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Assertive communication

Learning how to communicate assertively allows you the freedom to know that you have a right to speak and be heard in most situations and the confidence to know that you can present yourself in such a fashion that people will want to hear you.

Assertive communication is difficult to teach in a short paragraph. There are excellent books and articles listed at the end of this section, but here are some of the main principles:

  • First and foremost, assertive speakers demonstrate attentive listening behavior. What you communicate is “I am showing you the respect by listening to you, and assume that you will show me the same courtesy.”
  • Demonstrate an assuring manner, communicating caring and strength
  • To the extent possible, remain as relaxed as you can. It is physiologically impossible to be both relaxed and anxious at the same time, so focus on being relaxed and develop skills that will help in these situations
  • State clearly what it is that you want
  • State honestly how you feel about the topic

Both of the above recommendations are more effective whenever you use “I” statements, e.g. “I would like to speak with you about the fight we had last night in the restaurant. I feel very angry about the scene we made and I would like very much for us to work things out.” Using “I” statement allows you to take responsibility for your behavior and your feelings. It also gets you out of the habit of blaming others, a sure recipe for defensiveness from the listener.

  • An assertive speaker also recognizes that there is someone else with whom you are having the conversation. Recognizing their side and their concerns shows respect and usually results in reciprocal behavior.
  • An assertive speaker always communicates a desire for a “win-win” outcome, again recognizing the needs of the other person
  • Your eyes should be making good contact, but not staring. Your posture should be well balanced, straight, erect and relaxed. Your voice should be firm, warm, well modulated and relaxed.

Putting all of these tips together takes practice but is worth the time and effort to improve your ability to get your point across. When employees ask us for help in addressing a colleague, we usually ask them to do two things:

  1. imagine the worst thing that can happen when you speak to this person and be confident that you can handle it; and
  2. practice the conversation with the Faculty Staff Assistance Program counselor or some trusted individual so that you will be prepared for most contingencies.