What Does Assertive Communication Look Like
Many of my female mentees work in male-dominated environments. They typically can’t go to higher ups. Partly because of their own drive and partly because asking for help is the antithesis of the aggression required to succeed (in those environments).
It’s easy to cast judgment on these traditional corporate cultures, but I think it’s imperative to remember that this attitude extends beyond particular offices in particular cities.
Men have a unique advantage: they can be unapologetically aggressive. Based on my experience, even if they cross a line, they seem to be forgiven more easily by both men and women. Some studies have even noted that the mea culpa makes them appear more leader-like.
Now, trust me, I’ve seen all the empowering videos that rally women to care less, harness more grit, and just lean in. As if it were a situation that you can control. My experience is that these strategies make for great soundbites, but do not sufficiently serve those struggling in cut-throat offices.
The problem is when you act regardless of the situation and don’t care, you are only affirming the accusations. It’s a Catch-22.
First and foremost, research acknowledges how gender is unequivocally a factor.
“Abrasive alone is used 17 times to describe 13 different women [when they lead]. Among these words, only aggressive shows up in men’s reviews at all. It shows up three times, twice with an exhortation to be more of it.”
-Kieran Synder, The Abrasiveness Trap
These are deep societal norms that no one person can unwind. Men get more credit for simply speaking up. And they are encouraged to be aggressive whereas women are punished for the same.
The deck is stacked.
And, by the way, it’s not necessarily stacked by men. A new survey shows female venture capitalists underrate female founders at a higher rate than their male colleagues. This coupled with the fact that “startups with at least one female founder outperform those with all-male leadership by 63%.”
We are all to blame for unconsciously maintaining stereotypes. This uphill battle is indeed uphill. I have been misguided, tripped, and fallen many times. My hope in building this mentor network is that you don’t have to.
Let’s map out what assertiveness looks like today.
In other words, allow people to disagree with you. This is not masochism. This is about letting others say their piece, which may or may not have anything to do with what you’re trying to accomplish. But real change is a team effort, which starts with everybody’s input.
Communication is inefficient because we are human. So it’s helpful to remember that every one message is actually at least six (courtesy of Dr. Michael LeBouef):
- What you mean to say
- What you actually say
- What the other person hears
- What the other person think he hears
- What the other person says
- What you think the other person says
Open dialogue allows us to hash out a solution while minimizing misunderstanding.
Seek Common Ground
It’s important to reinforce that we’re on the same team. The challenge is each department prioritizes what they are judged on, which is less important to another – because it’s not their job. And so it begins. For example, marketing will often care more about branding than the operations team who are worried about the increasing product defects or returns. All are equally important.
[Read more: How To Rally A Dysfunctional Team]
Ultimately, it’s best to point to the greater company goals of revenue, budget, or shareholder value. Why are we here? Separately, each may not like it, but together they cannot deny it.
Words matter here (as always). Brainstorm and rehearse what to say with a mentor here.
There are some battles that are too toxic to engage directly. Exhibit A: Harvey Weinstein. If you think he had no problem breaking the law in the bedroom, imagine his behavior in the boardroom.
When up against strong and vindictive personalities, your best defense is a reliable offense. This means allies. I remember a colleague coming to my office after a meeting where I was skewered for having an opposing opinion. He wanted to tell me that he thought I was right.
At the time, his outreach was validating. But I wondered later why he hadn’t said anything in the meeting?
Few people in the office, let alone the world, are bold enough to stand up in the line of fire. It’s safer for co-workers to be remain quiet, complicit, and most importantly employed. Just being aware of this tendency goes a long way.
You want reliable allies. Select people who have your back and vice versa. These are people who you can make eye contact with in a meeting and will support you publicly. It’s not for the faint-hearted, so choose wisely.
More than anything, assertiveness is a state of mind. Keeping in tune with your rights. And knowing that you can.
“To be passive is to let others decide for you. To be aggressive is to decide for others. To be assertive is to decide for yourself. And to trust that there is enough, that you are enough.”
-Dr. Edith Eva Eger