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Watch Your Tone: How Assertive Language at Work Can Make You More Effective

Ever spent ten minutes drafting an email just to make sure you didn’t sound too aggressive? We’ve all done it. Phrases like : “I’m just checking in to see if you’ve finished that report” or “I was wondering how far you were with…” are all too common in women’s emails and work conversations. It sounds harmless enough, but is our tone actually holding us back? I was recently interviewed by The Telegraph on the subject of emails and assertiveness, and it made me realise that I too have been very guilty of this, and how easy it is to fall into the trap.

Of course, a lack of assertiveness and confidence in communication and emails is not restricted to women. However, for women in particular, it often stems from not wanting to come across as being too bossy or bitchy. Perhaps subconsciously, we feel the need to soften our tone in order to be compliant, humble and liked – qualities that both genders are socialised to value in women. And in fact, research shows that a direct email from a woman will be interpreted very differently to one written by a man.

Unconscious gender bias is very real. It exists in classrooms, on sports fields, in business and even in our homes. It is one of the biggest challenges that women in business face. However, it can be unlearned, if identified and tackled from both directions: at grassroots, by working with schools and teachers to challenge gender stereotypes, and from the top by business leaders, corporates and government driving gender diversity initiatives. Even something as simple as our emails can help to perpetuate stereotypes and block change. By being more conscious of the language and tone we use in our communication, we can effectively convey the information we are putting across and not diminish our authority or expertise.

The Telegraph has some excellent advice for writing more assertive emails which make useful reading for any professional woman. Here are a few additional suggestions for how to incorporate assertive language at work.

We often shy away from big changes or challenges because we view them as a whole. Ask yourself: ‘if I was going to take one small step toward tackling this particular fear, what would it be?’ Then take that small step. Incremental tweaks to your mindset will give you a more objective view and help you to frame your fear as a problem to be solved, as well as breaking it down into the practical steps needed to crack it.

1. Be authentic

Anyone who has read Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ can tell you that when a woman behaves like her male counterparts, she runs the risk of being labelled as pushy or bossy. But I think one of the things female business leaders need to embrace is that there is nothing wrong with coming across as strong. Instead of worrying about making a forceful impression, focus on being authentic. Establish and use a tone that you feel comfortable with, and that gets the job done!

Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, is a clear example and role model for women on how you can communicate with warmth and compassion without compromising your impact. Similarly, it is possible and necessary to convey warmth in an email with just a greeting and sign off. Find which salutations feel right for you and use those.

2. Adjust your tone to suit the context

We often shy away from big changes or challenges because we view them as a whole. Ask yourself: ‘if I was going to take one small step toward tackling this particular fear, what would it be?’ Then take that small step. Incremental tweaks to your mindset will give you a more objective view and help you to frame your fear as a problem to be solved, as well as breaking it down into the practical steps needed to crack it.

In some contexts, assertive language may be alienating for your audience, so use your intuition to read each situation and respond in a considered way. Your tone can also vary according to your industry. I’ve worked for large corporates, as a consultant to corporates, and run my own business, and I adjust my tone depending on the situation and company culture. Generally, when I first start working with a new client I try to observe the style and tone they use when communicating with one another, as well as those outside of their organisation. In time you can use that as a base and then put your own spin on it.

If you’re note sure what tone to take, use a mirroring technique until you establish rapport. For example, if someone sends you an email titled “Dear” and you don’t know them, it’s advisable to use the same greeting in response until you have got to know them a bit better, rather than going straight for “Hi there.”

3. Avoid undermining words and phrases

Healthy assertiveness comes from knowing your worth. You work in your role because you bring value and have worth, so make sure you don’t sabotage yourself by apologising for your opinion.

Don’t waffle either. If you over-justify your view on something, you will undermine its impact and the value of your opinion.

4. Be polite

While being assertive is about being confident, authoritative and commanding, it does not mean being rude or condescending. Show others the same respect you desire, and be aware of tone as well as language. Use good manners, including saying please and thank you (but don’t overdo it!).

5. Remember your body language

Finally, it’s worth remembering that a big part of communication is non-verbal. Stand tall or sit up straight. Place yourself up front in the room or at the table, and don’t be tempted to sit in the background. Smile, but cultivate a strong hand shake. Be as assertive with your body language as you are with your written and spoken communication, and whether or not you feel confident, you’ll project strength and capability.

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