For women, assertively communicating, especially in the workplace, can feel like a tight rope act- lean too much into your assertiveness and you risk falling into the “aggressive and bossy” net, lean too far over to the soft approach side and you get categorized as “meek and non-leaderly”. Meanwhile, Joe across the aisle can take over meetings when they get out of hand, use a loud tone as needed, and respectfully disagree with superiors and he (more than likely) gets a pat on the back and a promotion.
While I mean no disrespect to Joe, as a woman, communicating in the same fashion as your male colleagues can characteristically lead you down a less gratifying and congratulatory path than his. Because of this tightrope we often walk in the office in our attempts to be assertive, but not too assertive, we can often feel like we are downplaying our strength and true personality in order to make others (re: mostly men and older white women) in the room feel more comfortable. While, in a perfectly feminist and equitable world, changing your tone and modifying your behaviors slightly to avoid offense wouldn’t be a thing, however, in the current office and social climate, a boss has to work with the hand she is dealt before she can change the game.
Whether you are communicating assertively or not, continuing eye contact throughout a conversation (or at the very least, looking at their face) presents to the other person (or persons) that you are invested in what they are saying and can help drive home important points when it is your turn to speak. For many people, though, eye contact can be awkward and make them uncomfortable, and in cases like that, maintaining ‘face contact’ (no, please do not put your face on theirs, we don’t need HR coming to your next meeting) by shifting your focus from the left eye, to the right eye, then the mouth, and repeating that eye shift on a consistent basis, is a better alternative and can relieve some of the feelings of intimacy that may make you, or others, feel uncomfortable about peering into the windows of their soul.
In some cultures, pointing or extending your arm motions far away from your body can be considered rude or offensive and to others it may seem confrontational, and in a vastly growing multi-cultural society thanks to advancements in technology and society, it is important to take other cultures norms and mannerisms into consideration when presenting and communicating with others. In general, pointing- especially in a sharp manner, can come off in a very aggressive and rude way, leading others to feel lectured, talked down to, or as if they are on the defensive. Avoiding pointing can help prevent an important piece of information that you wish to emphasis from into turning into the start of an argument. Instead of pointing, using “the Disney point” where you point with two fingers (your index and middle) or using your entire hand to point, will still ensure your point (no pun intended) is emphasized.
If you do feel that the conversation you’ve found yourself in is treading towards becoming an argument, softening your tone just slightly when bringing the conversation back towards a safe zone, or when trying to make peace between opposing parties (even if one is you), can help alleviate some tension and serve as a white flag to those in the room who have their battle gear on for a fight.
It can be hard to get a word in edge-wise in some situations, and in response, when the opportunity arises, we may over step our word count in a meeting, and come across as a know-it-all, or worse, someone who knows nothing and talks just to be heard. As a former “I’ve gotta talk just so they know I exist and am here even if I have no real point to make” addict, my biggest piece of communication advice is this- sometimes the most boss thing you can do is to not say a word. Speaking just to be heard can be a reputation and career killer, so be sure that the next time you open your mouth, there is something worth saying. Then when you do say it, say it with the confidence of a mediocre white man or a four year-old in a superhero shirt. Oh, and don’t let Brian in Accounting take credit for your idea like he always does, make sure it is known that it was yours.
Assertive communication and proper communication techniques aren’t just important for women in the workplace, they’re important to embrace and utilize for everyone. In any workplace or personal relationships, many problems come down to communication failures such as a failure to communicate at all, a failure to communicate properly, and miscommunication in general. Using these tips, and more found in our Assertive Communication Course, can turn your office into a highly productive and high functioning place of work now that employees aren’t at one another’s throats because of simple misunderstandings of body language and tone.