Assertive Communication

May 9, 2011

When I was a young manager, I was at times a very aggressive communicator. I’ve always been very direct and frank, but when I was younger I could also be very cold and intimidating. To this day I am ashamed of how I hurt a few people early in my career with my communication style.

One of the most important lessons I learned from my management training at McDonald’s Corporation was the difference between aggressive and assertive communication. Three decades later I am still trying to master being more assertive and less aggressive in the way I communicate with others.

In this 5 minute video, I briefly discuss assertive communication and how it differs from aggressive communication. The thing I always try to keep in mind is that assertive communication is calm, controlled, issue focused and very matter-of-fact. The goal of assertive communication is to improve a situation or a behavior, not to win an argument or hurt another person.

After you watch the video, please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Comments (2)

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  1. Beth says:

    Hi Bret,

    This is an excellent overview. I think it’s interesting that you point out the divide between your own belief that bringing up your feelings is a valid step, and the belief of others that says, “Don’t express your feelings.”

    I think I can help both sides of the issue by suggesting an additional and underlying principle of assertive communication, which is establishing a shared objective.

    I find that too often when colleagues discuss issues, they make assumptions that the other person is understanding the same objectives and adhering to the same priorities that they are. Very often that is not the case. Such assumptions can lead to very different definitions of success and a discrepancy of urgency regarding perceived risks.

    That’s why very often when an issue is raised in my work environment, the first thing I say is, “Let’s just take a moment to go back to the objective.” Then I state what I see as the main objective that is at risk of being accomplished. For instance, I might say (in your example, Bret), “The reason we commit to start meetings at a certain time is so that we can respect each others’ workloads and help each other be productive with our time use.” Then I add a request for consensus: “That’s pretty much it, right?” or “Do you see it that way, too?”

    Once I get the other person’s positive response, I can pursue the idea that a shared objective is being endangered by the person’s behavior (or whatever other element is at issue). “If that’s the case, then we have a problem when someone regularly shows up late…”

    This way, if I do choose to talk about my feelings, it’s also in the context of the shared objective. IT’s directed, not at the person, but at the behavior — BECAUSE OF its negative impact on an objective that we both share and care about.

    In my experience, this approach is helpful because it enables the initiator to show respect for the other person’s dignity at the same time he preempts that person’s objections . It is an assertive strategy, but it is also a kind thing to do, because it shows respect for the other person and establishes a common ground for further communication.

    Then, when you get to the “Help me understand” part, it’s more likely that the other person will engage with less defensiveness and partner toward a solution.

    Just love these communications strategies that get the job done while reinforcing constructive dialogue and good team behaviors.

    And that’s a shared objective if I ever heard one.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    You rock, Beth! Have I mentioned to you lately that YOU need to be blogging? 🙂 You have a TON of excellent insight that you can share with others. Thanks for your continued contribution to my conversations! Bret