In my program Be Bold, Not Bossy and in my one-on-one private coaching, I talk a lot about how the nuances of our communication habits affect the outcomes of our conversations. For instance, overuse of the words “just” or “sorry” send unintentional signals of subordination. Editing them out of conversations – both in email and face-to-face – can make significant positive improvements as to how we’re perceived.
Clarity in how we communicate is critical to getting the results we want. These habits are formed early and show up throughout life but they can also be altered.
Let’s begin at the beginning
Our communication habits are hard-coded in childhood. I’m seeing this firsthand with my six-year-old daughter. Here’s a typical conversation starter in our house (perhaps you have similar ones in yours):
“I wish I could have a cookie,” my daughter says wistfully, gazing longingly at the plate of chocolate chip cookies on the counter. Sound familiar? In her mind, she’s asked a question. Not only that, but she believes the passive tone is more polite than asking for what she wants directly. She quickly grows more and more frustrated when I ignore her “non”-ask and don’t take action. Eventually, as her frustration mounts, I hear, “Did you hear me?”
As parents, we’re often tempted to offer the easy response: “Go ahead and have one.” Or maybe our reply is “No, it’s too close to dinner, you know that!” Yet when we answer in either way, we lose a coaching opportunity to teach our children assertive communication styles.
In our house, my husband and I have been playing with this concept and seeing if we can break this habit. We’ve established the rule that if our daughter asks for things assertively, she will always get an answer with an adult explanation. If the question is posed as a statement, with the intention of a buried ask, the answer will always be “No.” We practice this often, so now when she asks “I wish I could have a cookie,” this is the response she receives: “I heard you say how you wished you could have a cookie, but I did not hear you ask for one. Can you start again and ask assertively?” It’s a subtle but important distinction.
The good news is that we’re seeing results. I’ll admit that it sometimes backfires on us, like the day our daughter asked my husband – the cook in our family – if she could have a hot dog for dinner instead of what was planned. My husband explained to me how confidently and clearly she’d asked for the hot dog. He countered my frown with that look that told me to not pick this battle, that rewarding effective behavior was a good thing and maybe we should just let her have the hot dog this time.
We practice assertive communication outside our home too. We have our daughter order her own meals at restaurants and coach her on how to make eye contact with the waitstaff, to talk clearly and ask directly for what she wants. What’s the result when she doesn’t speak clearly? She risks getting the wrong meal.
How this same communication habit shows up later in life
When we don’t master clear communication, everyday conversations can be just as fruitless as my daughter’s quest for a cookie, even though we’re adults.
To our children we say: “I wish you’d clean your room.” It starts as a passive-aggressive ask but quickly, as the child doesn’t obey, we go crazy mad from the pent-up frustration and we lash out at them. If we shift to something like, “Every Saturday afternoon, before you play with friends, you need to have your room clean,” that will likely lead to a cleaner room faster than the generic wish. Plus, it has the built-in benefit of establishing the consequence for not having it done.
To our spouse we say: “Changing the toilet paper roll won’t kill you,” which may well lead to a nasty fight and we’ll likely end up with an empty toilet-paper holder. When we attack someone, most folks won’t give in without a fight.
To our employees we say: “You might want to reassess your priorities” because we’re frustrated by their inability to get their work done in a timely manner. We’ve lost an opportunity to guide them toward the effective behavior we’re seeking. More often than not, poor performance is a result of unclear expectations.
The more we state our intentions clearly, the better our results will be. In a recent Be Bold, Not Bossy session, several participants mentioned, with delighted surprise, that simply editing their emails to be as precise as possible was yielding significant differences in the outcomes. Emailed requests that use to be met with crickets were now being addressed promptly. The email recipients were clearly understanding the requests and taking action.
Ready to practice?
Do you have a sense that others perceive you differently than you intend to come across? Maybe too meek? Maybe too brash? Join me and an intimate group of like-minded participants as we gather via video for one hour each week for three weeks to learn how to Be Bold, Not Bossy.
The next three-session group virtual coaching program starts March 2. Registration is now open. Space is limited to 10 attendees so don’t delay. Take the first assertive step and ask your manager to support you by paying for you to participate in the program!