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How to be assertive at work (even remotely)

If you watched any of the US presidential TV debates in late 2020, you might recall the then Democrat candidate Kamala Harris (now vice-president elect) sparked a discussion with the way she dealt with interruptions.

What Ms Harris did was a textbook definition of assertive behaviour – she clearly stated her wishes, with respect for herself and the other person in the interaction (Vice-President Mike Pence).

“Mr Vice-President, I’m speaking, I’m speaking” chimed with many people, particularly women, who have experienced similar issues when trying to be heard in the workplace.

Research has shown how gender can play a big part in interrupting. In one Stanford study, male listeners regarded females who interrupted another speaker as ruder, less friendly and less intelligent than males who did the same.

Translate this to the current workplace, where we’re limited to speaking to our colleagues via a screen, and it’s easy to see how communication can become fragmented.

Whether you’re male or female, the time to hone your assertiveness skills is now, because we need to be even clearer when trying to be understood online.

So, what does assertiveness look like? You can take a light-hearted look by taking our quiz or read on below.

Assertive body language

Non-verbal cues are an essential part of the way we communicate. Here are some pointers as to what assertive body language looks like:

  • Voice – an assertive voice should be in the middle of your range, firm and well projected. Take a few seconds now to find that place by trying high, low and then middle.
  • Speech pattern – this should be at a well-modulated pace, flowing and controlled, where keywords are emphasised.
  • Facial expression – a genuine face reflecting real emotions – such as smiling when pleased, frowning when angry.
  • Eye contact – show engagement by maintaining clear, steady eye contact. But don’t give people the full laser beam – remember to break it from time to time.
  • Body – onscreen where we normally just see head and shoulders, you should be sitting upright and relaxed – this will promote better breathing, which in turn reduces stress. When standing, use open hand gestures, but avoid pointing or invading personal space. This article has great tips on walking around your home to develop energy and physical presence while on calls.

Look out for these non-verbal signals and try to decode body language when speaking with your colleagues in meetings.  It will give you an insight as to how they are feeling.

Communicating assertively

So now we’ve looked at some of the non-verbal ways of being assertive, let’s see how this translates to verbal communication. In our training, we focus on the following:

Be specific

If you’ve got something important to say, think it through beforehand – so that in the meeting you don’t stumble or ramble when making your point. This is even more important now that we live our lives online and are at the mercy of screen fatigue. Speak concisely and simply.

Repeat your point…

Whatever point you are trying to make – be it about having to finish work on time, or the fact that your customer has changed the job specification – remember you can repeat it if needed. This can allow you to get it across clearly, and avoid manipulation or other distraction devices by others in the meeting.

…but acknowledge what others are saying

To ensure a smooth exchange, it’s important to acknowledge what others in your meeting are saying, but not get dragged against your will into their issues, especially if they’ve interrupted your topic. Acknowledge and move back to your point.

Finding a workable compromise

Assertiveness does not mean aggression. You’re not railroading your point home, but rather finding a way of meeting the other party, while ensuring you are also happy with the outcome.

Seeking a mutually acceptable solution usually involves taking both sets of needs into consideration – but it doesn’t have to come at the cost of your own self-respect. Try to examine any negative criticism for validity, while also showing empathy with the other side where possible. Be clear on where you’re willing to compromise in order to reach a win-win for all.

Avoid “you” statements

When challenging someone, focus on behaviour rather than personality traits – describe what happened factually, rather than extrapolating to imply the person is ‘always like that’. Describe your own feelings with simple statements such as “I feel nervous” or “I feel worried”. This should help you own your feelings and reduce antagonism with the other side.

Start today

Learning how to communicate assertively could be the making of your next difficult meeting. What will you be doing differently next time?

BiteSize Learning offers both in-person and remote training on all manner of workplace challenges. Take a look at our offer or get in touch to find out more.

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