I was at a networking group the other day. I don’t often go to these things as I am lucky enough that my network is made up of recommendations and incidental meetings. But it is good to go to these opportunities, you never know who you might meet or what you might learn. For most of the group, it appeared beneficial. Lots of connections and talking and assimilating into like-minded groups. For me, I walked away with meeting a few really interesting (and fun) professionals that I am looking forward to catching up and co-mentoring in the near future. However, as I wandered around this large group of professionals, in an informal setting, I was struck by a few who appeared to have mistaken assertive ways of interacting with aggressive. I have to say how surprised I was at the lack of professional insight many of the group demonstrated. How little skill many had in communicating their needs efficiently and clearly. How many did not know (or chose to ignore), the difference between aggressive and assertive interactions. It is these, admittedly unwitting, people and their aggressive conversation style, that has inspired this month’s blog.
There is a vast difference between being eager, assertive or aggressive in our communication style. When we are eager we strongly want to do or have something. It makes us appear a little impatient but full of hope and passion.
We express eagerness in our expressions and tone of voice, as we show our listener that we are keenly expectant or really interested, in their topic or company. Sometimes it can become annoying to the person you are talking to if the eagerness develops into pestering or aggressiveness. Be eager, but don’t let that passion tip into aggressiveness.
Aggressive, on the other hand, is where we express what we say without thinking about the wellbeing of the person we are engaged in conversation with. It is a harmful style of communicating that can make others feel socially anxious and make their opinion of you diminished. Aggressive is about dismissing the needs of someone else by belittling their confidence.
Sometimes we can get confused between aggressive and assertive styles of conversation. Let’s make it clearer. When you are being assertive you are expressing an opinion and showing respect towards your listener and yourself, at the same time. When you are being aggressive, your style of interpersonal skill is to ignore, denigrate, bully or attack your listeners’ opinion, particularly if it contradicts your own.
It is very easy to slip into a passive style of talking (don’t state your opinion at all) when you are confronted by aggressive people in social settings. They can blindside you and intimidate you. But it’s not okay for others to push your opinions down so, they can feel superior.
Here are some ways you can start to practice being less aggressive and more assertive, particularly professionally, but also in your day to day interactions.
1. Active Listening
Let’s start with paying attention. If you are actively listening to the speaker then you can begin to understand what they are trying to communicate and reduce inadvertent feelings that you are disengaged. Not being present when listening to someone can make people defensive and then aggressive. Be a participant in the conversation.
2. No is not a bad word!
When did saying no to someone equate with being unhealthily selfish? ‘No’ is a part of your speech you need to practice. And use! People pleasing will only get you so far in life and pull you away from being authentic. Saying no is like any new skill. You have to practice it! Use a mirror and watch yourself saying no, let your mind hear it, recognise your face as you say it. No need to shout it at your listener, however, keep it calm, sincere and reasonable in the way you speak. I don’t mean run around saying no willy-nilly, either. When you feel compromised or uncomfortable or bullied into an opinion, that is when the ‘no’ is needed. Assertiveness means you say this with an understanding that a person’s feelings are at stake. So be respectful and maybe add on the reason why you are saying no. Be strong and clear about the ‘why’. Remember the idea behind being assertive is not to win or make others feel bad, it is about developing the strength to stay authentic to who you are and what you believe in.
3. Agree to disagree.
If someone is not agreeing with you, that is their right. They don’t have to believe in your opinion. Your role is not to bully them into submission either. Agree to disagree. Validate their choice in the conversation and maintain your own belief. Remember, however just being challenged in your opinion is not always a bad thing. Maybe there is growth in learning something new, different or challenging in what they are saying. Be assertive with your own belief but not at the expensive of offending. Keep reasonable and focused.
4. Tone of voice.
Keep that tone in your speech quiet and low (not a threatening growl here), and calm. Breath out and focus on being relaxed. This will take the edge off your speech and imply you are not provoking conflict. When we are assertive rather than aggressive, we can get our point across using the emphasis on content rather than volume. Speak slowly to stay in control. Be mindful of volume to indicate calmness. Be patient if they are not responding to your words. Try not to hesitate too much, it can show uncertainty and doubt.
5. Use ‘I’.
Stay with discussing your opinion and needs rather than telling others their opinion and needs. Try to use statements that express your feelings and beliefs by using ‘I’. Examples are starting the conversation with ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’. If you are using terms such as, ‘you never’ or ‘you always’, you are being aggressive and implying you know more than the person listening does, about themselves. It will immediately create a defensiveness. Stick with what you know, use “I” to frame what you want to express and keep the direction of the conversation focused on you rather dictating to someone what they are feeling or experiencing.
6. Stay to problem solve.
Most people can feel uncomfortable when they are being assertive, particularly when the listener is not responding. To leave the conversation is passive. It is giving in to the aggression of the person you are expressing your needs to. Unless the conversation has quickly escalated to put you at risk (which means you need to place safety over-assertiveness), try to stay until you get the answer you can be satisfied with. Note, I didn’t say the answer you want. Assertiveness is about expressing your authenticity. Not about winning or convincing someone of your point of view. Try to continue the conversation in a calm and respectful way until you believe they have heard you clearly. You can ask them to clarify if they have heard you correctly, ask more questions, listen to their answers openly or move the conversation towards options for resolution. The focus is no-one should walk away feeling upset or hurt by the interaction.
7. Avoid guilt trips.
Assertiveness is not about making someone feel bad or guilty about being with you. It is about your need to be authentic, honest, respectful to yourself and to them. Avoid accusations, implying they are wrong or hurtful and keep focused on expressing your opinion being articulate, kind and clear. The interaction you are having must be meaningful and worthwhile. It is about building your authenticity and integrity and leaving your listener with theirs.
8. Practise assertiveness.
Practice. Practice. Can’t say it enough. No new skill is learnt on the first try. The brain is a muscle and needs to be worked in order to have an optimum outcome. Use a mirror, friends and family to build your confidence and skills in being assertive. Think of it as part of your toolkit for life. The more assertive you are able to be, the more authentic in this world you will become.
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