OER (en): Assertive Communication

Moving Forward, Developing, and Growing in Your Job – How Assertive Communication Can Help to Get You What You Want

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Contributors: Deidree Tjokrosetio, Laura Winkens, Morris Ameyaw Yiadom, and Sofie Schuller

Being Stuck

You start a new, maybe even your first job. When you read the vacancy, you were excited as the tasks of this position seemed to be exactly what you looked for in a job, or they seemed challenging and new. Fast forward, you successfully went through the application process and started in the new job and company. After a couple of weeks, you have found your way into the daily tasks and rhythm of the work and you find yourself being demotivated, bored, and not challenged. At first you did not mind, as you understand that you are not given a lot of responsibility until you are more familiar with the company and work, but you feel like you are at the point of taking the next step. Some more time passes, and your supervisor has not brought up the possibility of taking on new tasks. You feel like you have to take matters into your own hands. But how do you approach this conversation with your supervisor? In the podcast, Sibren Fetter provides his insight on assertiveness in practice, while this article introduces the concept of assertive communication from a more theoretical perspective.

Help from Communication Science and Psychology

You are facing a difficult conversation; on the one hand you want to advocate for your needs and on the other hand you do not want to come across as pushy. A useful middle ground in communication is ‘assertive communication’. Assertive communication is characterized by balancing two aspects: firstly, standing up for one’s own needs, rights, or boundaries, and secondly, considering and respecting the opinion, views, resources, and needs of the conversational partner. The art lies in walking the line between passive communication, which might have one compromise in order to accommodate for the other person’s needs and aggressive communication which disregards the other person completely.

These three types of communication are often described in regard to who wins:

Assertive communication can seem like an abstract concept, as in each conversation with a different person there are different boundaries as to what is perceived as ‘aggressive’ communication. To make the matter a little less abstract, researchers have identified a list of verbal and non-verbal communication practices which we perceive as being assertive but not aggressive:

Non-Verbal Practices
  1. Direct eye contact: communicates that the person is not intimidated
  2. Assertive posture/stance: balance between looking too aggressive and too weak
  3. Tone of voice: should be strong, but not aggressive (e.g., raising voice)
  4. Facial expression: important to not express anger or anxiety
  5. Timing: the person must be socially aware to assertively communicate at the right time (e.g., starting a conversation about wanting more responsibility during a different project meeting is probably not the right point in time)
Verbal Practices
  1. Clarity: using specific words that clearly communicate needs
  2. Non-threatening: the person should not blame or threaten the other person (e.g., you better do this, or else)
  3. Positive: framing a request in a positive way (e.g., “I started on the outline for the project plan, would you please add your input? That would be great!”) is more effective than a negative request (e.g., “You have not worked on the project plan yet, can you do that?”)
  4. No criticism: although it might be tempting, it’s important to not criticize yourself (e.g., “I’m overly sensitive”) or others (“Why are you so mean?”) when trying to be assertive

Putting Theory into Practice

Still, assertive communication might be a new way of expressing yourself. We have collected some practical tips, tricks, and techniques to help you in developing your assertive communication skills!

To start simple, assertiveness can be translated by small changes in which words you use. Verbs can have much implicit meaning for how you phrase your needs. For example: “I need to get more challenging tasks because I am bored” versus “I want to get more challenging tasks because I know I can grow with them”. The use of want puts the agency with yourself and leaves the conversational partner room to explain their point of view. As a rule of thumb, use want instead of need, will instead of should or could, and choose to instead of have to. You can start practising this in your everyday life. Listen to yourself and how you intuitively phrase your sentences, and try to make these small changes in using different verbs. Non-verbal communication can sometimes be a bit more difficult. It is best to see an example of this, so we have linked a useful TedTalk about assertive body language.

Sometimes you will be able to prepare for an anticipated conversation, like the one in the beginning of this article. Here the technique of ‘scripting’ can help you to sort out your points and how to present them. Scripting follows a four-step pattern to building your arguments.

  1. The event. Tell the other person exactly how you see the situation or problem.
    „I started my job at this company over two months ago. I have worked on getting acquainted with the structure and work flow of my position, but I am still keep being assigned simple tasks.”
  2. Your feelings. Describe how you feel about the situation and express your emotions clearly.
    „I feel like my potential is not used sufficiently. This makes me feel underappreciated and my work does not challenge me. To me it is important to develop and keep learning in my job.”
  3. Your needs. Tell the other person exactly what you need from them so that they don’t have to guess.
    „I need you to be honest with me, and let me know if you think I can take on a more challenging project and if there is the possibility to do so within the foreseeable future.”
  4. The consequences. Describe the positive impact that your request will have for the other person or the company if your needs are met successfully.
    „In a new project/ with a change in tasks, I will gain motivation to grow and learn. I will be able to connect with new people in the company and display my skills, knowledge, and adaptability.”

By focusing on your side of the conversation you avoid pushing the other person into a corner. Following the four-step structure allows the other person to understand all aspects of your perspective, the situation, your emotions, and your needs. Start scripting the important points of a conversation in advance so that you don’t struggle to make your point when it is time to assert your position.

Learning Assertive Communication on the Go

Assertive communication is a skill that will need some time to master, but the good news is you can do this bit by bit every day. Use different verbs in your day-to-day communication, practice body language in front of a mirror, practice scripting with low stake every day situations. Do you want to start now? Try to think of a recent situation in which you felt like you drew the shorter straw because you were not able to stand up for your needs. This can be as simple as bringing down the trash for the third time in a row, although it would be your flatmate’s or partner’s turn to do so. How can you use what you read about assertive communication to change this situation? Starting with the small assertive communication adjustments will give you the practice you need to move you forward and help you get more of what you want in your job.

Podcast on Assertive Communication with Guest Expert Sibren Fetter

In this podcast, Sibren Fetter gives his expert opinion on assertive communication in the workplace. This is a summary of the most important practical tips. We still highly advise to listen to the podcast to get a full picture of our expert’s insights.

Sibren emphasized that although assertiveness is often defined by communication that does not provoke or hurt the other person, in reality one can never guarantee this. One might indeed hurt the other person’s feelings, but that is okay. Further, there is no general step-by-step plan for assertive communication. It depends on one’s level of comfort with this type of communication and personal weaknesses. Self-reflection is key, as well as practicing in everyday situations to build up this skill. One of the main barriers to people asserting themselves is the fear of offending someone. Sibren reassures that the majority of managers are happy to receive input, as their work depends on the employees communicating what they want and need. Some dos and don’ts are: avoid a complaining or aggressive attitude, being honest is seldomly perceived as rude, do not apologize for communicating your needs, and keep it brief and to the point. Sometimes being assertive will also demand to set boundaries. Here, Sibren advises to think about two aspects: when do you have to say no and to what requests can you say no. In both cases, having a well-planned out agenda can help. This allows one to know exactly when they have the capacity to take on an extra task, and which tasks need to be prioritized. Further, this agenda helps in explaining why you need to say no to certain requests.

Find all of the other articles and podcasts from our series on communication for work happiness here:

About the Contributors

Deidree, Laura, Morris, and Sofie are master’s students at Maastricht University and part of the PREMIUM Honours Programme. They teamed up with happy2learn to bring you this open educational resource.

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