How to be more assertive in communication when working remotely
Last updated on: January 20, 2022
Assertive communication is one of the five communication styles according to a division made by psychologist Edmund J. Bourne. It is characterized by its balanced approach to voice volume, gestures, and respect towards yourself and others.
An assertive communicator knows how to get their point across effectively and without disregarding the opinions of their colleagues, how to be mindful of their own needs without infringing on others’ boundaries, and how to handle unpleasant situations without succumbing to negative emotions. What enables assertive communicators to accomplish this is a strong sense of self-confidence and self-worth.
In this blog post, we’ll give you nine simple tips you can use to increase your assertiveness, making sure to highlight how they pertain to the remote work environment. The frequently cited worry of coming off as aggressive instead of assertive will also be addressed. Last but not least, we’ll elaborate on how management can facilitate assertive communication among remote workers.
Remote work communication demands
Consider the differences between acting on stage and acting on film — this will make sense in a minute, we promise. The two are more similar than they are different, but the differences are crucial.
In theatre, an actor has to be mindful of their entire body, since the live audience can see the entire actor. Moreover, instead of relying on subtleties, the actor would sometimes need to exaggerate their movements for the entire audience to notice. And then there’s the specific diction actors in theatre employ while performing their lines.
All of this makes for good theatre, but it wouldn’t make for good on-screen acting. When shooting a film, actors can and should rely on the camera to pick up on the subtleties in their performance. They can speak normally — quietly even — without any fear of the back row audience feeling left out, since microphones and post-production efforts will ensure that everything is intelligible.
The same could be said of in-person and remote communication — they are more similar than they are different, but the differences are crucial.
For example, we cannot overstate the importance of tone and nonverbal behavior (body language, facial expressions, etc.) on communication. You might have heard of the famous statistic that 93% of communication is nonverbal. While the validity of this statistic has been called into question, it’s undeniable that non-verbal elements do play a sizable role in communication.
Much of this is lost when communicating remotely with audio-only. And it is lost completely when relying solely on written messages.
So much like an actor switching gears when transitioning from stage to film or vice-versa, we must do everything in our power to ensure we get the most out of remote communication. Many assertive techniques aren’t affected by this, but some are. Instructions on handling them will be provided below.
Benefits of assertive communication for remote workers
According to Mayo Clinic, the benefits of assertive communication on our emotional well-being are profound. More importantly, they aren’t limited to the workplace. By following the tips in this blog post and becoming a more assertive communicator, you’ll earn the following:
Most often, it is passive communicators who are looking to become more assertive. Passive communication is marked by placing the needs of others before your own, whereas assertive communication balances your needs with the needs of others.
This requires learning to stick up for yourself. Passive communicators avoid conflict at all costs, but the great thing about assertive communication is that it’s not conflict-driven. For example, by following our tips you’ll learn how to say “no” in a manner that won’t offend any reasonably-minded individual.
Learning to stick up for yourself like this will inevitably boost your self-confidence and self-esteem levels, which can help you lead a more fulfilling life.
Higher job satisfaction
Few people enjoy conflict, but avoiding it isn’t the solution. By learning how to effectively deal with conflict when it arises, assertive communicators are able to feel less stressed while working. Increases in assertiveness have even been linked to reduction in burnout.
Anything that reduces stress and burnout is bound to lead to higher job satisfaction, especially in a remote work environment where over 85% of all workers suffer from these issues (compared to less than 70% of in-person employees).
More profound introspection
Because none of the other types of communication (passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and manipulative) promote the actual articulation of feelings, they don’t provide fertile ground for introspection.
A strong understanding of oneself is essential for an assertive communicator — they need to know where their boundaries are, what makes them tick (so they can effectively manage it), and what their strengths and weaknesses are. These qualities are also invaluable to the peaceful pursuit of one’s dreams.
Improved negotiating skills
While assertiveness and negotiation are often grouped together in the West, they are two different constructs and different cultures regard them as such. A research comparing the effects of negotiation in Canada and China showed different results in these two cultural contexts — not opposite, but different.
Be that as it may, the impact of assertiveness on negotiation has proven to be positive in both the West and the East. Anyone’s life can benefit from improved negotiating skills, but remote workers, in particular, can use it to back up their claims for promotion, which is something they are otherwise less likely to receive than in-person employees
Whether you’re a remote worker or not, these benefits are too good to pass up.
How to be more assertive remotely
Ever since the term the 7 C’s of Communication was coined in the book Effective Public Relations back in the 1950s, great efforts have been made to format any and all communication-related advice into a bullet point of adjectives beginning with the letter C.
In case you’ve come here looking for the 3 C’s of Assertive Communication or the 3 C’s of Remote Communication, we have some bad news for you — there is no such thing; not officially, at least. A quick Google search will present you with Confidence, Clear, and Controlled as the answer to this inquiry, but we feel this is too abstract. It certainly doesn’t cover the range of techniques you’ll need to use to learn how to become more assertive.
We also have some good news — as long as you don’t mind if the tips you get don’t alliterate and start with the same letter, there’s a lot you can do to be more assertive.
Assertive communicators know where they have drawn their boundaries and work to maintain them. While they certainly don’t go out of their way to disagree with others, they know how and when to say no.
Always remember that the key to being assertive is balancing your wants and needs with those of others. If you completely disregard everyone around you, you’re not being assertive; you’re being aggressive. On the other hand, if you put the wants and needs of others above yours, you’re being passive, which is bound to result in self-resentment down the line.
This is a fine balancing act to master, but those who master it will always find the best way to make and suggest compromises. What’s characteristic about an assertive communicator’s no is that it is always followed by because.
“I can’t get started on the new project before next week because I already have my hands full and I wouldn’t want either project to diminish in quality.”
“I can’t work an extra shift on Friday because I’m going on a weekend retreat and I’ve already booked the transport and accommodations.”
An assertive communicator worth their salt will not only refuse certain things and elaborate on their refusal, they will also take the initiative in proposing potential solutions.
For example, let’s say that a meeting which requires your presence is suddenly scheduled for tomorrow morning. No one has run this by you, because if they had, they would have known you have a doctor’s appointment scheduled for tomorrow morning. It’s easy to imagine someone getting defensive, laying blame, or freaking out in this situation. But an assertive communicator won’t do any of those things. Instead, they may compose a message with content similar to the following:
I won’t be able to attend the meeting tomorrow because I have a doctor’s appointment at the same time. I will be back home by 13:00, so any time after that works for me if we can reschedule for the same day. If that’s not an option, I am available all day the day after tomorrow. Let me know what you think.
In such a manner, our imaginary assertive communicator has reaffirmed his boundaries, explained why he cannot or will not do what is asked of him in a calm yet direct (and perfectly reasonable) manner, and proposed potential solutions.
Notice how, in the previous example detailing how an assertive communicator may compose a message, every statement begins with I. Using the first person singular like this is an effective way of communicating your thoughts and ideas directly without sounding accusatory.
For example, if you aren’t satisfied with the quality of a job handled by your subordinate, instead of saying “This is rubbish,” or “You didn’t do this well,” you could say “I am not satisfied with this,” or “I feel you could have done this better”. Narcissistic as it may sound, when every sentence you utter revolves around yourself, it can alleviate some of the pressure your interlocutors would otherwise feel.
This isn’t a technique used exclusively for giving feedback. If a group decision has to be made, you can also take the initiative by giving your opinion (and possibly elaborating on it) before passing the baton off to the next person. For example, if the team is deciding on the best marketing strategy for their new product, you may say:
I think affiliate marketing would work best (because our target audience is Gen-Z who are difficult to reach with other marketing strategies due to their ubiquitous use of ad-blockers). What do you think?
Whatever the situation, just remember that you can be direct without sounding accusatory if you learn to default back to starting sentences with the first person singular.
While many gravitate towards remote work for its promise of improved work-life balance, remote work is also known to blur the boundary between the two. The backbone of most remote workforces is a real-time team collaboration app. Since not all employees will begin and end their remote shifts at the same time, you will likely receive messages throughout the day.
Many employees for whom remote work is a new and strange prospect will feel obliged to answer these messages, whenever they may come. The most often quoted reason for this is fear of not being seen as a team player.
In these cases, assertive communicators can make their boundaries known by informing their co-workers of their working hours and then following through by not replying to messages received after they have finished work for the day.
By opting not to include the seen message functionality, a team chat app such as Pumble encourages remote workers to take ownership of their work-life balance. This way, you have the option of checking post working hours messages via mobile without creating the sense of urgency or imposing the obligation to reply that the seen functionality would otherwise create. You can also mark messages as unread so that you don’t forget about them the next day.
Furthermore, Pumble lets you effortlessly update your status to show that you are in a meeting or on lunch break for a set amount of time, letting others know that you are unavailable. You can even pause notification for a set amount of time while displaying the lunch break or in-meeting icon.
Maintain eye contact
Assertive communication consists of more than just our choice of words. Elements of non-verbal communications, like gestures, body language, and eye contact, play a huge role in how effectively we can establish ourselves as assertive communicators in the eyes of others.
Since the topic of this blog post is to teach you how to be more assertive at work in a remote environment, we’ll skip body language and gestures for now and focus on maintaining effective eye contact during conference calls.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, the best way to achieve the desired effect is to look directly at the camera. This way, your interlocutor will feel like all of your attention is placed on them. Group conference calls give you the added benefit of making every person present feel like you’re giving them and them alone your undivided attention. It’s okay to let your eyes stray aside now and then—staring is not the desired effect anyway—but try to keep them focused on the camera as much as you can.
If you’re having trouble with this, try to turn off your own video feed. Sneaking glances at our own video boxes to reaffirm our attractiveness during conference calls is something many of us do. Not displaying your own video feed will eliminate this temptation with no downside.
Drop the euphemisms
Euphemisms have their upsides, but there is a time and place for them.
It’s kinder to describe someone as between jobs than unemployed. And softening the blow by saying no longer with us instead of dead is one of the most humane things you can do in tragic circumstances that call for this.
But in the workplace, remote or not, euphemisms mostly serve to impede communication. Assertive communication is marked by its direct approach, so it should come as no surprise that a figure of speech whose sole purpose is to avoid directly conveying your message is incompatible with it.
If you’re a manager who’s running short on people to work a shift, don’t contact an employee who’s supposed to have the day off with this type of message:
Janet called in sick last minute… We’re going to be short-handed for the second shift tomorrow… It’s going to be real busy… I’m not sure how we’ll handle it…
It happens more often than you’d think.
The message the manager is trying to communicate here is:
Can you come in for the second shift tomorrow? (Janet called in sick.)
And that’s exactly how you should phrase such a request if you’re wondering how to be more assertive at work—directly and honestly.
Cut to the chase
Conciseness is important to effective assertiveness, but it is paramount when working remotely. In a remote work environment, it’s more difficult to maintain the attention of others. As remote work communication may rely on spoken and written channels, we’ll tackle them separately.
Assertive conference call presentation
During conference calls, you have to be concise and engaging. The sooner you can get your point across, the better the chances of eliminating miscommunication.
The key is grabbing your audience’s attention right away. Don’t start the meeting (or your presentation) with the familiar Skype-esque phrases like “Am I on? Can everyone hear me? Is my camera pointing in the right direction?” Again, happens more often than it should.
Instead, assume an assertive stance right from the get-go by greeting your co-workers with an “I’d like to thank everyone for coming,” or a “Since everyone is here, let’s commence.” In case you aren’t the one running the meeting, you can get your assertiveness across by listening attentively, being relaxed, engaged, and, most importantly, prepared.
Modern video conferencing tools let you check your microphone and camera settings before jumping in, so make sure to do this. This way, if the time comes for you to take the stage, you can do so with confidence. Thank the previous presenter and immediately get started with your own report or question.
Workplace miscommunication happens most often when we are typing.
If you are relying on the written word to communicate your ideas, make sure that everything you write is intelligible and that every point is addressed separately. It helps to rewrite your message a couple of times. Give it some breathing room between the rewrites to let your mind rest from that task and refresh.
If you’re not in a hurry, there is no downside to taking your time when composing a message. Emphasize key points by bolding, underlining, or putting them in italics. Images and emoticons can also help you convey the intended tone and mood of the message, but not every company is receptive to this idea — more on that near the end of the article.
In the words of one of Kratos, the most famous video game demigod: “Do not be sorry; be better.”
Of course, this would be a horrible thing to say to someone else. But establishing this headspace for yourself can help you avoid unpleasant situations. While apologizing may seem like the polite thing to do in most situations, it’s been shown to be an unproductive habit.
Workers who constantly apologize give off the impression of dwelling on the negatives. This makes it difficult to place focus on what’s important, which is what comes next. Owning up to your mistakes or shortcomings is better done by providing a plan of action that will make up for the mistakes and prevent their reoccurrence.
Calmness is another defining characteristic of an effective assertive communicator. It is the key ingredient to making all the other techniques function as intended. When we aren’t calm, it’s easy for our No’s to come off as argumentative, our potential solutions to include profanity (in addition to their often anatomically impossible instructions), our eye contact to incite distress, etc.
If this sounds impossible to accomplish, remember that other assertive communicators you’ve met are also human. No one is immune to negative emotions. But an assertive communicator will take the time to work through them. Unless it is impossible, they will not engage in communication until they have regained a proper handle on their emotions.
How to be assertive at work without being aggressive
For many, the notion of coming off as aggressive is the biggest hurdle standing in the way of achieving assertive communication. But aggression and assertiveness are fundamentally different.
Aggressive communication is characterized by judgment, argumentativeness, and disagreements. Aggressive communicators are also the ones most likely not to allow the other person to get a word in edgewise.
Conversely, assertive communication is about being honest, direct, and in control of your emotions. If we had to distill it down to one quality, it would be most accurate to say assertiveness is imbued with mutual respect.
What separates assertive communicators from aggressive ones is that they:
- Establish eye contact but don’t stare
- Maintain a positive, neutral stance without imposing on others’ personal space
- Use a calm, moderate tone of voice rather than dominating the conversation with their loudness
- Acknowledge the needs of opinions of others, instead of disregarding them
So long as you can manage this, you shouldn’t have to worry about coming off as aggressive.
The previous segment contained tips on improving your assertive communication skills as an individual, but this next segment will inform you how you can promote better communication within your team as a manager or team leader.
While being assertive at work is not a quality reserved for, or only desirable in, management, it would be remiss to overlook the extra benefits it can have there, especially in a remote work environment. Furthermore, the costs of poor communication are something no employer should overlook.
The majority of remote workers are faced with identical issues. Poor communication is just one of them, but another issue worth highlighting is their perceived invisibility. All of this can be addressed by promoting and insisting on the following:
Insisting on video calls, as opposed to using audio-only calls, is the easiest yet possibly most important step towards facilitating communication in a remote work environment. This reintroduces elements of facial expressions, gestures, and body language into the overall remote communication equation.
Not even the best assertive communicators can do as good a job using audio-only, so you can only imagine how the less prolific communicators will fare. Company leadership should make it known that video feeds are mandatory during conference calls, as this will greatly facilitate the overall effectiveness of communication.
We’ve already addressed how you should conduct yourself during video calls if you want to be assertive, but not every worker has the power to enforce the video feed requirements for conference calls.
When communicating verbally (especially in person), we don’t infer meaning solely from the contents of the spoken word. How it is spoken and the accompanying body language carry just as much information, if not more. If reading only entailed the lack of these things that’d be bad in its own right, but when we read as attribute tone and mood to the texts, whether consciously or subconsciously.
You can look at formatting as a means to an end, with the end being communication that is clear and concise. Bolding, underlying, and putting certain words in italics, are some of the best ways to highlight and emphasize certain pieces of information within your messages. Making lists of bullet points also helps you to neatly present and organize the information you are conveying.
But there’s more you can do to increase the clarity of your messages, if you’re willing to be unconventional. Here’s a question: How and why would emoji and images help you be assertive when faced with non-verbal communication, i.e. messaging?
The answer, once again, lies in all the facets of face-to-face communication that instantly get lost once we’re faced with letters on a screen and nothing else.
Depending on the company culture, you can take this up a notch by promoting the use of accompanying images and emoticons. While in many circles regarded as an unprofessional addition to any text message, images and emoticons can effortlessly help us zero in on the intended tone and mood of messages, thereby preventing miscommunication.
For example, receiving a crying, shrugging, or angry emoticon following the message “I don’t know yet,” will effortlessly help us interpret the message in the intended way. And make no mistake, we will attribute a tone to the message even without an emoji; we’re just more likely to end up way off base.
Insist on feedback
One of the most often cited issues encountered by the remote workforce is the perceived invisibility among colleagues. Remote workers don’t know whether or not they are doing a good job; they don’t know if their efforts are even being noticed; they fear that working remotely reduces their chances of earning a promotion.
These issues stem from an apparent lack of feedback channels. Remote workers want feedback, but their superiors are reluctant to give it. And we get it; providing feedback to remote workers is more difficult. But promoting a culture of open feedback gives you the chance to practice communicating assertively, while at the same time boosting the motivation of other employees.
The detriments of poor communication are many, not least of which is monetary loss. And with remote work, the chances for miscommunication are higher. The best and healthiest way to improve communication on your end is by becoming more assertive. This will benefit you even outside the workplace by boosting your self-confidence and self-esteem, making you a better listener, and a great negotiator.
While techniques commonly associated with in-person assertive communication are all helpful for remote workers, some require a bit of tweaking to retain their maximum effectiveness. Nevertheless, assertive communication requires fertile ground to cultivate. This is why managers and leaders should insist on feedback and the use of video. Without them, even the most effective assertive communicators will find it hard to thrive in a remote work environment.