If the purpose of communication is to share ideas and negotiate relationships, we can likely all agree that many an idea and relationship have suffered as a result of our limited abilities to communicate effectively. At work in particular, we struggle to create a perception of ourselves that is neither domineering nor doormat-like, sometimes toggling between the two in our attempt.
The interpersonal and gender communications expert Deborah Tannen cleverly warns that, “Smashing heads does not open minds.” Yet sometimes in our efforts to communicate with power we resort to aggressive communication tactics: attacking, labeling or attempting to control the other person. The resulting alienation extinguishes our message and tarnishes our reputation.
At the other extreme of our interpersonal exchanges lies passive communication. While women who aggressively communicate tend to prompt backlash, passive communicators reinforce a “good girl” stereotype in which women avoid, mask or withdraw from the issue at hand. Flipping the I-win-you-lose approach of aggressive communication, passive communicators yield to the other party by being silent or vague, while still (futilely) hoping or (falsely) assuming their message is received.
Between these two extremes lies an approach for building engagement and understanding: assertive communication. Assertive communicators garner immediate respect because they are direct, honest, thought-driven and respectful of others without sacrificing themselves. Here’s how to adopt an assertive communication style:
Own your words and feelings: be proactive, speak up, and manage your stories.
Stick to the facts: speak thoughtfully rather than emotionally.
Think of end goal: avoid distractions that will not yield productive discussion.
Create mutual purpose: balance what’s best for yourself, others and the relationship.
In the words of Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, “Communication works best when we combine appropriateness with authenticity, finding that sweet spot where opinions are not brutally honest but delicately honest.” The result for both parties is win-win.