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Reflection: How Assertive Communications Can Make a Purposeful Impact

Getting A Purposeful Impact Through Assertive Communications

When we encounter the word ‘assertive’, especially in western cultures, we often perceive it to have a level of aggression.  This viewpoint usually occurs in how we deliver assertive communications and where.  This can be out of kilter with your usual method or style of delivery.  We also often reserve assertiveness for times when immediate and necessary action is required.  This could be an urgent deadline for something more serious.  This reflection considers assertiveness as an everyday style used to aid in direction and influence.  It recognises when assertiveness is not only an appropriate style but necessary to achieve the right outcomes.  Assertive communication is a choice for the right situation, and when performed well, it can provide clear direction.  When people can view clarity, outputs are efficient and effective.  Assertiveness can appear, in the wrong situation, as overbearing and aggressive, so raising self-awareness is key.

Raising Self-awareness

Like conflict, it is rare to see individuals being permanently in the mode of assertiveness.  We adapt our styles to fit the situation at hand.  There are times when being assertive are entirely inappropriate. This is generally innate letting experience guide us.  Ever been at a social event where a toddler loudly proclaims they need a poo?  Most of us can temperature check situations and adapt appropriately.  Yet in management situations, this seems to leave us, much of the time through inexperience or fear.  We often know that being assertive is the right approach but hold back for fear of perception.  We covert leaders who can provide that clear direction and choose assertiveness at the right time.  If you feel the situation requires it, then you are probably right.  You experience, and self-awareness is probably spot on.

Kid singing in front of a professional grade microphone

Assertive Communications

On occasion, we should view ourselves in a critical mirror.  Often, in coaching situations, I ask the coachee to consider themselves in a third-person perspective.  I ask them to consider advice would they provide to themselves.  This almost depersonalisation offers an outlet for them to use considerable judgement and give great advice.  Through this technique, you see a surge in assertiveness, a certain clarity of thought that comes from within.  The advice they provide to themselves is clear, the directive in a non-aggressive way and usually, time-bound.  When we then explore this clarity, they tell me that it is just good advice. And that it is appropriate for the person and the situation.
It is instances like these where assertiveness training is not necessarily required; just like confidence, it requires practice, raising self-awareness.  During this kind of reflection on ourselves, we can accordingly view when and where assertiveness is completely appropriate.

Prepared Assertiveness

It seems to be common rhetoric these days that ‘we’, as a society, lack confidence. This provides a platform for ‘more confident people’ to step in and impress with their handling of situations. Can you prepare for situations where we may need an element of assertiveness? I believe you can. If you were to consider a normal day, what would it look like? Walk in, laptop on, moan at the laptop for not being fast enough; make a coffee and so on. It is the purposeful parts of the day that will stand out and where we may need to check our own behaviour. Situations such as 1-2-1’s, a presentation, or the meeting where departments have to agree a standard operating procedure may be part of your day. All will require an element of assertiveness or even assertive negotiation. When considered thoroughly, you can prepare yourself for potential outcomes.
If we can pin down the collective purposeful outcome, ‘assertive behaviour’ becomes a reasoned debate with a common goal. This approach enhances the fundamental element in assertiveness of;
‘developing an awareness of what is required and preparing the right response to achieve the right outcome’
As with people who feel ‘less confident’, situations can be prepared for in advance to a point. This is not to say that we do the usual planning. We deeply consider the situation and the people who will be in attendance. Now let us delve a little deeper. Consider the outcome you require and the potential response of the people in the room. Use history as a guide where possible, has this situation happened before that you have witnessed? Very often our perception can mis-lead us as we build these situations up in our mind.

Perception and Reality

Consider the actual situation based on previous experience, are you building this up into something it might not be? Within this, think about the general behaviour of the group, people or person you are meeting. What is usual for them in terms of behaviour? Has there been a time when reality has actually matched your current perception? Perception and reality can be very different when we give this some thought. Even if you have not met the person/people, have you actually heard any comments on how they are? Consider the reality and what you will be meeting about; you are a professional in your own right. You will have prepared well and have quality input that will aid others or enhance a service in some way. Even if you are in reality going in with tough people, you will know your subject inside out.

Authentic Self

Basic assertiveness breaks down into three parts;
• Passive
• Assertive
• Aggressive
As stated, these ‘states’ are too basic to cover the actuality of the situation. There is a link between them all and in no way do they stand alone as individual behaviours. As adults, we may actually feel all three moment by moment. What we actually require is control over these in our intention and outward behaviour. When we are pressed for answers, for example, we may move from aggressive through to passive in an instant. Of course, where we want to be is assertive which is why the preparation is a key factor. Ask your team or colleagues to consider the situation and think of the varying outcomes. Given the right thought we can speak with authenticity as ourselves. Through this kind of preparation, you can be your authentic self and provide what you believe to be right.

Critical Mirror

On occasion we are required to view ourselves in a critical mirror. Often, in coaching situations, I ask the coachee to consider themselves in a third person perspective. I ask them to consider advice would they provide to themselves. This almost de-personalisation provides an outlet for them to use good judgement and give great advice. Through this technique you see a surge in assertiveness, certain clarity of thought that comes from within. The advice they provide to themselves is clear, directive in a non-aggressive way and usually time bound. When we then explore this clarity, they tell me that it is just good advice, appropriate to the person and the situation. It is instances like these where assertiveness training is not necessarily required. Just like confidence, it requires practice, raising self-awareness. During this kind of reflection on ourselves we can view accordingly when and where assertiveness is completely appropriate.

Situational Assertiveness

Being assertive all the time is unusual.  You wouldn’t use this behavioural style while reading a bedtime story or relaxing with friends.  As with many emotional intelligent situations, there is the right time and place for this to come through.  Here are a few:

  • With a new starter, the direction is key and purposeful as they need to know certain elements.
  • In an urgent situation when directed action is required.
  • During a presentation of a new idea, concept or project.
  • Just before conflict situations where it has the potential to get personal or out of control.
  • Delivering difficult messages – potentially a change management situation.

These are a few of the situations where assertive communications would be right to adopt.  What would the point of being passive be when you are moving friends or family along to catch a plane?
In discussions with people about assertive communications, there is a general fear of perception.  How do I seem to others? What will they think of me?  In the examples above, situational awareness would dictate that this is the right way to act behaviourally.  In this situation consider; the fear of being assertive comes from lack of practice.  Another potential reason is that others are meeting your needs.  This comes down to reflection and the opportunity to apply assertive communications.
Through reflection, we can consider real-life situations and unpick the transactions.  Rather than adopt the scenarios in ‘assertiveness training’ where the situations are usually role play, use your own experiences.  These are much more relevant, contextual and powerful.  Through these, you can stop, playback and reapply what you might have said.  It is especially useful if you can talk this through with someone.

Purposeful Communications

Purposeful communications begin with preparation on many fronts.  This is about the clarity of what you want to communicate, how and indeed to whom.  While it is true that not all assertive communications can be prepared for, most can.  Let us assume that in this instance, assertiveness means influencing an idea.  The assertive comes from the point of view that if you don’t do this, you will be in a worse position.  So by adopting your idea, benefits can be realised which can lead to a better place.  The assertiveness comes through the message rather than the tone or pitch of how you speak.  This is where ‘taught’ assertiveness and preparation differ.  I don’t need to act forcefully or adopt a fierce stance to deliver a message.  When we prepare well, we can practice the message over and over.

Man observing some sticky notes pasted on a whiteboard

The assertiveness comes through the message rather than the tone or pitch of how you speak

More than this, we can tailor the message to the audience who you will have also researched.  In light of this, assertiveness looks considerably different from the potentially aggressive approaches that can be portrayed.  Consider these points:

  • Where there is a chance to prepare, do so.  This will aid in the delivery and the meaning of the message you want to provide.
  • Know your audience and where possible tailor your messages so that this lands within their scope.
  • Meaning – the force of your message comes through your understanding of the situation and who you are delivering to.
  • Reflect on the way you are going to approach your communications and indeed, what happened.

Excelling in Communications

As with most self-talk, if we tell ourselves that we are not assertive then we will eventually believe it. Assertiveness is a behavioural and communicative skill that can be practiced and honed. With foresight and planning we can prepare ourselves for most outcomes. Trust in the team or colleagues will also provide some good critical insights which will help. Try to understand the reasons when you feel nervous, explore the factors that bring these feelings up. Is it delivering to senior people, groups or a single person with a certain reputation? Once we know this we can begin to prepare a mental communication plan for dealing with us. If we know what, we can deal with the how. The point is to master our intention and behaviour for the right outcome. Expect to be challenged and have the answers you want to give.
A quote from author Jeff Wheeler nails excellence in communications and assertiveness
‘never shout when a firm voice will do. Never a firm voice when a whisper suffices. Never a whisper if a sigh says it all. Sometimes a glance is powerful enough to convey the true meaning’
Placing the right meaning behind our words and intentions with authenticity and good thought ensures we leave no doubt. There will always be challenges, see this as an opportunity to practice your approach and your planning communications and assertiveness.

Final Thoughts on Assertive Communications

Assertive communications can be about making urgent decisions in serious situations.  This could be directing people to safety, for example.  In everyday situations, these are rare, so a deeper understanding of assertiveness needs to be understood.  While assertive communications may still conjure up notions of aggressive presentations, it doesn’t have to be this way.  The clarity in the message, an understanding of our self-awareness and the situation is more relevant and meaningful.
When we can provide more in-depth meaning, there really isn’t any need to force how we communicate because if the message is directed to the audience from their point of view, it means so much more.  Assertive communications will always be a concern for those who need to consider it.  If you can attain clarity, purpose and an understanding of self, the message will land.


For further tips and information, you can take a look at our Ultimate Guide to Communication Skills and our Communication Skills YouTube Channel. Also, check out our award-winning blog to see more Communication Skills tips and articles.

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