(this essay originally appeared on LifeHack.org)
By Jennifer Farmer
In a work environment, it is essential that employees communicate openly, honestly and in situationally appropriate ways. This communication could include articulating what each employee needs and expects. It should also include communicating when one faces challenges with a product, colleague or client. This is called assertive communication.
Assertive communication is the ability to directly and honestly communicate a range of emotions. It is being able to self-advocate and 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 give others an opportunity 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 for which we are communicating about doesn’t immediately change. When we advocate for ourselves and vocalize our needs, we take an important and empowering step.
As executive leadership consultant and Lifehack contributor Malachi Thompson noted, “Don’t make the error of thinking effective assertiveness means convincing and winning over others to adopt your values and point of view.”
For the organization, 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. When employees are fearful that honesty and openness can result in retaliation, they remain quiet or 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 they will remain quiet or they will vent to people without the authority and resources to solve the problem. They could see opportunities yet fail to innovate because they may not feel safe doing so. The thinking goes something like this: “If I experiment, can I risk being wrong?” or “If I experiment, will I be recognized for my contributions or overlooked? or “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
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. When we know what we want, we have a starting point from which to assess all opportunities and situations.
Get Clear on Your Personal Values
Similarly, get clear on your personal 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.
Start with People Whom You Trust
Next, to develop assertive communication, start gradually and with trusted people. Practice stating what you want and doing so to people who have demonstrated their profound respect and support of you. These individuals would be considered safe. Throughout your history with them, they have demonstrated that they support you and that, when given the chance, they attempt to act in your best interest. Because these people have been proven to be safe, asserting your desires with them requires little risk. Once you communicate what you want and need, supportive colleagues and people who respect you will do their best to meet your needs. As you gain practice with people who support you, you’ll gain confidence as well. In time, you will be able to gradually tolerate more risks in terms of whom you are willing to be honest with.
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 dangerous or unwelcomed, 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’ background, culture and upbringing. This will help inform resistance to assertive communication and strategies to ensure it happens.
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 how to be articulate or speak, as my mother would say, the King’s English. No, I mean how to communicate 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. I carried that communication style into the workplace. 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 norm in terms of how to communicate. As I progressed through my career, I learned that, sometimes, perceptions to communication styles could 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 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.
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” suggesting 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’d 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.
The gender norms could 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.
In closing, assertive communication is so important that it’s 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.