People ask me sometimes if there is a skills-set that would magically solve most of their problems and give them leadership superpowers.
Maybe you will be surprised, but I believe that there is such a “magic bullet”:
I believe that assertive communication, when done skillfully, is a leadership superpower.
And yet, most leaders avoid assertiveness because they are afraid they’ll come across as pushy, bossy, unkind, or even aggressive.
Assertive communication is often the most effective and the healthiest way of communication. It is healthy because at its core is the ability to set boundaries and establish clear expectations. As a result, instead of complaining or criticizing, people with assertive communication skills address what’s not working in a timely way and actively look for solutions before things escalate into a conflict.
And yet I also know from working with hundreds of individuals that there is a great misunderstanding around this style. The problem is that many people claim to be assertive, but behave aggressively and this gives assertiveness bad reputation which it truly doesn’t deserve.
I am passionate about assertiveness and I know how helpful it is when it is done skillfully, so I have developed a model to help people grasp immediately what assertiveness is, and what elements and skills are required to be a skilled assertive communicator. Let me take you through it:
To me, assertiveness is the golden standard of communication which promotes healthy relationships and thriving working cultures.
It offers a very different dynamic than aggressive. It is based on fairness, candor, facts, and mutual respect.
Unfortunately, most people think that assertiveness only requires being direct and speaking the truth.
The problem is that when you just speak the truth directly without empathy and compassion, you risk being brutal and rude, and that’s aggressive.
Instead, you need to make sure that all elements of the model are present.
Let’s start from the facts. As professor Sheila Heen from the Harvard Law School says: “Facts are facts, and everything else is everything else”.
Assertive communicators know their facts and stick to them.
They also do not tell stories or interpretations around what happened. They do not speculate. Instead, they double-check the facts and ask for clarification when needed.
They also communicate timely: they address the problem as soon as it happens.
This is one of the problems with passive or passive-aggressive leaders that they try to keep the peace by avoiding confrontation and conflict and they wait too long to give feedback. By then things will have escalated and it’s difficult to stay objective and calm.
Fairness is another important part of the assertive communication. Assertive leaders remember that nobody is better, nobody is worse, we all make mistakes, we all deserve respect, we all deserve clarity, and we all deserve a chance to present our case without being interrupted or judged. So, they listen, assume the best of everyone, give people a fair chance to explain themselves without being interrupted or judged, and then they respond accordingly.
Assertive communication is also always based on respect.
I respect your needs and rights, and my needs and rights. Essentially this is about setting clear boundaries and clear expectations. By communicating their boundaries upfront, and addressing trespassing timely you can deal with problematic behavior before it becomes more serious. This way everybody knows where they stand, what is expected, and what are the consequences for breaking the rules.
The last part of the model is the form in which it is delivered, so in a way it is also the first part of the model.
Assertive communication requires mastery in keeping things as short and as clear as possible. This is very difficult to do because it requires what most people lack: focused presence and cognitive discipline.
Assertive leaders know how to name the problem so accurately and quickly, that there is no way to misunderstand. This skill is called “bottom-lining”.
The skill of bottom-lining requires you to identify the issue, in other words “the bottom line”, label it correctly and say it right at the beginning. This is extremely important because if you wait too long with labelling, people will stop listening and they will start plotting their escape or their excuses.
There is one more important element of assertive communication which I haven’t included in my model but which is essential: the Emotional Intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence in itself is very complex, but many people reduce it to just empathy. And while empathy is important, there are more important elements to consider here such as self-awareness , social awareness and self-regulation.
Before we open our mouth to deliver our feedback or set a boundary, we need to first understand our own emotional state so that we can self-regulate if we need to.
Whether you are a leader or not, having assertive skills will allow you to be more clear and direct, and it can help you create the culture of candor and decrease the likelihood of miscommunication, misunderstandings and mistakes.
Remember: although X-ray vision or super-strength are only reserved for superheroes, assertiveness can become your real-life superpower. You just need to give it a fair chance it deserves.