Speak Assertively: Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say

We all have a right to express our thoughts, feelings, wishes, and opinions without stepping on the other people’s rights, of course. But most of us don’t know how to do that. We don’t say what we mean and we don’t mean what we say.

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Let’s suppose that you’re in meeting and a colleague ridicules your idea. How do you feel in that moment? If you’re like most people, you feel angry and defensive. But how do your react based on that anger? Do you attack back? Do you retreat? Do you pretend it doesn’t bother you, but tell others afterward what a jerk your team member is?

We learn how to communicate based on what works for us. That’s how I learned to be passive-aggressive. It’s not in my nature to attack when someone does me wrong. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel aggressive. In the past, when someone hurt my feelings or questioned my competence, I hid my hostility. Sometimes I’d sideswipe the person with an indirect and snide comment. And sometimes (I blush to admit), I’d get revenge by talking about the person behind their back. My behavior worked for me; it made me feel better, at least in the short term. But it never solved the problem. In fact, the problem often got worse. When I became a manager, I realized that my behavior would not serve me well. I’d have to learn how to deal with these issues by expressing myself directly, honestly, and respectfully.

Below is a scenario and four four possible ways of responding. Choose the mode of communication that you typically would use under the circumstance.

Scenario: A team member slams your idea in a meeting, calling it lame and saying it’s not worth discussing.

Four modes of communication: 

Passive: Say and do nothing. 

Aggressive: Say: “Who are you to criticize my idea? You’re last big idea caused us to go so far off track on this project that we’ll never catch up!”

Passive-Aggressive: Say: “Oh, that’s right. I forgot that you’re the expert here. Ha-ha.” [Afterward, talk to others about what happened and say what an idiot your co-worker is.]

Assertive: [Speak to the person in private after the meeting.] Say: “When you said that my idea was lame and not worth discussing, I was embarrassed. I feel that my integrity is at stake here. I want to know how you see the situation and talk with you about I can get my ideas out in the open . . .”

The assertive mode of communication is the only direct, honest, and respectful mode of communication. When delivering an assertive message, keep these components in mind:

  • Keep strong emotions in check. If you are angry, wait until you calm down. But don’t wait too long. Discuss the issue as soon as possible.
  • Describe the situation without judgment or evaluation. Simply state the person’s behavior in a neutral, factual way. (“When you said that my idea was lame and not worth discussing . . .”)
  • State the impact of that person’s behavior on you. (“I was embarrassed. I feel that my integrity is at stake.”)
  • Ask for the person’s input. (“I want to know how you see the situation . . .”)
  • Dialogue: After you’ve asked for their input, listen to their side things and share your own observations. Work together to solve the problem.

Assertive speaking is a skill that needs to be practiced and applied. Fortunately, life gives us a wealth of opportunities to practice. Here are just a few: 

  • Your neighbor asks you to dog sit his Saint Bernard—again.
  • A co-worker steals your idea and passes it off as her own.
  • Your boss doesn’t give you the time and attention you need to succeed.

When faced with these kinds of situations, you choose which mode of communication to use. You can be passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive. Just know that using those modes will not solve the problem. Assertive speaking is the only mode that allows for the possibility of resolution.

So, start practicing. There’s a big payoff for honing your assertive speaking skills. Here are just a few of the things you’ll be able to do:

  • make direct requests (or say no to them, if you need to)
  • resolve conflict          
  • give feedback (constructive and positive)
  • improve your relationships
  • express your confidence
  • maintain your professionalism

Assertive speaking is the first of three core communication skills needed for success. The next post deals with active listening.

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