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Assertive Communication, a Misunderstood Strength

Leadership Articles | Communication | Assertive Communication, a Misunderstood Strength

by | Sep 18, 2022

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Our ability to effectively engage others is greatly impacted by our understanding of each other’s needs, intent, reasoning, etc. We cannot read minds, yet our behavior often seems to suggest otherwise. Mind reading is a cognitive distortion, which significantly hampers our ability to have a more meaningful and effective dialogue beyond the spoken word. Rarely do we consider more than just the spoken word. But how about what we don’t say, how we feel, what we think, or our body language? This all plays a bigger role than you might think, and since the spoken word can represent less than half the story of what is really going on, it leaves us and our effort to connect with others at a significant disadvantage.

In our executive coaching practice, we help people to be more effective when they talk to others. This often means helping them to be more assertive. Being assertive means being clear and direct in your communication. It also means being respectful of the other person. You can be more assertive by using “I” statements instead of “you” statements. For example, you can say “I need you to do this” instead of “You need to do this.”

So Why Aren’t We More Assertive? Is It About Self-Confidence Or Self-Esteem?

Have you ever noticed how the thought of assertive behavior can induce an adrenaline-pumping feeling as if we are about to enter a warzone? For many, being assertive can feel negative, awkward, or sometimes even aggressive. One of the biggest myths about assertiveness, I believe, is thinking you have to know the answer, before you say anything, out of fear you might look stupid or be judged. Another myth is always believing your sole intent of being assertive is to make sure you prove everybody else wrong or get your way.

With this in mind, we conducted a one-question survey with several dozen clients being coached around assertiveness. We asked: “What are the first words that come to mind when you think about speaking up (being assertive) in a group setting?” Typical responses included: “aggressive responses, it’s a competition, someone has to win or lose, I have to have correct answers, demonstrate I’m smarter, I’m being judged, I’m judging others, I’m most concerned about being correct, etc.” These beliefs, in the moment, can make anyone’s heart start racing. No wonder our idea of assertiveness often leads to inadequate results. It’s why some people avoid it, altogether, without realizing they might be impeding their own or team’s success.

Aggressive vs. Assertive Communication Style

There’s a big difference between an assertive and aggressive communication style. Assertive communication is asserting oneself without being hostile or overwhelming while aggressive communication seeks to control or overpower others through forceful tactics.

Specifically, assertive communication is a style in which an individual stands up for their own needs, beliefs, and the collective good while also respecting the needs and beliefs of others. This effective communication style is characterized by honesty, mutual respect, and positive intent. It is not an aggressive or passive communication style. An assertive person is able to take charge when necessary but can also compromise and be flexible when appropriate.

Aggressive communicators, on the other hand, tend to use a style characterized by working to achieve one’s own goals at the expense of others. This type of communication is often angry, loud, forceful, judgmental, or possibly insulting. It does not take into consideration the needs or feelings of others. An aggressive style is more likely to result in threats or ultimatums for the benefit of one party.

Emotional Intelligence And Assertiveness

Emotional intelligence is the ability to be aware and understand our own emotions and the emotions of others. Being emotionally intelligent is the price of entry which enables us to be assertive in a way that doesn’t alienate our target audience. It allows us to effectively communicate with others, resolve conflicts, and create meaningful connections. One of the key aspects of emotional intelligence is self-regulation. This means being able to control our emotions and respond in a constructive way, even in challenging situations. Another important aspect is the ability to be present and focused on the here and now, instead of getting lost in our thoughts. This allows us to really listen to others and be fully engaged in conversations. When we are emotionally intelligent, we are able to be more transparent with others. We can share our true feelings and intentions without fear of judgment or rejection. We can also be more open to hearing the perspective of others, even when we don’t always agree. Ultimately, being emotionally intelligent allows us to create more fulfilling relationships and work toward the greater good.

Tactful Transparency; A Way To Reframe “Assertiveness”

The advantage to developing emotionally intelligent assertiveness skills is that it can help us eliminate mind-reading, uncertainty, doubt, and all those factors that lead us to jump to conclusions or make erroneous assumptions. Instead, view assertiveness as a desire for all parties to have all the necessary information and data points, empowering their ability to have a more effective dialogue and collaborate on the best part forward. A simple way to do this is to shift from you negative beliefs about assertiveness to factually positive beliefs. This allows us to authentically lean into the idea of speaking up. For example, try connecting with the other party by expressing your desire to have a mutual understanding of each other’s intent, motives, and rationale.

Practicing Assertive Communication. When Should You Be Assertive?

Being assertive is a key part of impactful and successful communication. It ensures that people don’t have to read minds or make assumptions. Sometimes being a “bull in a china shop” is necessary, but usually, this is not the case. When you are assertive, it creates a collaborative environment and encourages everyone to lean in more. It also eliminates the idea that it’s a competition. Let’s look at some of the most common scenarios in which you would be assertive.

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(1) Be Curious About Others’ Perspectives

There’s an old saying that there are two sides to every story. In fact, there are often multiple perspectives to every story. Developing an assertive leadership style doesn’t imply you show up as someone who thinks only he/she has something important to say. As a leader, it’s your job to see all sides of an issue to help drive the best decisions for your team. Hard to do if you or others can’t be humble enough to remain curious, despite what you/they know or think you/they know?

Why Does This Matter?

When you’re able to understand and consider multiple perspectives on any given issue, you’re better equipped to make the best decision for your team. Not only that, but you’re also better able to build relationships and trust with those around you. After all, people are more likely to trust and respect a leader who takes the time to see things from their point of view.

How Can You Do This?

So how can you develop the skill of seeing things from different perspectives? It starts with humility. When you approach every situation with humility, you’re open to hearing other people’s points of view. You’re also more likely to be curious about what they have to say. And when you’re curious, you’re more likely to learn and grow from the experience.

The next time you find yourself in a situation where you don’t agree with someone, try approaching it from a place of humility. Instead of getting defensive or trying to prove your point, simply share your perspective. For example, instead of vocalizing “I disagree”, you might say something like, “I’m likely looking at this from a different perspective. Here is what I am seeing, or help me understand how you arrived at this conclusion.” Notice the absence of the word “but”!

When you remove judgment and defensiveness from the equation, you create an open and safe space for dialogue. And when there’s dialogue, there’s always an opportunity to learn and grow – for both parties involved. Who knows, you might just find that the other person has a valid point! At the very least, they’ll appreciate being heard and respected.

(2) Take Others On Your (Thought Process) Journey

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When we share our take on a situation, for example, it is frequently preceded by significant forethought, preparation, etc. The persons listening to you may not be on the exact same wavelength as you, as they don’t have the benefit of knowing what led you to where you are now. Sure, context or too much of it may not be what is needed at all times. Tune in to when it is important to what context can benefit the conversation. This is what I refer to as “taking them on your journey”. Help them understand how you’ve ended up where you have so they can better understand from where you are coming.

Why Does This Matter?

When we take others on our journey, we provide valuable context that can help move the conversation forward in a productive way. By understanding how we’ve arrived at our current thinking, others can more easily follow our line of reasoning and potentially provide helpful feedback or criticism. Additionally, this approach enables us to build trust with others as it showcases our thought process and allows them to see that we are open-minded and consider multiple perspectives before arriving at a conclusion.

How Can You Do This?

The next time you find yourself in a situation where you need to share your thoughts with others, take a moment to reflect on how you got to where you are. What information did you consider? What influenced your thinking? By providing this context, you will help others understand your reasoning and could potentially save yourself some time in the long run.

(3) The Power Of Observation (“Double Click”)

In any given situation, it’s easy to get caught up in the details of what’s being said; what’s happening on the surface. However, beneath the surface of every action is an emotion and a perspective.


Why Does This Matter?

It’s not just what someone says, sometimes, their body language or what they don’t say is even more telling. By taking the time to observe, inquire about, and understand the deeper meaning behind what’s happening, or what’s driving their actions, you can gain valuable insights that can help improve the situation. Not to mention, if you show you are paying this close attention to them, imagine how you make them feel.

How Can You Do This?

The next time you’re in a meeting and you notice the dynamics are off, try tactfully sharing what you’re observing with the group. For example “Kelly, I sense a hesitation in your voice, what else is on your mind?” And then just listen! You may be surprised at how much more everyone will lean in and can learn by exploring the situation together, more openly. When you’re able to see beyond the surface and understand the emotions and perspectives driving people’s actions, you’ll be in a better position to solve problems and create lasting solutions.

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(4) The Power Of Asking For Clarification

We’ve all been there before. You’re in a meeting, someone says something, and you’re not quite sure what they mean. Do you ask for clarification and risk sounding like you weren’t paying attention? Or do you let it go and hope you can figure it out later?

Asking for clarification is a powerful tool that every leader should master. Not only does it show that you care about understanding the other person, but it also demonstrates that you were paying attention to what they said. In this blog post, we’ll explore the importance of asking for clarification and how to do it effectively.

Why Does This Matter?

There are many benefits to asking for clarification, both in terms of your own understanding and in terms of building relationships. First, when you ask for clarification, you are more likely to get the information you need to make decisions. Second, asking for clarification shows that you value the other person’s opinion and want to make sure you understand them correctly. This can help build trust and rapport. Finally, asking for clarification demonstrates active listening skills, which are important in any relationship.

How To Ask For Clarification

When asking for clarification, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, be specific about what you need to be clarified. Second, avoid making assumptions about what the other person meant. And third, try to rephrase what they said in your own words before asking your clarifying question. This will help ensure that you are on the same page and avoid misunderstandings.

For example, let’s say your boss tells you to “increase sales by 10%.” You could clarify by asking “Are you looking for 10% growth in overall sales volume or 10% growth in revenue?” By clarifying this point up front, you can avoid confusion and ensure that everyone is on the same page.

Next time you’re in a meeting or conversation and someone says something that doesn’t quite make sense, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification! Not only will this help ensure that everyone is on the same page, but it will also demonstrate your active listening skills and build trust with the other person.

(5) The Power Of Intent (Yours Or Others)

We’ve all had instances where we are wondering “where is he going with this?”. Stop We’ve all been in meetings where we are wondering “where’s he going with this?”. Stop wondering and ask, or tell, depending on which side you are. In a team meeting, for example, the conversation would benefit greatly if team members know, at the beginning, where you are intending to go by the end of the meeting, so all parties can focus on what they are saying and asking in the proper and focused context.

Why Does Intent Matter?

In short, it’s alignment about where we are going. It is important to communicate your intent to your team so they can be aware of what you are trying to achieve. This way, they can offer their input and help you to achieve your goal. When everyone is on the same page, it is much easier to accomplish something as a team.

How To Be Intentional

One of my favorite techniques to use at the beginning of a meeting, regardless of who’s leading, is to clarify “what, precisely, do we want to accomplish by the end of our meeting?”, or “what, exactly, will be our measure of success?”.

The bottom line is that communicating your intent is essential to being an effective leader. By articulating your intention at the beginning of a conversation or project, you are setting yourself up for success. Remember to keep your intent aligned with your core values, and make sure to communicate it to your team so everyone can be aware of what you are trying to achieve. With a clear understanding of what you are working towards, anything is possible!

Other Tactics To Keep In Mind

Conversation Killers

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Marshall Goldsmith has taught many of us about the three conversation killers: however, but, no. Here is a reminder.

Replace “why” with “what” and “how” – I propose to add “why” to our list of conversation killers. I’ve written in more detail about how the word “why” often implies or feels like the presence of judgment, causing negative emotions to surface, and inhibiting our ability to remain objective. If you are trying to create a “leaning in” dynamic, try using “what” and “how”.

Solution Versus Problem Focused

Whether the context is self-reflection or communicating with others, asking “what does +1” looks like tends to be a much more productive conversation than “why did -1 happen”. Here is an article that explains this concept in greater detail.

Relevant Sayings and Beliefs

  • Communication to connect, not to impress.
  • Get out of your head and into the moment.
  • The tone makes the music.


Speaking of effectively connecting with others, remember the wise words of Maya Angelou. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” When connecting with others, it’s all about the dynamics we help create. Next time you want to encourage others to lean into communication effectiveness, in support of a creating dynamic that facilitates collaboration and critical thinking, what are a couple of things you can commit to doing differently?

Written by: Nick Tubach, MBA,PPC

You might also be interested in our article on how to achieve your goals like a boss.

Another interesting read is about better understanding the dark side of emotional intelligence.

Contact Bridgeline Executive Coaching to schedule an assessment about the best possible, next steps for yourself or your organization.

<a href="" target="_self">Nick Tubach</a>

Nick Tubach

Specialties - Transformational Leadership, Influence, Emotionally Intelligent Leadership, Communication Mastery

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