Five tips for using assertive words correctly during a difficult conversation
Assertiveness is the key to effective communication! Learn how to use assertive words in difficult conversations to set expectations & deliver feedback.

Five tips for using assertive words correctly during a difficult conversation

Assertiveness is one of the most important qualities of a successful leader, especially when it comes to having difficult conversations with a staff member about issues such as work performance or unacceptable behaviours. In these situations, assertive leadership can help staff know where they stand, and will help you as a manager to provide constructive feedback and set clear expectations.

Assertive communication can be delivered both verbally and non-verbally, in many different ways, but one way that you can work on improving your assertiveness is by considering your word choices. Maybe you are saying the right things, but are you using the right words to say them? Making simple switches in the words you use can make a big difference to the outcome of your conversation, and also make a “difficult” conversation far less difficult.


1.Use facts instead of judgements

It can be extremely difficult to discuss poor performance or unsatisfactory work with a staff member. Nevertheless, it is your job to ensure that your team is working to a standard that you yourself would be proud to put your name to. By basing your critiques on facts, instead of judgements, you can easily and effectively provide feedback to staff for work that isn’t up to standard.

For example, “the pages in this report are out of order,” is a more effective way of saying “this is sloppy work”. You have dealt with the fact that the pages are out of order, instead of only mentioning that the work is sloppy, leaving your staff member to decide what is and isn’t sloppy. By using this approach, the issue can be resolved a lot quicker and you’ll be less likely to be perceived as aggressive.


2. Avoid exaggerations

By avoiding exaggerations in the conversations that you have with others, you can build trust and provide staff with a clearer picture of how you feel about their behaviour or performance. It is easy to exaggerate, and there are times when exaggeration may be used effectively to make a point, but when managing people it is important to be cautious about when and how you use exaggeration as a communication tool.

When we exaggerate, we tend to make distorted and over-generalised statements.. If a staff member is late a number of times in a row, it is important to not flippantly say, “You are always late”, which is an obvious exaggeration. Instead, be specific about how many times they have been late recently, remind them what time they need to arrive, and why it’s important that they are punctual.


3. Use “I” not “you”

During difficult conversations where you have to deliver constructive feedback, simply saying “I” instead of “you” can transform a sentence that could be interpreted as aggressive into an assertive statement. For example, “You always interrupt my stories!” will be interpreted as aggressive. Whereas, “I would like to finish my story without being interrupted,” is more likely to be received as assertive. Therefore, using “I” instead of “you” will not only result in a different outcome for your conversation, but also have better ongoing implications for your relationships with others.


4. Express thoughts, feelings and opinions reflecting ownership

By using clear, concise language you can express your thoughts, feelings and opinions in an assertive manner. As an example, saying, “He makes me angry” actually denies ownership of your feelings, whereas, “I get angry when he breaks his promises,” is assertive.

Choose your words carefully, and ensure that you only say what is required, and that what is said is to the point, non-aggressive, and factual. In doing so, you will have a lot more freedom to express your thoughts and instructions to your staff members. This is an important aspect of effective communication and can help to prevent confrontation in the future.


5. Plan, practice and prepare

When you first decide to start using more assertive words, in can be difficult to remember these tips and think of what to say on the spot. Using a template such as this one to plan a script for your difficult conversations will help you be prepared with more assertive word choices, even if the conversation takes an unexpected turn. In time, using assertive words will become second nature and you will come across as a more confident leader, gaining the respect of your staff members and resulting in a happier, more engaged team that knows exactly what is required of them.


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