Being Assertive Is all About Choosing the Best Words

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Speaking assertively means using direct, positive language.

My 13-year-old daughter recently dodged a text from a good friend inviting her to sleep over. She didn’t want to because “she talks too much and always interrupts me when I’m talking,” my daughter explained. On the heels of a 4-day summer camp, she’d reached her tolerance threshold with the exuberant girl and wanted to take a break. Taking a break wasn’t a bad idea, I agreed, but rather than dodging the friend and hurting her feelings, I urged her to suggest they get together next week. And, when she’s with her friend next, to stop her when she interrupts and say, “I don’t like it when you interrupt me. It makes me feel like you aren’t interested in what I have to say.”

Many of us still have trouble speaking assertively. We don’t know exactly how to say what we’re feeling without confrontation. We end up avoiding the person or complaining about them behind their back rather than dealing gently and directly with the problem. Instead of telling a co-worker that his humming makes it hard for us to concentrate, we practice tolerance (a good thing) until we explode over something seemingly minor. Or, we sit hoping our boss will notice our outstanding work and suggest to us that we should get a raise—rather than ask for one.

Doesn’t work that way, my friends.

Assertive language begins by being respectful of the person you’re speaking with—preserving the relationship. Yes, you should practice tolerance first—things can’t always be your way. And yes, people should be more aware of how their behavior affects those around them.

But if you’re feeling angry about how something is going because you weren’t able to influence the outcome, it’s probably a sign that you could be more assertive, suggests quirks.com.

Being assertive includes the right body language and preparation. But using the right words is key. Here are some specific words from Your Total Communication Image:

  • Use “I” statements. Starting a conversation by saying, “You always …” is a great way to start an argument. It puts the person you’re talking with on the defensive. Instead, consider how their behavior is affecting you and talk about that.
  • Be specific. Include details about what you’re looking for. Remember this is not your opportunity to vent! It’s a way to bring about change. Instead of “Your reports are always late.” Try: “The last three reports I got from you were each a week late. The data is perfect, but getting it late makes it impossible for me to get my proposal back to the client on time and I can’t close the deal when we start out on a bad note like that.”
  • Ask for information. Picture yourself in a meeting. You are asked to make a recommendation and you do. Then a colleague pipes up with “That’ll never work.” Instead of responding with “You’re not even considering the information I just presented.” Try: “I’m convinced that my recommendation is the right one. But what specifically is making it seem risky to you?” (These should not be leading questions designed to make the speaker feel pressured or silly for speaking up.) Rather, you should genuinely be trying to uncover components you may know (since you did the research) but may not have communicated well. Or it may uncover hidden obstacles that you haven’t considered—causing you to change your mind.
  • Demonstrate respect. Let the person know that you’re also interested in what they have to say. When a co-worker interrupts, don’t cut them off by saying, “Shut up until I’m finished.” Try: “Let me finish. And then I’d be very interested in hearing about the obstacles you’re concerned about.”
  • Don’t start statements with apologies. Apologies are intended to right something you’ve done wrong. Many people have gotten into the habit of starting their dissenting opinions with apologetic (qualifying) language: “I’m sorry, but I just don’t think …” or “I may not know much about this, but ….” Instead, speak confidently about your opinion (when you have one). “Based on my research, I think our customers would enjoy ….”
  • Use tactful, positive words. “That’s dumb, weak, awful. You have to do this. This is a waste of our time …” are all negative. When you put people on the defensive, they don’t listen to the rest of what you have to say. Also, steer clear of controversial or sensitive topics.

Assertiveness is speaking up for yourself. But it doesn’t mean closing your mind to what someone else has to say. So begin by choosing your words carefully. Being heard doesn’t usually mean you need to shut the other person down, but rather understand their perspective. It takes a high level of maturity to speak up in such an open-minded way.

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