Assertive communication is an important leadership skill that many people lack because they’re afraid they’ll come across as pushy, bossy, forceful, or demanding. However, the words “assertive” and “aggressive” are not interchangeable. As Holocaust survivor, psychologist, and author Edith Eva Eger puts it, “To be passive is to let others decide for you. To be aggressive is to decide for others. To be assertive is to decide for yourself.”
Knowing the differences between these three behaviors helps leaders gain influence. Speaking with passion, decisiveness, confidence, clarity, and determination are all ways to inspire, motivate, and guide people in a way that creates followers. Leading in this manner also builds a team culture where people convey their needs and expectations confidently, honestly, and transparently without becoming hostile.
With these advantages of assertive behavior and communication in mind, it’s easy to see why it’s a leadership trait executives, directors, managers, and team members should learn how to develop. In this article, find out more about what assertive communication is, why it matters, how it differs from other communication styles, and the top ways to start practicing it.
What is Assertive Communication?
Assertive communication is a way of exchanging information, ideas, and feelings in a manner that is straightforward and self-assured. This is done without being selfish, rude, or inflammatory. When people use assertive communication skills to be more clear and direct, it decreases the likelihood of miscommunication, misunderstandings, misdirection, and mistakes.
Why Learning to Be Assertive Is Important
Practicing assertiveness skills creates a culture of accountability and a workplace environment where people treat one another with mutual respect. This is because a core part of assertive communication is setting boundaries and establishing expectations with one another. Under this communication style, instead of complaining or nagging, those with assertive communication skills training seek solutions. This keeps problems from festering, while also doing what is necessary to maintain strong interpersonal relationships.
Other benefits of assertive communication include:
- Setting and keeping personal and professional boundaries, which increases self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-respect
- Implementing a communication style where thoughts, emotions, ideas, opinions, and decisions are clearly discussed, leaving little room for misunderstandings
- Creating a team where a healthy communication style is the status quo (which results in better workplace relationships, increased productivity, and employee retention rates)
- Decreasing conflict by creating a culture of respect, instead of one where team members walk all over each other
- Becoming a more directive, decisive, and transparent leader
- Transitioning away from toxic behaviors like shaming or guilting people for their words and actions
Differences Between the Various Communication Styles
In professional, family, or personal life, a person can communicate passively, aggressively, passive-aggressively, or assertively. Noting the differences between these communication styles helps leaders understand when they’re communicating in an effective manner versus when they’re not. Learn more below about each way to communicate, what to avoid, and how to become more assertive.
Passive communicators try to keep the peace by avoiding confrontation and conflict. While this might seem like a positive behavior, passiveness often results in work burnout, increased stress, regular violation of company rules, and disrespect. Additionally, those who push their thoughts, feelings, opinions, and boundaries to the side often experience growing feelings of anger and resentment. This causes difficulties with stress management and results in the breakdown of relationships. Ultimately, passiveness negatively affects how people interact with one another, which prevents them from working together effectively.
Passive Communication vs. Assertive Communication Examples
A passive leader might let employees frequently cross professional boundaries like regularly showing up to work 30 minutes late. Over time, those who aren’t tardy might see this type of behavior as acceptable, which might cause them to show up late, too. When expectations aren’t enforced, it sends the message that there aren’t any consequences for breaking rules. Without any structure or systems, companies quickly transition into chaos, low productivity, and poor profitability. This defeats the purpose of striving to become an impact-driven business.
In this scenario, those who’ve had assertiveness training (or naturally practice assertive leadership) will address the problem as soon as it happens. During a one-on-one meeting with the employees, an assertive leader will reestablish the expectation set during the employee onboarding process. They’ll have a transparent conversation around the issue and express the repercussions of not adhering to established absenteeism policies. Additionally, they’ll remind employees of why they must show up on time. Additionally, assertive leaders make sure employees know how to handle situations in which they have a legitimate reason for running late. Repeating this helps clarify expectations and prevent the issue from occurring again.
Aggressive communicators speak or act in a way that is too confrontational, insensitive, intimidating, or excessively emotional. People using this communication style in life don’t consider how their words and actions might affect others. Because they lack emotional intelligence, they might shame, guilt, humiliate, and pressure people into doing what they want. These are all tell-tale signs of a toxic leader. Instead of motivating, inspiring, and supporting employees to become the best versions of themselves, they carelessly inflict damage on those around them. This results in poor job satisfaction, disengagement, work anxiety, low productivity, and high turnover rates.
Aggressive Communication vs. Assertive Communication Examples
If an employee fails to meet a big goal, an aggressive leader might insult or threaten them. This could look like saying, “I knew you wouldn’t be able to do this on your own,” “Can’t you do anything right?” or “If you ever make another mistake like this, count yourself fired.” All of these statements cause feelings of hurt and fear, plus they deal a blow to a person’s confidence. Instead of making employees feel worse about the moments in which they fail, great leaders specifically focus on uplifting and supporting their team during challenging times.
During moments of failure, assertive leaders provide effective feedback on what can improve. Additionally, they might ask thought-provoking questions that create a discussion around how to avoid the mistake next time. They recognize attacking or reprimanding a person in an unconstructive manner will only cause resentment and low morale, which doesn’t benefit organizations in any way.
As the name suggests, passive-aggressiveness is when a person combines the two previously discussed communication styles. Those who are passive-aggressive avoid being direct or honest about how a problem, decision, action, or crossed boundary affects them. However, they will use sarcasm, disdain, or negativity to communicate their anger, irritation, frustration, or upset. Ultimately, this creates a lose-lose situation. By not communicating their true feelings or desires, the person causing problems isn’t sure what they did wrong or how to fix it. Additionally, being the target of disrespect causes a further rift in the relationship. In workplaces, this creates the conditions for poor communication and dysfunctional teams.
Passive-Aggressive Communication vs. Assertive Communication Examples
A passive-aggressive leader might make a cutting joke about a person who hasn’t performed well, instead of letting the employee know there’s a problem. For instance, they might say, “Look who decided to show up to work today with a little more energy than usual.” In this example, the leader isn’t actively communicating there’s an issue with the person’s performance or suggesting a solution to fix it. This means the issue will continue happening until it is finally addressed. By this time, stress management is no longer intact, and the executive is more likely to lash out at a worker in anger.
As leadership expert Brené Brown states in Dare to Lead, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” In this situation, a person practicing assertiveness skills won’t wait until they’re forced to fire someone to let them know they need to improve. They’ll be proactive about recognizing what needs to change, constructively communicating this, and teaching the worker how to succeed. Doing so helps leaders develop each employee into an ideal team player who helps the business thrive.
Top Techniques for Practicing Assertive Communication
Great leaders are great communicators. Yet, as demonstrated above, toxic communication styles hinder a person from effectively communicating in a way that produces optimal outcomes. Since poor communication habits develop over time, transitioning out of these ineffective ways of communicating will take skills training and daily practice. Use the tips below to learn how to break the cycle.
1. Set Clear Expectations and Boundaries
Assertive communicators don’t wait until someone has broken a rule or boundary to express their behavior isn’t acceptable. Instead, they establish a foundation to build a relationship upon by communicating expectations and needs upfront. As best-selling author Henry Cloud writes in Boundaries, “Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.”
While setting boundaries minimizes opportunities for conflict, they don’t entirely prevent them from occurring. There will be times when employees don’t follow the rules or fall short of these guidelines. Yet, with this communication style, the leader holds people accountable for their violations. By immediately addressing infringements, they get in front of problems before they become more serious.
When setting and maintaining boundaries:
- Create a list of clear expectations before meeting with someone.
- Get feedback from mentors or peers for suggestions on how to improve these.
- Make sure team members are provided hard copies of these rules or needs so they can refer back to them as needed.
- Talk about why these guidelines exist. How do they benefit the team, the business, and customers? Why do they matter?
- Explain the negative impact on others should people not adhere to a leader’s expectations.
- Request consent for abiding by these standards.
- Don’t shame or guilt people when they break boundaries, but be serious about holding people accountable to their word.
- Refer back to the rules and discuss the next steps if employees keep violating the terms they agreed to follow.
2. Be Aware of Your Body Language and Tone of Voice
People communicate both verbally and nonverbally, meaning what someone says might not be exactly what they mean. As explained by the American Management Association, “Nonverbal communication is important in the workplace because it affects the work environment. What you communicate nonverbally can expose how you feel. If your nonverbal communications skills are poor, you may be communicating negativity and making your coworkers uncomfortable.” For this reason, body language and tone of voice are two important aspects of communication to keep in mind.
Body language is how a person conveys messages using their body and facial expressions. Tone is the way in which someone says something that reveals their mood, attitude, or feelings. For instance, this might look like an executive saying with a sigh in their voice, “Yeah, I guess just move forward with this,” but crossing their arms and looking down at the ground in a standoffish manner. In this example, it’s clear that the person isn’t being direct about what they want or need. By being passive-aggressive about the situation, they do nothing to help the other person figure out how to generate a more desirable outcome.
To get a better grasp on body language and tone:
- Get used to the feel of speaking more directly by role-playing as someone who is assertive.
- Gain self-awareness by learning what your triggers are.
- Practice coping techniques like mindfulness, breathing exercises, or taking a 30-minute workout break.
- Consider the appropriate tone of voice before speaking. You might use several different tones during one conversation. Always think about which one will produce the best result.
- Do a quick body and mind scan to evaluate nonverbal cues like your facial expression, physical presence, and energy.
3. Rehearse What You’ll Say
Practicing important discussions is a visualization technique that helps lead conversations in a positive direction. By thinking about what needs to be said, how it will be said, and what objections might arise, leaders prepare themselves to have productive meetings with favorable outcomes. This might look like outlining speaking points, answering questions about a decision, or assertively communicating a plan of action.
When rehearsing a conversation:
- Consider the most effective approach. Should you lead with a story, open with a question, or speak in a strong and bold tone of voice? This is a good time to think about your body language and tone.
- Practice having the discussion in a variety of different ways. Which option would work the best for the team or person you’re meeting with?
- Write down a list of questions people might have and provide answers to these during the talk.
- Leave room to be flexible in the discussion. Think about places to pause and ask or answer questions.
4. Use First Person
Conversations can quickly turn overly critical or nagging when a person uses second person (you). However, when someone uses the first person (I), they are better able to place focus on their feelings, expectations, and boundaries. Remember, the goal of assertive communication is clearly expressing needs and how they can be met. One of the ways assertive communicators do this is by informing the other person on how their behavior, words, or actions affect them or the company. They also approach the situation in a manner that seeks solutions. This prevents people from leaving conversations without a suggested resolution.
Notice the difference between the following two statements:
“You’re always unprepared for meetings. It just goes to show you can’t be accountable for anything. You’re a terrible team leader.”
“It is frustrating when I feel like I have to take over the responsibilities you said you’d be accountable for during our team meetings. I want to make sure this problem doesn’t continue because it stalls the project completion date, which impacts our sales goals this quarter. What can we do to ensure you’re prepared next time?”
As demonstrated above, assertive communicators focus on:
- Describing how the other person’s infraction made them personally feel in a factual, emotionally-controlled way.
- Explaining what impact their behavior has on the organization.
- Using a collaborative approach to find a resolution to the problem.
5. Ask Questions to Understand the Other Person’s Point of View
It’s important to never make assumptions about why expectations or boundaries were broken. Blame is not the objective of assertive communication. For this reason, try to get more information to see what caused crossed lines. It is possible a person was tending to a personal emergency or is in need of additional support. Being inquisitive and getting all the facts helps leaders gain more understanding, perspective, and empathy. Additionally, it helps executives work together with their team members to actively solve issues that prevent the company and its people from performing to the best of their abilities.
When digging deeper into problems or areas of conflict:
- Ask questions about comments in the conversation that express dissatisfaction or disapproval. For instance, if an employee states, “Why am I always the one who is singled out when the team never meets its goals?” a leader could say, “What makes you feel like you’re being targeted?” or “What responsibilities do you feel you are personally accountable for?” Be willing to engage and dig deeper into what is causing issues.
- Further inquire what a person means if they’re not clearly communicating.
- Practice active listening to make the other person feel understood and heard.
- Look for resolutions that suit both parties.
- Regularly follow up to make sure what was agreed upon is being upheld.
Compromise Requires Assertiveness and Flexibility
All of the assertiveness training in the world won’t guarantee a leader will get exactly what they want 100 percent of the time. This is especially true when disagreements or conflicts arise. However, learning how to assertively communicate is still important because it clearly outlines someone’s expectations, boundaries, and non-negotiables during these moments. As a result, using assertiveness skills can illuminate a pathway to compromise. This is an effective way to ensure all parties involved walk away with a resolution that satisfies everyone.
Companies that have leaders and employees who are trained in assertive communication are more likely to have productive meetings that lead to choices everyone feels onboard with. Letting everyone communicate in this democratic manner is a great way to build a team culture where people feel comfortable communicating what their individual needs or ideal outcomes are. In turn, this type of communication helps prevent dysfunctional teams who struggle to be impactful from forming.
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