Last week, I dropped by one of the rooms in Clubhouse, and one member asked a very common question that I hear time and time again: How could she make her voice heard when she is the only female in the department? How could she communicate in a way that does not confirm biases based on her gender or skin color?
Her questions brought back memories.
Earlier in my career, as a woman from a minority background, I too, struggled with questions of how can I make my voice heard? How can I communicate in a way that is effective yet, not perceived as the fiery Latina or the angry passionate woman? How can I speak up in a male-dominated environment where all the other leaders are mostly males?
I know it can often feel uncomfortable.
Whether because of societal norms, our upbringing, or our personalities, we feel the need to tiptoe around and watch what we say.
It does not have to be this way.
We can’t nor should we fit into a small box to accommodate others' spaces, if we are to claim our seat at the table.
Well, back then, I discovered a few techniques from assertive communication, that now I like to share with you.
But first, let’s understand the difference between Assertive vs Aggressive communication.
What is the difference between assertive and aggressive communication?
Aggressive communication is like a bull in a china shop. It pursues what it wants without any regard for the consequences. As it might sound, it can trample on the feelings of those on the receiving end and, except in unusual circumstances, is relatively destructive.
Aggressive communication gives you an air of self-righteousness. To say it another way, it can make you appear like a bully. While you may end up getting what you want, it does so in a way that both burns bridges and builds resentment.
So, what is assertive business communication?
You might be surprised to hear this, but there is nothing wrong with assertive business communication.
In a nutshell, assertive communication conveys your thoughts in a clear, concise manner. It allows for open expression, clarifying what you mean while simultaneously respecting those around you. It’s the opposite of passive-aggressiveness, which is often a defense mechanism we use to agree to something when we really want to say no.
Why doesn’t everyone use assertive business communication?
To be clear, this is a learned communication skill. While some individuals are assertive by nature, for most of us we have to grow this talent.
For example, information technology teams are often made up of mostly men. Statistically, women make up a lower percentage of people in this field. It can be difficult to be assertive in this situation, especially when you’re incredibly busy. You’re feeling the stress of the moment since you have a lot of projects to finish, the day is almost over and you’re not sure when you’ll get to go home.
Suddenly, one of your co-workers comes into your office and asks for your help on one of their tasks. They may even ask if you just wouldn’t mind handling it for them. How do you respond?
The answer is by using assertive business communication techniques. Remember, I just said at the beginning that you can develop career success through being more assertive, not aggressive.
So for the rest of today, I want to focus on four tips that will help you grow into a more assertive business communicator.
Tip #1: Ask Questions
One of the best ways to ease into becoming more comfortable with speaking up is to begin asking questions.
I know you might be thinking “If I ask a question, it is going to make me look dumb or [insert your negative self-talk here]”
First, acknowledge that this is your fear speaking to you. Secondly, there is nothing wrong with asking. It is not about asking but how you ask. For example, you could ask something like:
It’s very clear that you have put together this plan, however, it is unclear to me HOW all the pieces will work.
Would you mind clarifying how this approach would work with ABC solution?
I understand what your goal is__, however, would you help me clarify why would you want to use strategy A instead of B?
I’m curious, how do you foresee this approach ____ will work with ____ solution?
Notice that I used open-ended questions and I tried not to use “But”, instead I used “However” as a way to keep the question open and by saying, however, not canceling what the other person just said and thus avoiding hurting any of his/her feelings.
If someone makes a funny/sarcastic comment- ignore it at the moment, but make sure to address that behavior with that person a 1:1 after the meeting is over.
Tip #2: Learn to use
the word “I”
Now that you’ve thought about your tone, look back on your interactions. How often do you use the word “I”?
As an example, do you say “I need this report by 2pm”, “You didn’t turn the report in on time” or “Can you get me the report by 2pm”?
Do you see how each of those is different? The first question is assertive: it lets your direct report know your expectations. The second is aggressive, blaming them for their mistake. The third is passive, implying that they have control over the situation.
Incorporating I, especially in the context of when you need something, will go a long way in turning you into a more assertive communicator.
Tip #3: Use Visualization
It is no secret that the most famous athletes in the world use visualization to level up and feel more confident. Well, the same applies here.
Before you have an important meeting/conversation I want you to visualize that whoever is on the other side is a HUMAN just like you. He, she or they, are your peers and equals.
The fact that the other person has a title and is perhaps your superior on paper, does not mean that we have to feel like we are inferior. No. They are just some human beings, with more salary that is trying to keep it all together.
Tip #4: Learn to say no- set boundaries.
Raise your hand if you ever felt guilty for saying no.
Now, raise it again if you ever said yes because you didn’t want to feel guilty.
The fact is, you’re busy. The more you say yes to the less time you’re going to have to do your actual job.
Here are some ways to say no.
I would love to take care of that, however, I do not have the capacity to deal with this at this very moment.
I’ll be more than happy to take care of this, would you mind then help me prioritize the other two competing deadlines with the other teams?
Happy to consider this request however, I’m running short of bandwidth with the upcoming deadline for ___business priority task_. Can we “parking lot this idea” and revisit it once I’m done with this upcoming priority?
Saying yes can make you seem like a team player, but saying no when you just don’t have time for the request actually provides better internal customer service — and builds your skills as an assertive communicator.
I want you to understand that assertive communication can directly lead to career success. It can help you build your leadership presence, giving you the courage to take that next step, and more importantly, it can help you begging to feel more comfortable with exercising your voice.
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