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Critical Conversations and the Assertiveness Communication Style

No matter what communication style you have, using assertiveness and getting your employees to use assertiveness is the key to successful communication during critical conversations. During a critical conversation, assertive communication styles deliver the message in a firm yet professional manner.

Assertiveness during a critical conversation is about making sure everyone’s needs are met rather than getting just one person’s point across. Assertive techniques during a critical conversation are geared toward getting other individuals to speak openly and provide ideas and solutions, and then making sure the solutions work for everyone.

Qualities of the assertiveness communication style

Assertive communicators have these qualities:

  • They ask questions to spur discussion. During a critical conversation, assertive communicators ask for the other party’s perspective first and then use their own perspective to help generate discussion, instead of simply supplying the ultimate answer.

  • They are flexible with the means, agreeing on the end goal. Assertive communicators remain flexible with the needs of all the parties and the way to reach agreement. Although assertive styles don’t back down from their own needs and values, they can be open to finding new ways to achieve the goals.

  • They take time to build agreement and find solutions that benefit all parties. Assertive communicators approach conversations as a problem-solving opportunity instead of trying to rush to solutions. They clarify information frequently while they build agreements. For example, an assertive communicator may say, “These three next steps look good. How about making sure we both understand what’s on this list. Any items here you would like clarified?”

So what would an assertive style look like during a critical conversation? Suppose that Sam has been the product development director at GamesOnline for 23 years. Sam is a passive communicator, sometimes passive-aggressive. A new manager, Alex, was recently hired as the director of Sales and Marketing. He has an assertive style and his goal is to hit the sales targets out of the park and eventually run the company.

Alex needs Sam’s team to work with Sales and Marketing, but it’s not happening. Watch how Alex uses assertive styles to get Sam to come up with ideas to help the team.

Assertive Alex: “Hi, Sam. Thanks for meeting today. As I mentioned to you last week, I want to search for ways that our teams can work together to achieve our company goals for next year. Are you willing to work together on this?”

Passive Sam: “Okay.”

Alex: “Great. I noticed last year that both teams were working around the clock to meet our targets, and many people were exhausted after that heroic push. Have you seen or heard of different alternatives to the last-minute rush that have worked in the past?”

Sam: “Not really. We can do whatever you want to.”

Alex: “I would love to come up with some ideas together. I would be happy to have you start, or I can put the first one out there.”

Sam: “Oh, I’m happy to just help.”

Alex: “Okay. One idea may be to ask our teams to sit next to one another in the office, opening up the communication between groups.”

Sam: “Sounds great.”

Alex: “Finding multiple options could help both teams find even more ways to collaborate. Can we brainstorm an alternative idea?”

Sam: “Sure. You know one thing that we used to do was have quarterly production targets. Not sure why we don’t anymore . . .”

Critical communication experts dream about this conversation as an example for everyone to follow. Alex directly states the reason for the discussion and asks for agreement. Asking Sam whether he was willing to work on the issue takes time but builds a key agreement.

When Sam responds, “Not really,” Alex is flexible in his approach, providing information and then asking more questions to spur discussion. Assertive communicators are more than facilitators or managers — they can be magicians! On the third try, Sam brings up new information, which may never have been discussed if not for Alex’s open style.

The goal of a critical conversation is to positively build mutual agreements that solve tough, emotionally charged issues. Using an assertive style helps the other parties provide their points of view to help build a solution everyone can agree on and work toward.

Assertive communication may not be your natural style, but practice and feedback from others can help create a balanced assertive style that gets results that everyone can agree to work on the in the future.

How to use assertiveness style to move people to action

If you were a fly on the wall during the conversation in the example between Sam and Alex, you may wonder why Alex tries so hard to get Sam to talk and give ideas. If only one person talks or only one person gives ideas during a critical conversation, chances are good that the idea will never see the light of day after the conversation is over.

After all, the parties don’t reach an agreement. If a critical conversation is over and nothing changes, you had no consensus and the time was wasted. By probing for ideas and asking for commitment, Alex starts to develop actionable agreements.

Direct or aggressive communicators may get their points across, but later find out that everyone was listening but no one agreed. Passive communicators may just let the conversation happen while nodding their heads, but have no commitment to the end goal after the conversation is done.

An assertive communication style advocates the perspective of the speaker and gathers information from other parties. If you make sure the parties discuss all the information and views, you have a higher chance for action after the conversation closes because everyone’s views have been heard and incorporated into the final outcome.

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