The way in which we express ourselves can make a vast difference in how others respond to us. Communication styles have a large role to play here. So, if we use certain types of communication which are expressive of our needs and yet respectful of the needs of others, then we can maximise the chances of others responding well to our requests.
A client I saw recently is a good case study for illustrating the effect of different communication styles. She wanted to be involved in a particular project but had been sidelined. She was so upset that she raised her voice, complained loudly and critically to the project manager in full hearing of the rest of the team, and stormed out of the room angrily. Did this aggressive outburst result in winning the project manager or her colleagues to her side? You won’t be surprised to learn that it didn’t. Although the client had perfectly legitimate concerns about the way in which she was treated, she expressed herself in a way that made any change unlikely and in fact alienated her further from her colleagues.
What could she have done instead? She could have chosen the passive-aggressive route, simply accepting what had happened and saying nothing whilst harbouring a burning resentment. Alternatively, she could have been assertive, taking the project manager to one side and saying something along the lines of “I’m glad to hear things are going well with the project. It’s just the kind of work I really enjoy, and I wanted to be part of it, but I was not asked to attend the preliminary meeting. At the moment I feel excluded, and I still would like to get involved with the project. Is that something we can work on together? It would really make a difference to me.”
So, what are the hallmarks of a constructive and assertive opening conversation?
- Be careful to avoid criticism, contempt or labelling the other party (e.g. saying, “You’re being obstructive”). If you label or criticise, the other person will be put on the defensive and will most likely stop listening to what you are saying.
- Learn to calm yourself: take your time, leaving gaps for time to think, and use calming techniques such as breathing exercises. Be aware of your body language: is it assertive? How do you hold yourself? What pace and tone of voice do you use? When you feel confident and know what you want to say, you should speak calmly and clearly.
- Start difficult conversations with compliments where possible.
- Use ‘I’ statements to express how you feel about something specific. This will prevent the other person from pulling up his or her drawbridges and can help you to keep perspective.
- Use DESO statements, as in the example above: Describe (the situation or the facts), Express (your emotion), Specify (what you would like to happen), Outcome (how you will feel if the other person actually does what you ask).
- Expect the best!