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4.2 Assertive communication

Communication is a two-way process. Listening well is probably the most important part of it, but we also need to find ways to communicate how we feel about some issues without getting flustered or simply not saying anything at all because we fear the consequences. Times when many people find it difficult to speak plainly can include:

  • when expressing one’s feelings
  • when disagreeing with another’s views, particularly if that person is in a position of authority
  • when making a request
  • when refusing a request
  • when giving criticism
  • when responding to criticism
  • when giving praise
  • when responding to praise.

Almost certainly you will find some of these situations much more difficult than others. However, it is probably also true that much depends on the context – especially who else is involved. While it would be possible to write a whole course on assertive behaviour, it is possible to learn enough of the basics to help with problematic conversations fairly quickly. Assertive conversations are about making your points clearly and firmly, without being aggressive. They can help to avoid misunderstandings and also potentially divert conflicts.

Assertive conversations involve four stages:

  • acknowledge the other person’s point of view (active listening)
  • tell them how you feel
  • tell them what you want
  • explain both the benefits and consequences if you do or don’t get what you want.

When planning for a particularly difficult conversation, you could rehearse the script beforehand, thinking through carefully what you want to communicate and how best to get your point across.

However, assertiveness is not the answer to everything: you do need to recognise that there are some situations where assertiveness may not resolve problems. For example, neither active listening nor assertive communication takes into account the political and structural imbalances in organisations and society at large, so an assertive response from someone who is not expected to be assertive (because of their position) may elicit a hostile response. Equally with assertiveness, there is a tendency to encourage individuals to take on the responsibility for righting wrongs that may lie outside their control and to feel it is their own fault if they are unsuccessful.