Leadership Know-how: Key Assertiveness Skills Are a Foundation of Leadership

It is obvious (isn’t it?) to say that effective leadership requires effective communication skills, yet there is SO much to learn and practice when mastering the art of communication. There are bookshelves full of resources to study and skills to practice, (believe me, I have one!) So, how do you know where to start? Well, it’s simple (but not easy).

In my experience as a leader and as a professor of communication, the best foundation for effective leadership is a foundation based on understanding and mastering assertive communication. In many ways, assertiveness is not only a set of communication skills (which it is) it is a way of being. Many of you may likely feel familiar with the concept – assertive people speak up for themselves! True, but so do aggressive people, right?  Assertive communication is not only about being able to stand up for yourself. Assertiveness means that you can effectively speak up about what you need, however it also means you can and will stand up for others.  Assertive communication is both powerful and empowering.

Think of assertion as a balanced scale with your rights, needs, ideas and beliefs on one side balanced with the rights, needs, ideas and beliefs of the other person on the other side. Both deserve respect, both should be valued, and both need to be included for true collaboration to happen. Skew too far to the side of the other and you may let others take advantage of you, fail to speak your mind, diminish your own needs just to be “nice,” or otherwise react in a passive manner that privileges the rights, ideas or needs of the other person.  Skew too far to “your side” of the scale and you may enter a zone that is aggressive – where you fail to truly listen to others, insist on your own opinion and perspective and otherwise act in a way that sends the message that you believe you are more important than the other person, you are smarter, better, more deserving, than the other. (Tip: this is not good for relationships!)

Being assertive means consistently acting in ways that demonstrate you are actively and intentionally interested in and respectful of what others bring to the table while graciously ensuring that you are also a respected member of the relationship who will advocate for yourself. It balances your own chutzpah with compassion and an authentic willingness to learn, collaborate and maybe even change your mind (gasp!)

Learn to be an active listener. People who are truly assertive are active listeners. They listen to understand not just to respond and they seek to hear not only the content of an exchange, but the emotional tone and context as well. Active listeners seek clarification, practice empathy, are open to learning from others, have an authentic interest in the speaker and honor the humanity  – the dignity- of the speaker.

Assertive communicators are compassionate and honest with others. This means that, when necessary, they are willing to bear the discomfort and high stakes of having difficult conversations to resolve challenges and they have developed the skills to do so with grace. To effectively manage difficult situations it takes more than just having the guts to “tell the brutal truth.” In fact, if done well, there shouldn’t be anything brutal about it. One of the most challenging communication skills to master, your ability to deliver negative information, confront an interpersonal conflict, or provide feedback to others about needed areas of growth, is absolutely key to successful leadership over the long term. It is also key to empowering others to grow, to trust you, and to trust themselves to be open with you, take risks and stretch themselves.

Communicating the purpose and vision of the work you and your team are doing is critical. Connecting to a higher purpose will help the team maintain positive morale, engage deeply in the work and avoid burnout and overwhelm. Helping your team see, understand and connect to the higher purpose of their work will keep people engaged through challenging times. By living out relationships based on assertive communication, you will be equipped to understand the perspectives, needs and desires of your team and because of that connection and understanding, you will be much more successful in demonstrating how they are a part of the purpose and mission of your work. You will more naturally understand what resonates with them and why. We have all felt the frustration of ending a work day asking ourselves “why am I even doing this?”  In a world that values “productivity” and “high performance,” it may be tempting to say “there’s no time for discussion of purpose, we just need to get to work,” however taking the time to articulate the purpose of your work and use your active listening skills to learn how that purpose resonates with your team members will pay dividends in an energized, supportive culture, will strengthen work ethic and team cohesion, and will underline your genuine care and concern for the humans you work with.

Regular follow up with colleagues is a basic expectation of professionals. As the leader of the team, you may expect that much of the follow up will be in the hands of the members of your team, and that most people will be following up with you. However, as the leader you strengthen your team relationships by prioritizing personal connection with each of your team members.  Take the time to follow up on what you say and on what you learn about others. Keep your promises and follow up on what you say you will do. Keep in touch with your team about ongoing issues. Email the information you said you would research, call after a few days to offer support, or take that extra step of sending relevant information related to the work or interests of a colleague.

Lastly, the most powerful and assertive act of communication you can employ is a willingness to show your own vulnerability alongside your “awesome power and leadership skills.” Keeping the scale of a relationship balanced means that you are willing to show up in a way that acknowledges you are equally as human as your counterparts regardless of your position as leader or boss.  The simple solution for effective leadership is to enact assertive communication in all you do, and that is definitely not easy!

Kristen Fragnoli, November 2, 2017


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