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Why innovators need to be assertive communicators

In the 2020s, upskilling and re-skilling will become among the significant trends in professional education, affecting everyone in the workforce, including you and me. A few months ago, a friend of mine (Robert Bluett, the Founder of People Plus) invited me to join his training program in Assertive Communication, which I gladly accepted. While learning the lessons to acquire this critical soft skill, I suddenly had an important realization: All innovators have to become and be assertive communicators. Here’s why.

What is assertive communication?

The word ‘assert’ can be defined as stating a fact or belief confidently and forcefully. Assertive communication means that you assert your right to communicate facts as well as your beliefs and feelings in a confident and forceful yet at the same time respectful way (“I am okay, you’re okay”).

Assertive communicators treat everyone as equal and as worthy collaborators. They focus on creating win-win results based on mutual understanding and agreement through constructive, collaborative, and respectful communication. They ask questions to understand others’ wants and needs, distinguish facts from opinions, and find appropriate ways to solve problems.

What other types of communicators can we distinguish?

Besides assertive communicators, you can encounter three other types of communicators — passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive communicators:

  • Passive communicators feel inferior to others and that they need be obedient because they are ‘less” than others. They tend to regularly put themselves down, frequently apologize in their communication, and seek approval from others. They are under-confident. They tend to communicate in ways that produce lose-win arrangements (“You win, I lose”).
  • In contrast, aggressive communicators feel superior and that they are better or more worthy than others. They tend to be overconfident (meaning that they think they know more and can achieve more than is the case) and push for zero-sum outcomes (“I win, you lose”). They are belligerent and argumentative in their interactions and tend to bully and blame others. Their ego-driven, overinflated sense of self-importance shows in the personal pronouns they use most often in their interactions (“I, me, mine”).
  • Finally, a passive-aggressive communicator is a derivative form of the two styles above. Often, you can come across this more complex type in indirect cultures with high power distance and collectivism (such as most Asian countries). Think of a team member who always accommodates and pleases superiors and more senior team members (passive) but secretly opposes and sabotages the team’s success (aggressive).  

A simple yet powerful analogy to capture the differences in style between the three basic types in a crisp way is this: Aggressive communicators behave and interact like parents, passive communicators like children, and assertive communicators like the adult in the room.

What is the root cause behind these communication behaviors?

To understand why people communicate in these schematic ways, let’s take a look at the central nervous system’s autonomous response to a stressful stimulus (a person or another living being, a thing, or something happening in the environment). Encountering a stressor triggers the self-ruling fight and flight response in our central nervous system that is part of our reptilian brain. Thereby, the flight response is grounded in one emotion on the escalating “fear scale” (restlessness, worry, anxiety, fear, fright, horror). 

On the other hand, we feel anger (with the escalating emotional states of feeling peeved, irritated, annoyed, angered, furious, and enraged) if the stressor triggers the fight response. Fortunately, we can learn to manage our emotional reaction to a stressor. The key is to pause, become aware of non-conducive auto-responses, and consciously choose a better, more mature response. As the psychologist and Nazi death camp survivor Victor Frankl noted in his seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Scanned sketch note synthesising key contents of my training in Assertive Communication

How does the autonomous response of our central nervous system influence our communication?

Passive communicators tend to mostly respond fearfully to stressors, while aggressive communicators respond to stressful people, events, and situations with anger. In contrast, assertive communicators have learned to manage the auto-response of their reptilian brain and move towards higher levels of cognition situated in their neocortex. They pause and then consciously choose a favorable, mature response to the stressor. They have a choice because they have learned how to cultivate self-awareness and develop higher levels of consciousness. 

Learning how to manage your emotions is the first skill that you need to develop on your journey to becoming an assertive communicator. Other factors that you need to master include: Developing self-esteem and self-confidence, becoming an attentive listener, speaking up in situations where you feel the facts or your beliefs or feelings deserve a voice, cultivating trusting relationships, and finally, giving feedback.

Why do innovators need to practice assertive communication?

Innovation means positive, meaningful change and departure from a comfortable status quo. The prolific US inventor and innovator Charles Kettering noted, “The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that brought progress.” 

In his diffusion of innovation theory, Everett Rogers describes how an overall population gradually adopts innovation. He found that 16% of people are instrumental in driving innovation towards wide-spread adoption. 2.5% of people are innovators who create and test change, and 13.5% are early adopters who endorse it and create a buzz for it. On the other hand, 84% of the world resists and “hates change” to a lesser (people in the early and late majority with 33% each) or higher degree (16% laggards).

Now suppose you’re an innovator who has come up with a brilliant idea for a meaningful new product. How can you convince people to join the team needed to create it? Or investors to fund it? Or early adopters to test, endorse, and promote it? By being an apologetic passive communicator? By being a pushy, overconfident aggressive communicator?

No doubt about it: Successful innovators are assertive communicators. They confidently and forcefully communicate the value of their idea, thereby striving to learn more about creating win-wins to bring on board all five stakeholders (customers, team, shareholders, suppliers, society & environment). 

Why do assertive communicators excel in an innovation project?

Assertive communication is also the most beneficial modus operandi as you take an innovation team through the stages of a systematic creative process (such as Thinkergy’s X-IDEA innovation method):

  • In the initial Stage Xploration, assertive innovators ensure that an innovation team separates fact from fiction (opinions, false beliefs, herd thinking, stereotypes). They also ask lots of insightful and, at times, thought-provoking questions. Then, they listen to the wants and needs of customers and other stakeholders involved in the project empathetically, respectfully, and attentively . 
  • In the two creative Stages Ideation and Development, assertive innovators confidently and forcefully jot down many raw ideas (including really bold, wild, and crazy ones) without judgment, and then design the most intriguing ideas into meaningful win-win-win solutions.
  • In the critical Evaluation-stage, assertive innovators forcefully and confidently fight for those ideas with high value potential and challenging implementation feasibility. They are aware that realizing truly bold ideas isn’t easy and requires everyone to get out of their comfort zone and move to the next level. Hence, assertive innovators calmly, confidently, and respectfully fight for bold ideas. They counter all the arguments of all those critical naysayers (typically aggressive communicators) who come up with lots of arguments of why the idea isn’t feasible and can’t be done. Thanks to their constructive communication, they eventually can form an alliance of “believers” who are willing to give the idea a shot.
  • Finally, in the Action-stage, assertive innovators confidently and forcefully pitch their idea to investors or an internal management panel to secure funding and other resources needed to implement the concept. Then, they lead or play an active role in the actual implementation project. Here, they assertively fight resistance from aggressive project opponents (e.g., other managers who vie for scarce resources allocated to your project, or are afraid your idea might cannibalize revenues of their business) and passive-aggressive saboteurs (who want your project to fail because of envy, own laziness, flightiness, or a psycho-static personality). Finally, when it comes to launching and shipping the new product, assertive innovators can convince and entice other innovators and early adopters of the value of the innovation, so that they join forces to help push it into the early majority. 

Conclusion: Assertive communication supports innovation

Both assertive communication and innovation require self-confidence and respect for the needs of other stakeholders involved, thus giving the courage to act and to pause, listen, and reflect. As the British WWII Prime Minister Winston Churchill noted, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” 

  • Would you like to learn more about assertive communication? Consider contacting People Plus and joining one of Robert Bluett’s training courses in Assertive Communication (delivered online and face-to-face)?
  • Or would you like to right away become an assertive innovator and do an X-IDEA Innovation Project with Thinkergy to innovate and creatively solve problems in disruptive times?
  • Check out our X-IDEA website and booklet to learn more about our award-winning know-how of wow.
  • Contact us to tell us more about how the current crisis affects you so that we can share our ideas on how we may help you survive the current crisis and thrive in the disruptive 2020s.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2020. The article is published in the Thinkergy Blog on July 3, 2020, and will be re-published in the Bangkok Post on July 10, 20202.