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Assertive Communication Skills: A Foundation for UX Success (Part 1)

As UXers, it is our professional goal to assert on behalf of the end users of the products and services we build. Yet, many of us struggle with the fundamentals of assertive communication. We have been teaching assertiveness workshops to hundreds of UXers and have found this to be a common issue.

UXers are professional influencers who rely on rapport with cross-functional stakeholders. This can cause us to be timid to a fault, fearing damage to these relationships. Other times, we can be aggressive as we try to wield greater influence on others.

While this struggle is not unique to UX professionals, assertive communication skills are fundamental to our success because they underlie effective influence, persuasion, negotiation, relationship building, and other critical soft skills.

Our goal is to introduce you to a framework for being more assertive. In a separate article in the next issue, we will discuss strategies for putting this framework into action.

What Is Assertiveness?

To be assertive means to conduct yourself with sincere and clearly communicated respect for both yourself and for others. Respect is showing regard for feelings, opinions, and rights.

We can contrast assertive behavior with passive and aggressive behavior. To be passive means not respecting your own opinions and rights. To be aggressive means not respecting the rights and opinions of other people.

Table 1 gives more detail about these contrasting communication styles, along with a third style—passive-aggressiveness. Take a moment to review and think of times when you have employed each style in your personal and professional life. Chances are you have employed each one of these at different times and in different contexts. This content is adapted from The Assertiveness Workbook by Randy Paterson.

Table 1. Assertive and non-assertive communication styles.

GoalsBe respectful of self and othersAvoid conflict, please othersBe in control, winAggressive acts with plausible deniability
BeliefMy needs and theirs
are equally important
Their needs are more important
than mine
My needs are more important than theirsI am not responsible for my actions
Speak your mind directly, honestly, and respectfullyKeep quiet, or people-pleasingActs as if others’ views are unreasonable,
Use threats or intimidation
Mean-spirited “jokes,”
convenient forgetting,
negative gossip about others
OutcomesFeel confident and relaxed,
Good relationships
Feel helpless, frustrated, and resentfulShort-term success,
but foster resentment and disloyalty
Be seen as inconsiderate or unreliable

Let’s address some misconceptions about assertiveness.

Misconception 1: Assertiveness Is an Immutable Personality Trait

Think of assertiveness as a skill that requires practice. Most of us are assertive at least some of the time, but have bad habits that we fall into depending on context. For example, you may be assertive with direct colleagues, passive with your management, or aggressive with people from other business units inside your company. When we are stressed, we tend to resort to fight (aggressive) or flight (passive) behaviors.

We all have the ability to behave assertively, but we should strive to become more consistently assertive. One approach is to identify difficult situations and adopt specific assertiveness strategies.

Misconception 2: Assertive Is the Midpoint between Passive and Aggressive

Assertiveness is qualitatively different from passive or aggressive styles. Unfortunately, it is very common to confuse assertiveness with aggressiveness.

If you skew passive and would like to self-correct, your goal should not be to speak louder or be more forceful. Rather, the goal should be to hold your boundaries and convey more self-respect as you communicate with others. As you do, maintain the respectfulness that you naturally show for others.

Consider this example: A stakeholder asks you to produce a design on short notice (unreasonably short notice, in your opinion). Previously you have responded too passively in these situations, often agreeing to requests that left you working long hours and feeling burned out, as well as unappreciated.

You want to try a more assertive response, but you have a lot of negative emotion and resentment built up. You burst out: “That is a ridiculous! Don’t you think I have a life? You people are jerks!” While this is an honest expression, it shows disrespect by treating the request as unreasonable (to you it is, to them it might not be) and making negative judgments about the requester (a jerk who thinks you don’t have a life). These statements might get your stakeholder to back off, or they might make the person feel defensive and angry so that they double down on their request. Either way, there are likely to be negative long-term consequences to this working relationship.

A more assertive response would acknowledge their right to make the request and then focus on your own boundaries. “I can see this is important to you. I’m not able to commit to that deadline.” From there, you might try to work out a compromise.

Misconception 3: Assertiveness = Honesty

Assertiveness involves being direct and transparent, but it requires tact, as well. Phrases used to justify rudeness like “I’m just being honest” can be an excuse for aggressive, disrespectful communication.

Misconception 4: Assertiveness = Mind Control

You may think to yourself, “If only I was assertive enough, they will see it my way!” In reality, there is no way to guarantee the outcomes you want out of any human interaction. Assertiveness is not a strategy for getting what you want from others, though it will tend to lead you toward better outcomes.

If you find that you desire to control outcomes, consider examining your beliefs. It is good to have faith in your ideas, but there is a danger of treating the ideas of others as invalid. This thought pattern can foster aggressiveness.

Assertiveness among UX Professionals

A chart showing career progression of passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive behavior.
Usage of assertive and non-assertive behaviors across UXer careers.

Figure 1 shows a model of how UXers tend to communicate at work, based on our own (informal) research. It shows that UXers tend to use certain non-assertive communication styles during different career phases. Let’s dig into these tendencies:

  • Junior UXers, those newest to the field, often behave more passively and passive-aggressively. Why? The main factors are lack of confidence and fear of damaging their relationships with stakeholders.
  • As UXers progress in their careers, passive and passive-aggressive behaviors start to fade as they become more confident in their abilities and ideas. They also make conscious adjustments to their behavior to try to increase their impact and garner the respect they desire.
  • Why do we also see that an increase in aggression replaces those passive behaviors? One reason is that aggressive tactics get results in some environments. For example, think of a designer who relentlessly pushes their ideas until others give in out of fear, exhaustion, or frustration. This designer makes a big impact and is seen as a leader. The negative consequences are not always felt immediately, so it is a self-reinforcing behavior. Another reason is that people confuse assertiveness and aggressiveness, as described earlier in this article.

These trends point to potential growth areas for UXers at different career stages:

  • Early career UXers can learn to be bolder by asserting their rights, boundaries, and ideas.
  • Gaining experience and confidence, UXers shed their passive habits, but need to be mindful about showing respect for the rights and views of others. Failure to do so can lead to aggressive behaviors that alienate others and impede their effectiveness.

We hope that learning this is useful for you, as it has been for us. A good next step is to identify critical situations and plan specific tactics for behaving more assertively. In a follow-up to this article, we will look into some common issues faced by UXers and lay out some ideas for addressing them with improved assertiveness.