How speaking assertively can help business owners reach their goals

From early childhood, we are all taught to be polite. We learn the rules of conversation, and how to interact with the world in positive, constructive ways. 

But can good manners go too far? Can our apologies, excuses and caveats cause us to appear weak, uncertain, or needlessly apologetic? 

Are you someone who reflexively apologises for everything (even when you’ve done nothing wrong)? Are you likely to pepper work emails with minimising qualifiers like:

  • “Could you just…”
  • “I hope you don’t mind…”
  • “I think…”
  • “Could I trouble you to…”

Then you might find that making a few small changes to your communications can help you get things done – without offending people. 

In particular, being more assertive can help especially when just starting out – for example, when establishing new client relationships, negotiating a new contract, or following up on invoices, assertive communication can help to cut through the noise so that you can reach your goals more effectively.

We were inspired recently by Rebecca Reid, author of Rude: Stop Being Nice and Start Being Bold, and her suggestion that being the “right kind of rude” can actually be useful – particularly for women who may be labelled as bossy or aggressive when they speak up at work. 

We’ve also been speaking to confidence coach Kirsty Hulse to explore the concept of assertive language and how it can help all of us communicate more effectively. 

Kirsty Hulse is posing for a photo, and wearing a powerful red suit
Image credit: Kirsty Hulse

In this article we’ve gathered a few suggestions for communicating more clearly and confidently – including a special consideration for what this means for business women.  

But first:

What is assertive language?

Let’s consider how assertive language differs from other styles of communication. There are broadly three communication styles:

Passive: You rarely express your feelings, thoughts, needs, rights, or opinions. This may lead you to feel ignored, misunderstood, or frustrated. 

Aggressive: You strongly and forcefully push your views on others. You are more likely to argue with others and often try to prevent people from expressing their views.  

Assertive: You are open and honest about your thoughts and feelings, while also respecting the rights and views of the people around you. 

How can you be more assertive?

Let’s explore some of the ideas from Kirsty Hulse and Rebecca Reid about being calmly assertive. 

Swap ‘sorry’ for ‘thanks’

Do you apologise reflexively? For many of us, saying ‘sorry’ is second only to breathing in frequency of repetition. 

But ‘sorry’ isn’t always what we mean, or what we need to say. 

As Rebecca Reid explains, we can often replace ‘sorry’ with ‘thank you’. “It’s a much more positive way to frame what you’re really trying to say, which is ‘I appreciate the thing that you have done for me’”.

Thanking someone for their time, or their effort, is far more positive than apologising for taking their time or requesting their support. This has a double benefit. Firstly, it reframes the exchange as a positive moment, which is more likely to leave you and your colleagues feeling good about the interaction and the experience of working with you. Secondly, it reduces the number of times you apologise for things you don’t need to be sorry about. This helps to minimise the impression that you are regularly getting things wrong – a notion that is negative for your own self-esteem, as well as the way people see you. 

Know what you want to achieve

Confident communication cannot happen if you’re not sure about your message – and your purpose. If your own view of your objectives is a little hazy, it will be difficult to share this vision with anyone else. 

Before you begin a work email or a business conversation with a colleague or client, plan what you want to achieve. Precisely what do you hope to get from that exchange? Being clear about your destination will help you communicate with confidence and clarity. 

Listen and acknowledge

Strong leaders aren’t just powerful; they are also skilled at building support and encouraging people to work as a team. And this kind of collaboration rarely happens through belligerence or intimidation. Instead, leaders learn to negotiate, communicate, and build a consensus. They may have to make some concessions in response to concerns, but ultimately, they manage to achieve their goals with the support of a team. 

Achieving your work or business goals is likely to require the participation of your employees and/or clients – or at the very least their acceptance. And a key component of building support is listening. If your colleagues don’t feel heard, and they believe that their concerns are being ignored, or that potential issues are being dismissed, they may actively stymie your project – or simply withhold their support. 

Genuinely listening to your colleagues’ perspectives is vital. Having heard their views, you should acknowledge what you’ve heard, repeat their points in your own language, and explain how you will approach these challenges or mitigate the problems. 

There’s no guarantee that you can persuade every person in every situation, but you can do your best to make people feel valued, understood, and heard. And this will help you be viewed as a confident, compassionate leader. 

Use fewer words

Do you often try to justify your requests, demands or opinions? Do you tend to write long emails to support simple statements, or do you talk around an issue before stating your needs? 

Often, the more we say, the more we dilute our message. As Kirsty Hulse puts it: “Assertive language is less about the specific words we use and more about the amount of words we use.”

Instead of giving people a clear communication, we complicate the message with unnecessary evidence or context. 

Kirsty suggests that we need to get comfortable with silence: “practice articulating your point in as few words as possible and then stopping there. It is not our language, but rather our silence, that presents our authority.”

By stating our message and then stopping speaking, we encourage people to focus on the core purpose of our speech. And this makes it easier for people to cooperate with us and support our goals. 

Focus on the positives

Giving feedback is hard. Giving feedback that doesn’t offend anyone or hurt feelings is even harder. 

These moments in business and life when feedback is required are risky, because they can alienate colleagues, damage our reputation, and make it harder to build support in future. 

One simple trick that can make feedback easier to give and receive is to focus on the positives. While many people start feedback by listing all the things they don’t like (and why), this only serves to upset people and create resistance. 

Don’t focus on the problems or what is wrong: focus instead on what is right, and what you want.  

Assertive language for women

We’ve all either experienced this phenomenon, or witnessed it take place: strong assertive men are praised for being bold, while women who display the same traits are undermined and criticised for behaving the same way. 

Strong women in business may be labelled as bitchy or bossy by some people, which can, of course, discourage other women from being bold, speaking up, or taking the lead. 

Kirsty Hulse has an interesting perspective on this, referencing the research of Dr Virginia Schein which found that many people naturally associate management qualities with archetypal male traits. A later study in the early 2000s replicated these findings. 

What this suggests is that the challenge for women is greater than simply changing the way individuals communicate. The problem here is not that women are failing to be assertive, it’s that assertive women are often a surprise in a culture which still fundamentally views women as carers, supporters and champions – not leaders, founders and directors. 

This doesn’t mean that women should abandon attempts to be assertive in business and beyond. It means that we may have to accept a degree of resistance to our efforts. 

You will find that some people react poorly to your assertive communication, and that’s okay. If you are being polite, positive, and listening to colleagues’ concerns, then you have every right to speak with conviction. 

Moving forward with confidence

Being assertive is a challenge that we will all face at some point. Regardless of gender, we are all likely to experience challenging times when we need to be more forthright. Or we may realise that we habitually undermine ourselves with excessive apologies or pointless verbiage. 

Instead of trying to suddenly lurch from your current communication style into something radically different, why not try making small tweaks to the way you speak and write emails? 

Try swapping apologies for thanks, or using fewer words to convey your message, or focus on listening with interest and reflecting what you hear. 

Photo by You X Ventures, published on Unsplash

Kerstin Reichert

Kerstin Reichert

Senior SEO Manager and SME marketing expert

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