Effective communication creates opportunities, strengthens relationships, helps us meet our goals and builds our confidence.
The opposite is also true. Communicating poorly has disastrous results. Poor communication limits opportunities, hurts others – hurts ourselves, and generally makes us feel poorly.
The good news is that no matter how skilled we are as a communicator, we can always increase our capabilities, and no matter how poorly we think we communicate, there are things we can do to become more effective. Working on our assertive skills is a good place to begin.
What it is – Assertive communication is about clear messaging. It is about being able to articulate our hopes, opinions and ideas in a manner that is transparent.
What it is not – Assertive communication is not about dominating or controlling. Nor is it about allowing others to dominate or control us.
Here are a few tips to help you build your assertiveness.
1. Know Your Objectives
Take pause and ask yourself what you hope will be the outcome. Do you want to put someone at ease? Do you want to build a friendship? Give direction? Receive information? Offer an opinion? Convey corrective feedback? Once you know what you are aiming for, you can think about how to frame your message in a way that will set you up for success.
2. Choose Your Words Carefully
Comedians read the crowd; advertisers gear their messages to target groups. This is called “knowing your audience”, and we should be mindful of the same concept. Have you ever been in a situation where someone starts spouting technical jargon and you have no idea what they are talking about? Or throwing out acronyms that are meaningless to you? Make sure your words, vocabulary and examples are understandable, appropriate and relevant.
3. Hear Yourself
How we say what we say really does matter. Our voice should convey ease, comfort and confidence. Listen to your voice quality, tone and volume. How do you sound to others? Can they hear you? Are you too loud? Is your voice easy to listen to? We can’t control all aspects of our voice, but a breath, taking even a moment before responding, and focusing on relaxing can go a long way in making our voice more listenable.
4. Watch Your Body Language
Sit up straight, stand up tall. Put your shoulders back, place your feet squarely on the floor and look the person you are speaking to in the eye. You have every right to be confident. Sounds intimidating and for some of us it is – do it anyway. Our body language conveys our internal state and perceptions. If we want to be assertive we need to not only sound but also look assertive.
5. Avoid Extremes
Speaking aggressively puts others in a defensive mode where they are not likely to feel any compulsion other than fear to really listen to us. Speaking passively often includes hints that others are apt to infer in a way that we did not intend. Or worse, when we are passive our ideas are communicated so limply that we are disregarded. Neither extreme is helpful.
6. Ask Questions
How do we know that what we hoped to communicate was not just heard but understood? Effective communicators recognize that all interactions have at least two people, and each person has two primary roles: the listener and the receiver. In a communication exchange these roles should fluidly move from one person to another. We speak, then we listen, then we ask a question, then listen, then speak and so on.
7. Be Respectful
Being assertive means we are willing and able to stand up for our interests and at the same time are willing to listen to others. It means concretely demonstrating that we are prepared to work together. Assertion is behaving and speaking in ways that maintain our integrity and the integrity of others. Assertive communication is not about getting our way. It is communicating what we think and then allowing others to make their own decisions and respond as they see fit.
8. Apologize When Needed
We will mess up. We are aspiring to be assertive – to communicate clearly – we are not aspiring to be perfect. We will probably say something in the next week that will hurt or annoy someone. We will probably try to communicate something that matters and just won’t be able to find the right words. When we do, let’s commit to simply say, I’m sorry, and that next time round we will aim to do better. Humans are complex. Communicating is difficult. Most worthwhile endeavours are not easy, so let’s expect a few bumps along the way and welcome them as part of the learning curve.
Communicating assertively, like riding a bike, is a skill that can be learned, and with practice becomes natural. You don’t need to do it all at once. This week focus on one or two tips and watch your effectiveness as a communicator grow.
Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance
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