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How to Improve Assertive Communication Skills for Better Relationships

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How to Improve Assertive Communication Skills for Better Relationships

In a work environment, it is essential that employees communicate openly and honestly. This kind of communication includes being open about one’s needs and expectations in a work environment. It also includes communicating when one is struggling with a product, colleague or client.

This is called assertive communication.

What Is Assertive Communication?

Assertive communication is the ability to directly and honestly communicate a range of emotions.

It is the ability to self-advocate or take a stand with and for oneself. While assertive communication is essential for the individual, it is good for the organization as well.

When we practice assertive communication, we reduce stress and anxiety, and we perform better. We also allow others to support us by fulfilling our requests or to grow by receiving feedback on areas where improvement is needed.

When we practice assertive communication, we feel better, even if the situation does not really change. When we stand up for ourselves and voice out our needs, we take an important and empowering step.

As executive leadership consultant and fellow Lifehack contributor Malachi Thompson noted in his article How to Be Assertive and Stand up for Yourself the Smart Way:

“Don’t make the error of thinking effective assertiveness means convincing and winning over others to adopt your values and point of view.”

Assertive Communication Boosts Employee Morale

When employees practice assertive communication, morale improves. It is impossible for team members to be truly happy if they are unable to communicate honestly about their experience.

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When employees are fearful that honesty and openness can result in retaliation, they remain quiet or just go along to get along. They may be physically present but mentally checked out. When this happens, employees could see problems coming a mile away but will remain quiet due to fear.

Employees may see opportunities yet fail to innovate because they do not feel safe doing so.

The thinking goes something like this:

“If I experiment, can I risk being wrong?”

“If I experiment, will I be recognized for my contributions or overlooked?

“If I step outside of the box, will my colleagues or supervisor view me as a threat?”

For the benefit of the individual and the entity the person works for, assertive communication is imperative. But how do we cultivate for people not prone to being assertive or communicating assertively?

How to Develop Assertive Communication

1. Understand What You Want

To develop assertive communication, take time to get clear on what you want and why. When we are not clear on what we want, we are more susceptible to the whims of others. But when we know what we want, we have a starting point from which to assess all opportunities and situations.

2. Get Clear on Your Personal Values

Similarly, get clear on your values. The values that you set for yourself will guide what you tolerate and what you simply are unable to accommodate. Before immediately responding to a request or question, think about whether the request violates your values, is in line with your values or aligns with what you want.

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3. Start with People Whom You Trust

To develop assertive communication, start gradually and with trusted people. Practice stating what you want to people who have demonstrated their profound respect and support of you.

Start with people whom you trust. Find the people who supported you before and those who act in your best interest. Because these people are considered safe, asserting your desires with them requires little risk.

Once you communicate what you want and need, supportive colleagues and friends will do their best to meet your needs. As you gain practice with people who support you, you will gain more confidence as well. In time, you will gradually tolerate more risks in trusting people.

The Underbelly of Assertive Communication

While assertive communication is beneficial, there is an underbelly associated with it. Most people struggle with receiving and giving direct feedback. They hedge when they should specifically cite what they want, or they bristle when others share their honest thoughts and feelings.

For people who were raised in environments where expressing one’s emotion was discouraged, being told to be open can feel risky and foreign. For people who were taught that there is space for all emotions, communicating honestly may be like second nature.

The rest of us are somewhere in between. To cultivate an environment where team members practice assertive communication, managers must understand something about their employees’ backgrounds, culture, and upbringing. This will help inform resistance to assertive communication and devise strategies to foster a better environment.

Another rarely discussed aspect of assertive communication is the way societal norms and cultural expectations influence how we perceive people who practice assertive communication.

What Do I Mean?

I have spent much of my career manipulating how to speak appropriately in the workplace. I do not mean being articulate or, as my mother would say, speaking the King’s English.

No, I mean communicating without being labeled “bossy,” “aggressive” or “inappropriate.” I grew up in an environment where people spoke clearly about how they felt. They did so with little fluff, and I carried that communication style into the workplace.

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My formative career experience involved managers and organizational leaders who pulled no punches in communicating their wants and expectations. Consequently, I thought the way I grew up and the leaders I worked for were the norms in terms of how to communicate.

As I progressed through my career, I learned that perceptions and communication styles could sometimes be gendered and racialized. A white person could say something and would be perceived one way, and I could say the same thing and be perceived in an entirely different way.

“Angry Black Woman” Label and Assertive Communication

Further, separate and apart from my upbringing, black women broadly have had to be mindful of our communication styles due to unfair labels and negative stereotypes.

Many black women spend a significant portion of their lives dodging the “angry black woman” label. This relentless stereotype has trailed black women for decades, making it difficult for people to hear our honest feedback without coloring it through the lens of “she’s just angry.”

We calculate how and when to raise dissent and ponder whether doing so will earn us that unenviable label. This means every conversation involves a risk. Whether individuals are communicating preferences to a teacher or advocating for their child with medical professionals, every bit of input must be carefully assessed through the “niceness” or “polite” lens: am I saying this appropriately, am I saying it politely, etc.

This is not helped by the fact that, in some workplaces, when Black women express their feedback, they can be shut down, labeled “aggressive,” “difficult” or “problem employees.”

Model Minority and Assertive Communication

Many Asian Americans have navigated the model minority myth. The myth suggests that they are the prized minority.

What happens when people who believe in the model minority myth or view Asian Americans this way experience assertive communication from a member of this community?

They could be dumbfounded, or they could resent the person for stepping outside of the lines created for them. The bottom line is that managers who subscribe to the thinking that Asian Americans are the model minority may only be able to experience and relate to people who show up one way – passive, compliant and docile.

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Gender and Assertive Communication

If you couple these stereotypes with gender norms for women, you know that communicating can be a morass.

In a March 29 White House briefing on the coronavirus, President Donald Trump admonished PBS News Hour White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, to “Be nice. Don’t be Threatening…That’s why you used to work for the Times and now you work for someone else”. This suggests that her transition from the New York Times to PBS News Hour was somehow connected to how she treated others.

Trump’s comments came after Alcindor assertively reminded the President that he had said “some of the equipment that states requested, they don’t actually need.” She struggled to finish her sentence before Trump cut in to chide her.

As the most powerful executive in the nation, the President’s passive-aggressive and undermining treatment of a Black woman journalist sets a terrible example of what is and what is not appropriate. That he told her to “be nice,” is emblematic of what women, women of color and Black women experience in many workplaces.

Genders dictate a narrow role for women and place a premium on patriarchy. I say all of this to point out that while assertive communication is ideal, we must be conscious of what it looks like on people of different genders and people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

That means that if we say we value assertive communication, we must value it on all people, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race or background.

Final Thoughts

In closing, assertive communication is so important that it is worth understanding how to do it right – not only for oneself but for the people around you as well. When you understand the underbelly to assertive communication, you may respond to your colleagues with more understanding, empathy, and patience.

In the end, everyone benefits – you, your colleagues and your company or organization.

More Tips to Improve Your Communication Skills

Featured photo credit: Christina @ wocintechchat.com via unsplash.com

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More by this author

Jennifer R. Farmer

An author and trainer specializes in helping socially-conscious entrepreneurs, celebrities and activists

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Last Updated on July 20, 2021

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

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How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.

Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.

Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:

1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically

According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.

“Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor

Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:

Warming up

If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.

If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.

Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:

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  1. Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
  2. Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
  3. Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.

Stay hydrated

Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.

To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.

Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.

Meditate

Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.

Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.

Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.

Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:

2. Focus on your goal

One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.

Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’

Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.

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Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.

If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.[1]

3. Convert negativity to positivity

There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?

‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’

It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.

Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”

Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.

Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:

4. Understand your content

Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.

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However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.

“No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor

Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.

Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.[2]

One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.

5. Practice makes perfect

Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.

In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.

Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

6. Be authentic

There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.

Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.

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Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.

To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.

With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.

Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:

7. Post speech evaluation

Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.

Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation

We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.

You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.

Improve your next speech

As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:

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  • How did I do?
  • Are there any areas for improvement?
  • Did I sound or look stressed?
  • Did I stumble on my words? Why?
  • Was I saying “um” too often?
  • How was the flow of the speech?

Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.

If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too:

Reference

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