There is a widely held misconception that being “aggressive” is an essential trait of a successful lawyer. This idea, repeatedly communicated and endorsed by popular culture, is not only shared by the public but also by some members of the profession.
However, the idea that aggressive communication is the only way for a lawyer to display confidence and get the outcome their clients want is fundamentally flawed. In truth, assertive communication can enable you to achieve much more for your clients whilst preserving positive, professional relationships with your colleagues in the law.
What is assertive communication?
There is a fine line between assertiveness and aggressiveness - which is why success is often (unfortunately) associated incorrectly with aggressiveness. Aggressive communicators focus on winning at all costs by dominating the other side. At first glance, this may seem like an effective approach for lawyers to take. However, aggressive lawyering has consistently been found to be counterproductive. Aggressive lawyers are generally less likely to help parties co-operate and reach an agreed settlement, which means they will be exposed to the significant legal costs associated with litigation. Aggressive lawyers are also less likely to maintain collegiate relationships with other lawyers, which can impact on their day-to-day effectiveness.
In contrast to aggressiveness, which is based on domination and winning, assertive communication is based on confidence, respect and communicating as equals with others. Assertive communication is a two-way process that enables constructive dialogue and creates space for each party to be heard - and many lawyers argue it gets much better results for clients overall.
Assertive communication is based on three key principles:
- being honest about what is relevant;
- being clear about your bottom line; and
- communicating as equals.
Why is assertive communication important for lawyers?
Assertive communication skills can help lawyers to deal more effectively with difficult or stressful situations. When it is used consistently, assertive communication has many significant benefits for lawyers, their clients and colleagues.
- Reduce stress and anxiety: Assertive communication strategies provide lawyers with a range of useful options for responding to conflicts. These are also helpful to deal with aggressive behaviour, reducing the risk of lawyers feeling intimidated or overwhelmed if the other side employs these tactics.
- Build confidence: Being able to respond effectively to difficult situations builds confidence, as does being clear about boundaries - a clear component of assertive communication. The more often lawyers use assertive communication, the more likely they are to build confidence and a sense of security.
- Become a better communicator: Assertive communication is a two-way process, which means lawyers have the opportunity to become better listeners (and gather more relevant information) as well as learning to communicate their client’s position more effectively.
- Become a creative problem solver: By focusing on the problem rather than personalities, assertive communication provides an ideal framework for collaboration and makes “win-win” situations more likely to happen.
Assertive communication is also more likely to be consistent with your professional and ethical obligations than aggressive communication. Under the Australian Solicitor’s Conduct Rules, which apply in most states, lawyers are required to be honest and courteous in all their dealings in the course of legal practice and not to engage in conduct which is likely to prejudice, or diminish public confidence in, the administration of justice1. There is a strong argument to be made that communicating assertively is less likely to breach these rules than communicating aggressively.
5 practical steps to become more assertive
Assertive communication does not come naturally, you will need to work at it. But there are a number of practical steps you can take to become more assertive in your day to day communications.
1. Assess your thoughts and identify your triggers
Can you think of specific situations where you are likely to get stressed? What thoughts go through your head during these moments? Being aware of your own triggers and thoughts can help you to take control and be mentally prepared to deal with difficult situations. For example, you may feel stressed every time you deal with a specific person and tell yourself “this is going to be awful”. Instead, each time you face this situation you can improve your chances of behaving assertively by thinking positively about how you are going to behave, such as “I’m clear about the issues” or “this person can be difficult, but I am not going to get into an argument”. Gradually reframing your self-talk to be more positive and empowering is the first step to more assertive communication.
2. Establish your bottom line and learn to say "No"
Whether you are negotiating on behalf of a client or with a colleague within your firm, it is important to know what your bottom line is and stick to it. This means you need to be clear about what your priorities and goals are (or what your client’s are) in a given situation. For example, creating a list of work priorities can be helpful when someone is trying to allocate you more work as it enables you to clearly communicate what you are working on, when it is due, and how urgent it is. The other person is then responsible for figuring out what work will take a lower priority so their task can be completed, rather than you saying “yes” to taking everything on and overworking to make it happen. Although it can be difficult, learning to say “No” in a respectful way is an important part of communicating your bottom line and being more assertive with both colleagues and clients.
3. Learn assertive communication techniques
There are a number of specific strategies and techniques you can use to communicate more assertively. Your body language, tone of voice and specific sentence structures can have a direct impact on how assertively you communicate with others. For example, maintaining eye contact can help you to stay focused and help the other person feel heard. Similarly, maintaining a relaxed tone in a stressful situation can help you to remain calmer, whilst also being more likely to de-escalate the situation. When you are responding to criticism or a difficult situation with a colleague, it can be helpful to use “I” statements rather than “You” statements. Practice using the sentence structure: “When you” (action) “I” (feeling), “because” (rational interpretation). For example, instead of “you never give me clear guidance on deadlines!” you could say “when you do not provide a clear deadline I feel stressed because I am not sure about how long I have to complete the task”. The second response is more likely to lead to a constructive discussion and a possible solution than the first response, which is more of an accusation.
4. Don't go cold turkey, practice assertiveness gradually
Remember, assertive communication does not come naturally and will take effort. Whether you are naturally more submissive or aggressive, switching to assertive communication may feel unnatural at first. By starting small, and practicing assertive communication techniques in controlled environments (for example, during regular one-to-one meetings or informal catch-ups with people you are comfortable with), you can reduce your anxiety around trying something new. You are also more likely to use your new assertive communication skills more effectively in stressful or pressured situations if you have already experimented in a safe environment.
5. It's an ongoing learning process
Assertiveness does not happen overnight - it relies on many different skills including self-reflection, prioritisation, goal-setting, and body language. Communicating more assertively will take time, and it is important to understand it will involve a process of trial and error. The most important things are to start practicing assertiveness, and not to be too hard on yourself if you don’t succeed straight away. Lawyers are renowned for their high standards, persistence, and attention to detail; which means they are well placed to (eventually) succeed with adopting a new skill. Remember, the only person you are competing with is a better version of yourself!
If you are ready to take your communication skills to the next level, make sure to take our Video Arts course, “Assert Yourself: Learning to be Assertive”.