There is a famous adage that says, "Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don't say it mean." Being an effective communicator is listed as one of the top skills in almost every job description, and it's very high on rating your emotional intelligence score.
When I provide leadership training,
I often share insights into what I've learned about four different styles of communication:
1. Passive communication:
You're a passive communicator if when someone says something that is hurtful or untrue, you say nothing. You might stay silent because the other person is your boss or someone you don't want to upset, or, by nature, you might not be as forthcoming as others. The real challenge with being passive is that it builds up and can affect you emotionally or erupt one day in an explosive way. From my perspective, being passive is not ideal, especially when effective communication is important.
2. Passive-aggressive communication:
This means that you are reacting passively toward the person who said something hurtful or untrue, but you react aggressively by either slamming the door or taking out your anger and frustration on someone else (e.g., your kids, spouse, colleague, etc.). Many companies deem passive-aggressiveness as a negative attribute that might be cause for your dismissal.
3. Aggressive communication:
When you respond or react directly with anger or emotions toward the person who offended or hurt you, you're communicating aggressively. In my experience, these types of communicators often use harsh words that, though they might regret what they said, will likely only exacerbate the negative interaction.
4. Assertive communication:
This is a much more effective way to react or respond. A simple rule is that aggressive communication is saying "You." For example, "You are lazy," "You are not responsible," etc. You're pointing the finger. Assertiveness, on the other hand, focuses more on "I." For instance, you might say "I feel hurt" or "I feel disrespected." This puts the focus of the conversation on you rather than accusing the other person.
In today's business world, especially with the onset of social media and reduced face-to-face interaction, it's hugely important to use every opportunity for enhanced communications. Being open, honest, authentic and assertive ensures that every interaction with your colleagues, employees, team members, etc. builds trust and meaningful conversation.
Remember that assertive communicators always listen first to ensure they know where the person is coming from. This shows respect for others and it will give you an understanding of their perspective, as well as allow them to be open to your point of view. Saying phrases such as "I understand you" or "I hear you" gives them the feeling of being heard or understood, which will allow them to do the same.
What does assertive communication look like?
Let me give you an example of a client I coached on assertive communication. He worked as a customer service director of a large importer and distributor. He excelled in creating positive working relationships with his team of customer service representatives. He empowered the team to make the right decisions without having to ask him for allowances to customer complaints.
But during the holiday season, there was a huge influx of orders, and everyone was scrambling to stay on top of things. The customer service representatives worked around the clock, yet a few issues were left unresolved. Because those issues were related to the company's largest customer, it got the attention of the CEO.
The CEO jumped into the situation and started giving directives to the representatives without speaking with my client, who, as a result, felt undermined, and his team was taken aback. However, bringing this up to his CEO with the utmost respect was tricky.
So, we practiced assertive communication. He was able to sit down with his boss when things were quieter, and he started by explaining that he knew where they were coming from: After all, when the largest customer calls, the CEO needs to react. He then suggested that the CEO could have first asked what my client knew was being done, as well as that it might have been more helpful if the CEO had shared with him and the team that they were jumping in only because they had promised the customer that if they had a problem, the CEO would help. These actions would have shown that the CEO still trusted my client and his team.
It was hard for my client to express this, but when he did, the CEO was full of admiration for his courage and assertiveness, as well as how he shared how changes in their actions could work.
Being assertive allows you to stand up for yourself without hurting someone else's feelings. In my experience, people often struggle with being assertive, yet it's the most effective way of communication.