assertive statement.

•Keep your hands in an open position, arms not crossed nor hands clasped in front of you conveying a defensive or apologetic signal.

Whether you are communicating up the hierarchy, downwards or with peers in the organisation, assertiveness in appropriate situations will win you friends and supporters. With practice and when used wisely, assertive behaviour can motivate, reduce communication errors, save time and make for a happier and more productive working environment.