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How to Improve Assertive Communication Skills for Better Relationships

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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Published on May 18, 2021

How To Improve Listening Skills For Effective Workplace Communication

How To Improve Listening Skills For Effective Workplace Communication

We have two ears and one mouth for a reason—effective communication is dependent on using them in proportion, and this involves having good listening skills.

The workplace of the 21st century may not look the same as it did before COVID-19 spread throughout the world like wildfire, but that doesn’t mean you can relax your standards at work. If anything, Zoom meetings, conference calls, and the continuous time spent behind a screen have created a higher level of expectations for meeting etiquette and communication. And this goes further than simply muting your microphone during a meeting.

Effective workplace communication has been a topic of discussion for decades, yet, it is rarely addressed or implemented due to a lack of awareness and personal ownership by all parties.

Effective communication isn’t just about speaking clearly or finding the appropriate choice of words. It starts with intentional listening and being present. Here’s how to improve your listening skills for effective workplace communication.

Listen to Understand, Not to Speak

There are stark differences between listening and hearing. Listening involves intention, focused effort, and concentration, whereas hearing simply involves low-level awareness that someone else is speaking. Listening is a voluntary activity that allows one to be present and in the moment while hearing is passive and effortless.[1]

Which one would you prefer your colleagues to implement during your company-wide presentation? It’s a no-brainer.

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Listening can be one of the most powerful tools in your communication arsenal because one must listen to understand the message being told to them. As a result of this deeper understanding, communication can be streamlined because there is a higher level of comprehension that will facilitate practical follow-up questions, conversations, and problem-solving. And just because you heard something doesn’t mean you actually understood it.

We take this for granted daily, but that doesn’t mean we can use that as an excuse.

Your brain is constantly scanning your environment for threats, opportunities, and situations to advance your ability to promote your survival. And yet, while we are long past the days of worrying about being eaten by wildlife, the neurocircuitry responsible for these mechanisms is still hard-wired into our psychology and neural processing.

A classic example of this is the formation of memories. Case in point: where were you on June 3rd, 2014? For most of you reading this article, your mind will go completely blank, which isn’t necessarily bad.

The brain is far too efficient to retain every detail about every event that happens in your life, mainly because many events that occur aren’t always that important. The brain doesn’t—and shouldn’t—care what you ate for lunch three weeks ago or what color shirt you wore golfing last month. But for those of you who remember where you were on June 3rd, 2014, this date probably holds some sort of significance to you. Maybe it was a birthday or an anniversary. Perhaps it was the day your child was born. It could have even been a day where you lost someone special in your life.

Regardless of the circumstance, the brain is highly stimulated through emotion and engagement, which is why memories are usually stored in these situations. When the brain’s emotional centers become activated, the brain is far more likely to remember an event.[2] And this is also true when intention and focus are applied to listening to a conversation.

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Utilizing these hard-wired primitive pathways of survival to optimize your communication in the workplace is a no-brainer—literally and figuratively.

Intentional focus and concentrated efforts will pay off in the long run because you will retain more information and have an easier time recalling it down the road, making you look like a superstar in front of your colleagues and co-workers. Time to kiss those note-taking days away!

Effective Communication Isn’t Always Through Words

While we typically associate communication with words and verbal affirmations, communication can come in all shapes and forms. In the Zoom meeting era we live in, it has become far more challenging to utilize and understand these other forms of language. And this is because they are typically easier to see when we are sitting face to face with the person we speak to.[3]

Body language can play a significant role in how our words and communication are interpreted, especially when there is a disconnection involved.[4] When someone tells you one thing, yet their body language screams something completely different, it’s challenging to let that go. Our brain immediately starts to search for more information and inevitably prompts us to follow up with questions that will provide greater clarity to the situation at hand. And in all reality, not saying something might be just as important as actually saying something.

These commonly overlooked non-verbal communication choices can provide a plethora of information about the intentions, emotions, and motivations. We do this unconsciously, and it happens with every confrontation, conversation, and interaction we engage in. The magic lies in the utilization and active interpretation of these signals to improve your listening skills and your communication skills.

Our brains were designed for interpreting our world, which is why we are so good at recognizing subtle nuances and underlying disconnect within our casual encounters. So, when we begin to notice conflicting messages between verbal and non-verbal communication, our brain takes us down a path of troubleshooting.

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Which messages are consistent with this theme over time? Which statements aren’t aligning with what they’re really trying to tell me? How should I interpret their words and body language?

Suppose we want to break things down even further. In that case, one must understand that body language is usually a subconscious event, meaning that we rarely think about our body language. This happens because our brain’s primary focus is to string together words and phrases for verbal communication, which usually requires a higher level of processing. This doesn’t mean that body language will always tell the truth, but it does provide clues to help us weigh information, which can be pretty beneficial in the long run.

Actively interpreting body language can provide you with an edge in your communication skills. It can also be used as a tool to connect with the individual you are speaking to. This process is deeply ingrained into our human fabric and utilizes similar methods babies use while learning new skills from their parents’ traits during the early years of development.

Mirroring a person’s posture or stance can create a subtle bond, facilitating a sense of feeling like one another. This process is triggered via the activation of specific brain regions through the stimulation of specialized neurons called mirror neurons.[5] These particular neurons become activated while watching an individual engage in an activity or task, facilitating learning, queuing, and understanding. They also allow the person watching an action to become more efficient at physically executing the action, creating changes in the brain, and altering the overall structure of the brain to enhance output for that chosen activity.

Listening with intention can make you understand your colleague, and when paired together with mirroring body language, you can make your colleague feel like you two are alike. This simple trick can facilitate a greater bond of understanding and communication within all aspects of the conversation.

Eliminate All Distractions, Once and for All

As Jim Rohn says, “What is easy to do is also easy not to do.” And this is an underlying principle that will carry through in all aspects of communication. Distractions are a surefire way to ensure a lack of understanding or interpretation of a conversation, which in turn, will create inefficiencies and a poor foundation for communication.

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This should come as no surprise, especially in this day in age where people are constantly distracted by social media, text messaging, and endlessly checking their emails. We’re stuck in a cultural norm that has hijacked our love for the addictive dopamine rush and altered our ability to truly focus our efforts on the task at hand. And these distractions aren’t just distractions for the time they’re being used. They use up coveted brainpower and central processes that secondarily delay our ability to get back on track.

Gloria Mark, a researcher at UC Irvine, discovered that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds for our brains to reach their peak state of focus after an interruption.[6] Yes, you read that correctly—distractions are costly, error-prone, and yield little to no benefit outside of a bump to the ego when receiving a new like on your social media profile.

Meetings should implement a no-phone policy, video conference calls should be set on their own browser with no other tabs open, and all updates, notifications, and email prompt should be immediately turned off, if possible, to eliminate all distractions during a meeting.

These are just a few examples of how we can optimize our environment to facilitate the highest levels of communication within the workplace.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Effective communication in the workplace doesn’t have to be challenging, but it does have to be intentional. Knowledge can only take us so far, but once again, knowing something is very different than putting it into action.

Just like riding a bike, the more often you do it, the easier it becomes. Master communicators are phenomenal listeners, which allows them to be effective communicators in the workplace and in life. If you genuinely want to own your communication, you must implement this information today and learn how to improve your listening skills.

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Choose your words carefully, listen intently, and most of all, be present in the moment—because that’s what master communicators do, and you can do it, too!

More Tips Improving Listening Skills

Featured photo credit: Mailchimp via unsplash.com

Reference

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