How to speak assertively

People skills expert Eleanor Shakiba explains that assertive language is clear, honest, unambiguous and non-inflammatory. It is also respectful of everybody’s boundaries. People who speak assertively balance sharing their own views (advocacy) with exploring the views of others (enquiry). They enjoy sharing their own viewpoints as well as exploring what other people think. They are fair, inclusive and respectful in their use of language. There are four key behaviours you can use to become more assertive in the language you use.

Describe, don’t judge

Assertive communication often involves exchanging feedback, and effective feedback is concrete and specific. It describes exactly what someone is doing or saying – without passing judgement on why they are doing or saying it or the meaning of their actions or words. For example, there’s a big difference between saying, “You’re so disorganised,” and, “You’ve arrived late to team meetings three weeks in a row.” The first statement is aggressive and hostile. The second is assertive and honest.

Assertive people take responsibility for their own states

Send “I” messages, not “you” messages

Assertive people take responsibility for their own feelings, thoughts and perceptions. They don’t blame others for “making” them feel bad. This is why I Statements are a key component of any assertiveness training program. The I Statement structure helps you send an “I” message rather than a “you” message.

Eliminate verbal minimisers

Words like “only” and “just” and “it would be great if…” are verbal minimisers. They undermine the significance or meaning of your message, implying that what you’re saying isn’t really important. This can turn an assertive message into a passive attempt to communicate. For example if your boss says, “You just need to try being more punctual in future,” you might pay attention. Then again, you might not. You’re much more likely to take the message seriously if the boss says, “I would appreciate you being on time for meetings in future.”

Balance honesty and appropriateness

To speak assertively you need to be both honest and appropriate at the same time. An honest message is one in which you tell the truth. Honest messages, however, can come across as aggressive. They can sound too direct or pushy, thus triggering difficult behaviour as a reaction. This is why it’s important to combine honesty with appropriateness when you’re speaking assertively. Imagine, for example, that someone who often shouts in order to get their way asks you, “Do you think I am aggressive?” An honest answer would be, “Yes, I do.” However, this answer may seem abrupt or critical. You would be better off giving a more appropriate answer.

An appropriate message is framed in a way that matches your context and the needs of the person you are talking to. It is still honest, but it is also respectful of others boundaries. To answer the question, “Do you think I am aggressive?” appropriately, for example, you might say, “When you get excited you speak very loudly. Often it sounds like you’re shouting which can seem aggressive. How do you want to sound?”

For great tips on speaking assertively, buy Eleanor Shakiba’s book, Difficult People Made Easy or read the following pages of this site:

Using assertive language
How to speak assertively
Assertive body language
Shifting from passive to assertive
Shifting from aggressive to assertive
Shifting from passive-aggressive to assertive

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