“Save your assertiveness for situations in which you feel as though your opinions and ideas are going unheard because of how you’re communicating them.”
‘Assertive communication’ is a term that seldom appears beyond the PowerPoint slides of yawn-inducing professional development seminars and goal-setting workshops. You’ve probably heard of it but amongst the brain fog brought on by these presentations, the value of this concept is easily missed.
To be assertive is to be confident, self-assured and capable of standing up for yourself — somewhere on the spectrum between ‘spineless’ and aggressive. It’s a trait that doesn’t come naturally for many of us who tend to prioritise politeness and the feelings of others above our own. As a result, assertiveness is a behaviour and communication style we must learn and practice in our work and personal lives.
Striking the balance between polite and aggressive is a difficult act to master for anyone who may be lacking the natural confidence and assurance necessary to appear assertive. A failure to find this balance puts us at risk of appearing passive and easily exploited, or unhelpful and abrasive, neither of which are particularly desirable traits to be associated with.
Helpfulness that is often (usually unintentionally) exploited by others tends to be a common denominator amongst those working to become more assertive in how they communicate. Politeness and compassion are quality traits to have and they’re generally necessary to be a tolerable, decent human being. However, these desirable traits can often land us in situations where we find it difficult to say ‘no’ for fear of causing someone else trouble or stress. Consequently, you may find yourself biting off more than you can chew at work, or taking on the stress of other’s problems in your personal life.
Having the self-assurance to stand up for yourself (politely) prevents you from falling into these stressful situations in the name of courtesy. It doesn’t stop there either, alongside this reduction in stress comes confidence — confidence that makes you a pro at putting yourself, your ideas and opinions out there. This all culminates in a new, heightened level of respect for your boundaries, ideas, and opinions from those around you.
Becoming an effective, confident communicator isn’t something that happens overnight. The stress you may experience when sharing your opinions or standing up for yourself tends to stem from deeper insecurities, the impact of which can be reduced with continued exposure to these uncomfortable situations. If you’re struggling in these environments, it may be worth having a chat with a support professional who can guide you in creating strategies specific to your situation.
If you’re keen to have a go yourself at working on your communication style to improve your confidence, a great place to start is by making small changes to your current habits to find that sweet spot between passiveness and aggression.
Confidence & Concision
Generally stemming from a fear of being incorrect or appearing overly confident, the tendency to finish answers and explanations with filler phrases like ‘but I’m not sure…’ or ‘hopefully that makes sense?’ is a common habit. These are by no means bad habits to fall into, in most cases they ensure you appear polite and (most importantly) human as you share your thoughts. However, in more difficult situations, you may find that filler phrases such as these work against you by giving the impression that you’re not confident in the ideas you’re sharing.
If you find yourself in one of these more complicated scenarios, where those around you are more likely to dismiss your opinions, avoiding filler phrases may be beneficial. Instead, prioritise being confident and concise in your explanation, whether it’s in writing or in person, and present your ideas in a way that’s clear and easy for others to understand. Inviting your audience to ask questions will also ensure you appear confident in what you’re saying, while giving you the opportunity to better explain any areas that may have invited doubt in your initial explanation.
Sharing ideas and opinions is one of the more common areas in which we utilise communication styles that prioritise politeness and others’ feelings. Sharing ideas and opinions puts us in a vulnerable position, while offering feedback or criticism can feel confrontational. To reduce the impact of these feelings, we tend to introduce our ideas by saying things like ‘I think, maybe, we could…’ or ‘it might be a good idea if…’.
These are great softeners that should be common in your communication style as they make people more receptive to the feedback you’re sharing — after all, nobody likes a bully! In some situations, you may find that sharing your ideas in this manner isn’t effectively getting your point across. In this case, try beginning with something like ‘it would be best if we…’ to validate your own ideas and to avoid inviting doubt into your explanations.
Don’t Downplay Your Efforts
As Kiwis, politeness tends to be in our nature. Whether it’s a small act like holding the door for a stranger or something more major like working overtime to get a project across the line; ‘no worries’ is a common reply when we’re thanked for either of these actions. These are great responses in situations where you know your help has genuinely been appreciated and if you didn’t have to go too far out of your way to lend a hand.
While it’s not a necessary swap in all situations, replacing knee-jerk phrases like ‘no problem’ for something along the lines of ‘happy to help’ does a better job of recognising the value of your assistance and the time and energy you’ve spent on the task. In this instance, you’re still prioritising politeness while appearing self-assured and confident in your own skills.
A Word of Caution
As I mentioned earlier, like all habits, assertiveness is one that takes time to learn. As you begin to practice this new behaviour it will likely feel awkward and clunky, as though you’re running in a pair of shoes that are too big for you — perseverance is key.
Take note of those around you who are more skilled in communicating assertively. Pick up on the language and tones they use to toe the line between passiveness and aggression. In situations where you struggle to back yourself, you can think to yourself — what would someone with a little more confidence say or do? After some trial and error, you’ll soon find a balance that works for you.
As you’re discovering this balance, it pays to remember that in the world we live in today, helpfulness and compassion are traits that are fast becoming fewer and further between. In most situations, your default communication style that prioritises the feelings of others will be sufficient, as people tend to respond best to this kind of communication. Save your assertiveness for situations in which you feel as though your opinions and ideas are going unheard because of how you’re communicating them.
Remember to err on the side of politeness and to retain your kind nature in your journey toward becoming a more confident communicator — we need people like you in the world!