Photo credit @hengfilms
In your workplace, you communicate regularly with many people: stakeholders, customers, and other team members. You’ll encounter demands and excuses and deadlines. Schedules can be demanding, and workloads can be stressful.
You need to be able to navigate the challenges with professionalism, confidence, and grace.
Using assertive communication skills can help you express yourself professionally even in stressful or challenging situations.
Assertive Communication Skills for all Situations
Many years ago I taught parenting, negotiation, and conflict resolution skills to families. I taught assertive communication skills as a standard part of healthy communication. At the time I didn’t consider how much they’d apply in the corporate world. But they do.
Assertive communication skills can be used whether you’re at work, home, or in social settings, and with any audience. They’re particularly helpful with addressing uncomfortable or delicate situations.
Using assertive communication skills will earn you the respect of your peers and help you communicate more confidently for career success and happiness.
What Are Assertive Communication Skills?
Assertive communication is a way of expressing your wants and needs in a manner that is respectful to others. You stand up for yourself while maintaining positive relationships with others. Other common – but less helpful – styles of communication are the following:
- Passive communication doesn’t honor the communicator’s needs and often leads to someone not speaking up to get their needs met or share feeling openly. Not speaking up, avoiding eye-contact, or difficulty taking a stand or making a decision are all passive forms of behavior.
- Aggressive communication can come across as disrespectful and pushy, with little regard for the feelings of others. Raising your voice, name-calling or bullying, coercion, threatening, intimidating, or becoming argumentative are all aggressive communication styles.
- Passive-aggressive behavior is carried out by expressing negative feelings indirectly. Examples are intentionally failing to communicate critical information or doing a poor job of carrying out a task. The gross but classic spitting in someone’s coffee or food is a good example that illustrates it well.
Each of these styles can lead to dissatisfaction. Assertive communication skills are the best to ensure respectful and open communication that maintains healthy relationships.
In assertive communication, you share your thoughts and feelings honestly and openly in a way that’s respectful to others. It balances standing up for yourself and your needs while honoring other’s needs and feeling at the same time. You communicate in a clear and open manner without hurting or disrespecting others.
Why Assertive Communication Skills are Important
This article from the Mayo Clinic lays out benefits of assertive behavior: reducing stress and improving coping skills.
It can also help you earn the respect of others, increase self-confidence, improve decision-making skills, and communicate more effectively, among other benefits. You’ll enable others to communicate openly and respectfully with you as well.
Peers, family, and friends come to trust that you’ll treat interactions, no matter how sensitive, with respect and tact.
Additionally, you’ll ensure that others know what you need to perform at your best.
By developing assertive communication skills, you’ll have healthier relationships, more respect, and confidence knowing that you interact with others from a place of integrity and trust. These benefits are not only good for your health but also your career.
20 Assertive Communication Skills for Career and Relationship Success
Use the following communication skills to express your wants and needs in a way that maintains healthy relationships. Don’t take them on all at once. Pick a few to start with, and they’ll become more natural over time.
- Use “I” statements.
You have feelings and needs. No one can negate how you feel. By expressing yourself with“I want” or “I feel,” you let others know in a clear and non-threating way exactly how you feel about a situation. Rather than blaming others, simply state how you feel and own your feelings. Here are some examples of “I” statements:
- “I felt uncomfortable with the way you presented the business case to our project.”
- “I would like to take a larger role in our project communication activities.”
- “I get frustrated when you don’t acknowledge my contribution to the project success.”
- “I appreciate that you shared my contributions with the project sponsor.”
- “I’m frustrated when you consistently miss dates you’ve committed to.
- I need to know how this can be corrected going forward.”
- Say No.
It’s not easy to say no. But it’s important to know your limits and communicate when there’s a request to go beyond them. There are times when taking on additional work or staying late are needed. But when it becomes standard practice and you feel you’re being taken advantage of, speak up.
If you’re having trouble gathering the courage to say no, think of what you’ll be sacrificing if you say “yes.” It might be valuable time with your family or friends, sleep, peace of mind, or other opportunities. Knowing this can fuel your resolve.
If saying no is uncomfortable for you, knowing words to use and practicing them can make it easier when you need to say them. Here are some other ways to say no:
- “I’m sorry, I cannott take on any additional work right now.”
- “I don’t have the bandwidth to take that on.”
- “I can’t take on end-user support for the Spring tool and give the SCORE project the attention it needs to be successful.”
- “I can’t take on any additional work right now.”
- “I have another commitment.”
- “I need to bow out.”
- “I can’t take on anything new right now.”
- “My plate is full.”
- “I’d rather not.”
- “It doesn’t sound like a good fit for me.”
- “I can’t give it the attention it needs.”
- Ask for help.
It’s okay to admit when you need help, and asking for assistance from others not only shows that you’re comfortable with doing so, but you also model for others that it’s okay to do so.
Additionally, getting help may help you move a project or activity forward more successfully.
- Be open to feedback or opinions.
When someone shares feedback or an opinion, be open to hearing it. See feedback as a gift that gives you the insight you might not otherwise have. If the feedback is something you don’t feel ready to adopt, then you don’t have to. If you do make adjustments or apply the feedback, let the other person know the outcome.
Additionally, if someone compliments you, accept it graciously. Don’t minimize or dismiss it.
- Show empathy.
Consider how others may feel during certain situations. People experience the same situation in different ways, depending on their position or circumstance. Acknowledge their feelings and perspective, while still being clear on what you need from a situation.
For example, if your boss asks you to take on a new high-priority project, yet you’ve already got a full workload, acknowledge her need while still standing up for your needs. “I understand this Spark Project is urgent. I’ve got a full workload already. Let’s assess what can be prioritized lower or reallocated to make room for it.”
- Be aware of body language.
Remember that communication goes beyond words alone. Your body language conveys a lot, too.
- Stand or sit upright, hold your head even, and make regular eye contact.
- Be aware of your facial expression, keeping it neutral or positive.
- Don’t furrow your brow, purse your lips or slap your forehead.
- Maintain an open posture rather than crossing your arms or turning away.
- Be aware of your emotions.
Emotions are normal. But letting your emotions get out of control can undermine assertive communication. Speaking impulsively out of anger may lead to saying something you regret and damaging a relationship – or worse (hello, HR staff).
Be aware of the sensations in your body that might indicate your emotions are escalating. Some physical sensations might be tightness in your chest, knots in your stomach, buzzing in your ears, or constricted breathing.
If you sense that rising emotions might lead to an undesirable outcome – such as an angry outburst or crying – take a moment to get them under control.
- Take a few deep breaths.
- Shift your attention elsewhere, such as to the bottom of your feet.
- Ask for a moment to consider the situation (while you secretly and quietly get your emotions under control).
- Use self-talk (mentally, of course) to counteract the escalating emotions you may feel.
Read Capitalizing on the Science Behind Emotionally Intelligent Leadership for ways to develop this skill.
- Ask for more time if you need it.
If you find that you’re being pressured to give a response, or your emotions are rising, ask for more time to think and consider the situation. It may be as simple as saying “this has caught me off guard and I’d like some time to think about it. Can I get back to you first thing tomorrow morning to discuss further?”
- Pick your battles.
This lesson carries over well into parenting but applies just as well in the workplace. There are times when it may be best to stay quiet or hold your tongue. Discern when letting someone have their way might be worth it.
There are times when letting something small just pass is better in the long run.
- Use words that convey a clear message.
Use words that clearly convey what you want or need. Don’t soften your message so much that it’s diluted. Don’t waffle in your message. Avoid “should’ or “could.”
- Weak: I’d like it if someone could cover this meeting while I’m out on vacation.
- Better: I need someone to cover this meeting while I’m on vacation.
- Weak: Are you listening to me?
- Better: “Please don’t read your email while we’re talking.” Or “I want to know I have your attention during this conversation.”
- Speak calmly and clearly.
Be aware of not only the words you say but how you say them.
- During communication, maintain a calm and confident tone of voice.
- Use your voice in a way that conveys you have confidence in your message, yet you’re not bullying or arguing.
- Don’t upspeak (ending your sentence like a question) or you’ll come across as lacking confidence.
- Don’t raise your voice or you may sound angry or bullying.
- Escalate if appropriate.
If you’ve made repeated unsuccessful requests of a peer or subordinate, don’t let it go unresolved. If your requests aren’t met after several conversations, then escalating to the appropriate level may need necessary.
Remember that the project’s success may depend on getting resolution, and escalating may be the only way to address the situation.
This article explains how to escalate when necessary.
- Use the broken-record technique.
If you have trouble standing up for yourself, this one will come in handy. Come up with a statement that conveys your response to a request you can’t commit to. Then use it when needed and stick to it.
For example, if your boss or co-worker asks you to take on additional work once you’ve got a full workload, you need to be able to say no and stick to it. Come up with a response that clearly conveys this, and use it over and over. You might say, “I can’t add anything to my workload right now” and repeat it like a broken record each time you’re asked to take on more work, or with each attempt to get you to give in.
- Ask for what you want.
If you don’t ask for what you want, you’re far less likely to get it. Others won’t automatically know what you want (no one can read your mind), and you’ll possibly stew in resentment at never getting it.
Be open and honest about what you want. If you want to grow a certain skill set or get an opportunity you haven’t gotten before, let your boss know. If you want to work toward a promotion, let your boss know about your career goals. If you and your coworkers are discussing how to split tasks on a team, speak up about those that are most appealing to you.
If others don’t know what you want, they can’t support you in attaining it.
- Set clear expectations.
When asking for something to be done, don’t expect others to know exactly how you want it. If there’s room for creativity or flexibility, allow others to do it their way. But if there’s a hard deadline or concrete requirements, make sure that those are known when you delegate.
For example, instead of only asking for a new report to be created, be clear on the details such as what it must contain and when you need it.
- Set boundaries.
Setting boundaries tells others what’s acceptable and what’s not.
There may be practices in your office that you’re not comfortable going along with.
If your co-workers engage in negative gossip, let them know that’s not something you’re comfortable with.
If your boss emails regularly at 10:00 pm and you’d rather shift your focus after 6:00 pm, let her know that you turn your work phone off after 6:00 pm to spend quality time with your family.
If your boss tends to ask for PowerPoint presentations at 4:00 pm on Friday to be delivered Monday morning, let her know that you need more notice to be able to deliver what is needed.
This all depends on the nature of your work, of course. But identifying what’s acceptable and communicating it clearly to others will ensure your work environment is less stressful.
- Admit mistakes.
Be willing to admit it when you make mistakes, and apologize when needed. Everyone makes mistakes. Your boss and peers will respect you more for it. And they’ll know they can trust you going forward.
- Express appreciation and gratitude.
Letting others know that you appreciate them goes a long way. If your team works long hours to meet a deadline, or if they go above and beyond to address a difficult deliverable, let them know you appreciate it.
- Understand your value.
It’s far easier to stand up for yourself when you understand the value you bring to the team. Even if your skills are different or you’re the newest team member, remember that you bring unique skills and experience to the organization.
Don’t wait until you’re in a heated discussion or confronted with a challenging situation to try out these assertive communication skills. They’ll be much easier if you’ve run through them a few times in advance. If you need to initiate an uncomfortable conversation, practice how you’ll start it, including where it will happen and the words you’ll use.
Determine what you want from the conversation – if there’s a specific outcome or agreement. Be ready for any objections or questions you may get.
Practice how you’ll handle situations that aren’t initiated by you also. You’ll be able to handle them more smoothly and confidently.
When my daughter was tiny, I’d role-play different situations with her to help her get comfortable responding assertively in different situations. This gave her the self-confidence and words needed to stand up for herself respectfully in uncomfortable situations.
Challenges to Assertive Communication Skills
You can’t control how others respond to you. If you find yourself in a situation in which someone is reacting aggressively, remain respectful in your approach. Stay calm. Stay focused on the message.
By using assertive communication skills, you stand up for yourself and your needs in a way that is respectful to others. This article sums up the benefits nicely: “Being a good communicator can assist you in building trust, help to solve differences and create an environment of respect that promotes problem-solving and builds relationships.”
It takes consideration and attention, so start small if needed. But the investment in using assertive communication skills will pay off with significant returns.