Written by therapist Sydney Kittrell

Female leaders in the workplace are often caught in a double bind or a catch-22 situation. On one hand, they are told, “Be more assertive! Speak up more in meetings! You’ll never get that promotion if you don’t show leadership qualities!” On the other hand, when female leaders adopt a take-charge attitude, they can often be labeled as angry, bossy, or worse. So what exactly is assertive communication? A clear understanding of each of the four communication styles is helpful when thinking about how to best foster effective and assertive communication as a female leader.  

Communication Styles

Passive

An individual with a passive communication style often yields to others and expresses minimal needs or preferences. Accompanying body language includes looking at the floor, shrugging shoulders, and a slumped posture. This style can lead to misunderstandings and built up resentment.  

Aggressive 

When someone has an aggressive communication style you may hear them say phrases like “this is how it is,” or “it’s all your fault.” Blaming, threatening, and intimidating are all common tactics for this style. Opinions and feelings are forced on others and compromise is minimal to none. 

Passive-Aggressive

With this style individuals are well aware of their needs and preferences, but communication is unclear and indirect. Instead of stating a need or preference an individual with a passive-aggressive style will engage in the silent treatment, sarcasm, belittling, or subtle manipulation. 

Assertive

Assertive communication is honest, respectful, and direct. A calm and steady tone of voice is used with ‘I statements’ explaining how you feel instead of accusing others. Instead of value-based judgements, facts are often stated with room for compromise. This is viewed as the most effective type of communication style, especially in the workplace. 

Gender and Leader Stereotypes 

Leaders are expected to be confident, ambitious, and assertive. Stereotypical feminine traits like warmth, gentleness, and humility don’t match up with the traits typically associated with leaders. The double bind that so many women find themselves in penalizes them for a lack of assertiveness and then judges them for direct and authoritative communication. In the long run, we can hope for cultural change so that women are not judged differently than men for their workplace demeanor. Meanwhile, it is helpful to consider the benefits of effective communication styles, while simultaneously keeping societal expectations in mind. 

Strategies to Foster an Assertive Communication Style 

Practice that Power Pose!

Don’t be afraid to take up space. When people are nervous or unsure of themselves, they tend to make themselves smaller with poor posture, crossed arms, and lowered eye contact. Do the opposite! Go into meetings confident with your shoulders back and your head up. Avoid fidgeting, slow your movements, and be sure to make direct eye contact. 

Ask Questions

Sometimes we are afraid to ask a question for fear of appearing uninformed or unintelligent. However, research shows that those who ask questions are rated as more competent compared to colleagues who remain silent. Open-ended questions can eliminate confusion and uncertainty, ultimately leading to a more efficient and effective work environment. 

Actively Listen

Don’t confuse assertiveness with aggressiveness. Sometimes after listening to different opinions, it’s clear that a different approach or a compromise is necessary. Actively listening will lead to a more collaborative, creative, and effective work culture. 

Engage in Direct Verbal Messaging

Research shows that women apologize at higher rates than men. This can often be interpreted as a weakness and a sign of low confidence. Don’t apologize unless you actually mean it. Instead of “I’m sorry that date doesn’t work with my schedule” try “Unfortunately, I am not available that date.” Additionally, using clear and concise language will demonstrate your competence. 

If you want to learn more about your own communication style and how you relate to others, don’t hesitate to give us a call. We can help you foster effective communication in both relationships and the workplace.

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