Building Bridges Through Assertive Communication

Part 2 of a 4 Part Series on Assertive Communication

Last week in Part One of our series on assertive communication we discussed how to understand and assess your own communication style. Which style did you find was the most true to you?  Did you discover something that you didn’t realize about yourself?  Did you determine any areas for improvement?

Now that we’ve taken the time to better assess our communication styles, we can focus on improving how we communicate. We'll use a few examples from our friends in Part 1 , Juan, Jake, and Juniper. They each display one of three less-than-desirable communications styles we covered; aggressive, passive, and passive-aggressive.

Using their examples we will learn how to use the elements of assertive communication effectively, along with how to use important nonverbal communication skills.  Remember that assertiveness isn't only about being in charge of your own behavior; it's also about allowing others to be in charge of their own. 

DESO Script

Using a script to help you memorize a sequence of key phrases can be useful, especially since your emotions may be running high at the time assertive communication is called for.  For the purpose of this series, we will borrow the comprehensive DESO (Describe, Express, Specify, Outcome) script from Randy Paterson’s, “The Assertiveness Workbook”, which also draws on the book “Asserting Yourself,” from Bower and Bower. To download your own DESO PDF "cheat sheet" , click here

Describe- Succinctly describe the situation. If it is about someone else’s behavior, focus on the behavior, not on the person or their characteristics.

Express- Express your feeling about the situation. Do this calmly and in a positive way using expressions like “I feel” or “I think.”

Specify- Make your request. What would you like to happen? Again, if it’s about another person’s behavior, focus on the behavior, not the person. Imagine the positive outcome you would like to see. Avoid fixating on what you don’t want to happen. Be clear and specific.

Outcome- What was the result when you made your request? How you feel about the outcome?

Juan

Juan, a director in his company, is at a business dinner with a VP from another department who has ordered several bottles of expensive wine. The VP asks Juan to expense the meal, even though the company policy states the VP should pay.

Juan’s tends to be passive-aggressive in his communication style. His typical response is to pick up the tab time after time, although he may surreptitiously roll his eyes. Later he may subtly sabotage the VP in other ways, such as speaking poorly about him to members of his team and telling colleagues about his outlandish excess at business dinners.

An assertive response using the DESO script would look something like this:

“It’s such a privilege to dine out with you on the company when we both find ourselves in Minneapolis together for business. However, the last couple of times, you’ve ordered some amazing, but pricey vino and I’ve wound up with bill at end of the night (Describe).

 “I’d be the first to admit, I always enjoy your selections and think you have fine taste, but I’m not thrilled with being stuck with the tab and having to include it on my expense report (Express). Do you mind picking up the tab this time? (Specify) I would really appreciate it and will be in as in accordance with company policy (Outcome).

Jake

 Jake’s direct report, Gertrude, asks for a LinkedIn recommendation. Gertrude’s work has been less than stellar, and she has only been on his team for six months. Despite this, Jake really likes Gertrude and doesn’t want to risk hurting her feelings, and he can’t afford to lose a team member at this time of year.

Given Jake’s style is more aggressive, a typical response for him would be to cut to the chase. Not only does he do that, he cuts off Gertrude’s request mid-sentence (poor listening, talking over). He tells her he will give her a recommendation when she outdoes Peter, the top account exec in the company (impossible expectations), then walks away (is uncomfortable giving feedback). Later Jake is miffed when Gertrude transfers to another team (unaware of how his actions affect others).

In this situation as well as others where aggressive communication is used, not only would the DESO script come in handy, but also the skill of listening to others.  Providing feedback would demonstrate an investment in Gertrude’s well being. If Gertrude were to see Jake invest in her and her career, she might give more of herself. Remember from the first post in this series, a large percentage of people who hold positions of power overuse aggressive styles.  They tend to be decision-makers and also are likely to have Type A personalities, meaning they often are multi-tasking and prioritizing many other things over slowing down and just listening.

One helpful technique to use in improving your listening style is to “Wait, Observe and Allow (W.O.A). Wait, take a couple deep breathes, Observe what is happening around you, the person speaking may even find their own solution before you respond, and Allow, there may be outcomes or solutions other than the ones you offer. Perhaps by listening and asking questions, rather than giving an answer, a greater result will emerge. 

An assertive communicator would make an effort to listen, communicate assertively, and use the opportunity to provide valuable constructive feedback. Here is another way Jake could have responded.  

While making eye contact and offering visual affirmations like nodding his head, Jake listens until Gertrude has finished making her case. When she is done, Jake states, “I hear you”, and offers a brief summary of her request. “You have been on my team for the past six months and we’ve come a long way since then, surpassing our sales each quarter, with your help (describe). I appreciate your role in keeping up the morale with your funny jokes and positive encouragement of others towards their goals (express). However, you did not meet your quota last quarter, and it looks like you will fall slightly short this quarter too. Rather than writing you a LinkedIn recommendation, why don’t we discuss a strategy to help you achieve your number this quarter? I have some ideas and I am willing to hear yours (specify). This way, we stand a chance to really knock it out of the park this quarter as a team and you will really have something to feel accomplished about (Outcome).  

Juniper

Juniper’s coworker is always complaining about their mutual boss, her dislike of upper management, and the poor decisions they make. Juniper finds that the constant barrage of negativity is starting to affect her morale.

Juniper’s communication style is passive. Her typical response is not to say anything, to laugh nervously, or to change the subject. Her morale continues to suffer, and she fears others might start judging her as a Negative Nelly too.

For people who overuse passive styles, in addition to applying DESO scripts, they also need to consider their nonverbal communication and how their confidence level might contribute to their passive style.  Passive communicators might need to work harder in order to counter the discomfort they feel. Rehearsing in advance of the conversation may be especially helpful.

Juniper might respond in this way: “I understand that you don’t like the way our boss makes decisions without consulting you, and your dissatisfaction with the inaccessibility of upper management.  I appreciate that you consider me a trusted colleague to share this with me (Describe),  but listening to your complaints all the time affects my morale and is starting to bring me down (Express). Can you make an effort to focus on the positive, or refrain from complaining to me (Specify)? I would feel better and greatly appreciate it if you could do this for me (Outcome)."

Constructive Feedback

Giving and receiving feedback, whether it is positive or negative, is an art. It is difficult for many of us, regardless of our communication style. Learning this skill is very valuable and can help you and those around you grow and contribute to the success of your organization. We will cover feedback in more detail in the fourth and final post in this series, so stay tuned. For now, when giving feedback, keep the DESO script in mind. Be clear, concise, and focus on the positive (what you need from person to do rather than what not to do) and be sure to specify the outcome, which is the result you expect to see.

When receiving feedback, try to be humble and avoid being defensive. If the feedback isn’t immediately clear, ask for clarification.  Keep in mind that giving feedback is also difficult for the giver.  If you are open and receptive, they will be grateful and encouraged. If the feedback is coming indirectly, or passive-aggressively, then you can also use it as an opportunity for growth by responding with direct questions.  Part 4 of this series will cover the more difficult scenarios involving indirect, nonverbal, and passive-aggressive feedback.

Change is hard

If doing an analysis of your communication style in Part 1 of this series made you realize you have room to grow in your approach to assertive communication, remember to start slow. Not all situations call for assertive communication. Begin by becoming aware of your non-verbal communication, body language, tone of voice, and facial expression.  The non-verbal signals you send should be appropriate to the context of the conversation. Your posture should be relaxed, not stiff or hunched. Your facial expression should be calm and communicate openness. Your voice should be warm, but firm if needed, while maintaining a moderate volume. When you are working to improve your communication style, it may be helpful to let your coworkers and boss know,  “I’m working on my goal to become a more effective communicator,” and, “I am open to your feedback.”

 Be sure to tune in for Part 3 of this series, as we shift our focus from the workplace to our personal lives.    

Kerrie Thompson is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) in private practice in NYC.  To learn more about working with her, contact her here.