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Bossy or Strong? Understanding Assertive and Aggressive Communication

Betty Lochner blog post

I decided I wasn’t bossy, I was strong.

I wasn’t loud, I was a woman with something important to say.

~ Michelle Obama

Last week, in my FB group, I was asked the following question about assertive communication:

How does a woman assert herself in a conversation without being labeled too assertive or aggressive?

It’s a great question and one that comes up often, especially in a work setting. We often get labeled as aggressive when we speak up or disagree.

If we start with a good definition of both types of communication, we can get a better understanding of what makes a difference and how you can become a better, more confident communicator.

AGGRESSIVE COMMUNICATION is a style in which individuals express their feelings, ideas, and opinions and advocate for their needs in a way that violates the rights of others. Thus, aggressive communicators are often verbally and/or physically abusive. 

Aggressive communication can include:

  • Insults and attempts to lower self-esteem of others
  • Emotions expressed through charged behavior (e.g. anger)
  • Lack of consideration and empathy for others
  • Lack of listening

Aggressive communication outcomes will:

ASSERTIVE COMMUNICATION is the ability to express positive and negative ideas, opinions and feelings in an open, honest, and direct way. It allows us to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions without judging or blaming other people.

Assertive communication includes:

  • Honesty, fairness, and directness
  • Emotions expressed using eye contact and positive body language
  • Good listening behaviors

Assertive communication outcomes will:

  • Make others feel valued and respected
  • Build team players
  • Minimize stressful situations
  • Lead to positive relationships

Once we understand the differences it’s clearly better to choose assertive communication behaviors rather than aggression.

Here are some more ways to be assertive in your communication:

1) Be clear

Ask for what you want openly and in a straightforward manner. State your feelings clearly without directly or indirectly demeaning the other person. For example, simply describe what you need or want and explain why. If you don’t feel you are being heard, then try being a “broken-record” by saying it again.

2) Use positive non-verbal/body language

Keep your communication positive at all times:

  • Make comfortable eye-level contact, smile, stand (or sit) tall.
  • Use hand gestures respectfully.
  • Avoid distractions (tapping fingers, looking at phone).
  • Be aware of the tone and volume of your voice.

3) Be prepared

Do your homework before speaking and stick to the facts. Open the discussion in a non-threatening way by acknowledging the other person by name and engaging in small talk. Then, describe the facts of the specific problem.

4) Use the power of the pause

Stay focused and keep your cool even when you are irritated or offended. Instead of lashing back, take a pause and breathe before responding.

Explain what you want to happen next. Describe your needs, wants, and ideas. Clearly explain your expectations (who, what, where, when, and why). Look for common ground and opportunities to use their ideas, and give credit where it’s due.

5) Don’t over-apologize

Say things like “thanks for waiting for me” instead of “sorry I’m late”. Don’t minimize your situation. Be in control and don’t worry about what others might think.

6) Don’t overthink it

Maybe most important – don’t worry about labels. Practice being assertive consistently. Keep the main components of assertiveness in mind and remain respectful, confident, and positive.

But most of all – be strong and say what you need to say.

Betty Lochner is a human resources consultant, business coach, and expert in workplace communications. She is the author of two books on communication, and a newly published journal, Intentional Gratitude.

Cornerstone hosts a twice-annual women’s summit, Confident Communication: A Women’s Summit. The next Summit: The Power of Us, will be held on March 19.  This professional development and training is for and about supporting women who want to become inspired and confident communicators. It’s packed with dynamic content that includes expert speakers, table conversations, and opportunities to practice and connect with each other in a safe and supportive environment.

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