Assertive Communication At Work

January 16, 2020


Everyone in the legal profession could benefit from stress reduction as well as an enhanced ability to cope with the ever-changing wants and needs of internal and external clients. Assertive communication is among the best means to achieve these ends.

Assertive communication involves ….

… expressing your wants and needs, while respecting the wants and needs of others. It is a diplomatic, respectful means of communicating that you wish to move projects forward and resolve conflicts that may arise in a manner that is as fair as possible to everyone who may be involved.

Assertive communication is always preferable to the following alternatives:

Passive communication - submitting to anyone and everyone’s request just to avoid conflict.  While passive communicators may avoid short-term conflict, they inevitably give others license to ignore the passive communicator’s wants and needs. Feelings of stress, resentment, anger, even victimization, often result. 

Aggressive communication - imposing your will upon others. While aggressive communicators often appear to achieve their immediate goals, they often incur long-term costs, including the loss of respect and mutual trust.

Passive-aggressive communication - rather than directly confronting an issue, passive-aggressive communicators often say “yes” to requests and then undertake actions that undercut the request or make sarcastic remarks that reflect a negative or angry attitude towards the request. This too often impacts mutual respect and can damage relationships.     


Benefits of assertive communication

The esteemed Mayo Clinic has identified the following benefits of assertive communication:

  • Gain self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Understand and recognize your feelings
  • Earn respect from others
  • Improve communication
  • Create win-win situations
  • Improve your decision-making skills
  • Create honest relationships
  • Gain more job satisfaction


Assertive communication characteristics


Assertive communication requires an expression of wants, needs and feelings. This is best accomplished by using “I” statements, which:

  • do not attribute blame;
  • focus on a specific behavior;
  • identify the effect of the behavior; and
  • are direct and honest.

Some examples might include:

From an associate to a partner:

I know that you’ve been extremely busy and haven’t had time to schedule a debrief on the section of the memo that I drafted. In order to improve my performance, I need your input. May we schedule a feedback session later this week?

From a partner to an associate: 

I appreciate that you’ve purchased a nonrefundable ticket to travel to Cabo this weekend. Our client has made a request that will require several members of the team to work this Saturday and Sunday. I’m concerned that you may be viewed by those lawyers as someone who is not committed to the team and the client. How do you want to handle this?

From a partner to a partner: 

I think you’ve just repeated a suggestion that I made earlier in this meeting and rephrased it as your own idea. As I said a few moments ago, I think we need to ….


Some additional helpful techniques

Communication experts generally recommend the following additional techniques:

Repeat key assertions - stick to your point, especially when someone becomes argumentative

From an HR team member to a mid-level associate who has complained about the firm’s evaluation process: 

Yes, the firm wants you to complete a self-assessment as part of its annual evaluation process. We’re not trying to let the partners off the hook. Rather, we want to know your perception of your performance, and then we want to check it against the partners’ perceptions. If there’s a disconnect, we want to understand why.

Fogging - acknowledge a criticism, agree that the criticism may have some merit, but remain committed to your previous action

From a partner to an associate:

I acknowledge that my own schedule often doesn’t allow me to provide as much feedback as you would like. However, I have checked in with you after several key assignments.

Negative inquiry - seek out criticism to encourage the honest expression of feelings

From a partner to a partner: 

So, you took my silence during yesterday’s meeting as an indication that I wasn’t interested in what you thought about your proposed tax strategy?

Workable compromise -

From a partner to an associate: 

I understand that we need to talk, and I need to complete this memo by Noon. Could we connect right after lunch?

From an associate to a partner: 

I think I understand the parameters of the assignment. I’m currently working on two other assignments for you. Can you help me with queuing? Which of these is your top priority?



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