Calm and Assertive Leaders Have Unique Ways of Communicating

Manage your words for success.

Posted Oct 01, 2013

People want to follow calm and assertive leaders:

   -Leaders who are calm but not assertive are easy targets for others to ignore.  They fail to inspire colleagues, customers, or bosses.

   -Leaders who are assertive but not calm create anxiety at the very time they seek to reassure.

In a previous PSYCHOLOGY TODAY piece I spoke about how you can use simple exercises to manipulate your body to stimulate hormone production that will produce calm and assertive leadership behavior.   In that article I briefly touched upon the linguistic patterns of calm and assertive leaders.

This article will go into more detail about how you can manage words for success as a calm and assertive leader.

      “It is perfectly safe.”

A friend reported getting a routine medical exam from a Physician Assistant for his annual physical exam.  The exam itself was performed in a fully competent manner.  At the conclusion of the exam, the Assistant stated that there was something he would like more information about.  He was recommending my friend return to the hospital for an ultra sound examination.   The Assistant said, “Don’t worry about ultra sound.  It is perfectly safe.”

The phrase “perfectly safe” may have been intended to reassure.  But it had the opposite effect.

My friend knew people who had lost money investing in “absolutely safe” ventures.   My friend knows enough about risk management in health care to know that no intervention is “perfectly safe.”

He did a web search and found that ultra sound examinations were “generally” safe.    They do heat up bodily fluids liquids like blood and water.  There was no published research about the safety of ultra sound on the particular portion of the body slated for examination.   It was, however, found safe with fetus if use was limited.

The friend decided against the procedure. 

My assessment is that the Physician Assistant was using assertive language in the absence of calm assurance.

The following statement would have been a calm and assertive statement:   “We want to take a look at this part of your body using ultra scan.  If there is indeed a tumor and we can identify it early, the probability is about nine on a ten point scale that we can successfully intervene.   Any medical intervention contains risks, including ultra sound examination.   Those risks include heating up liquid parts of your body that are in the range of the scan.  There is no published research on the impact of such scanning on that part of your body.  But based on research done with pregnant women and the babies they are carrying, my estimate of the risk, is one on a ten point scale.  It is my opinion that the potential benefits of early identification and treatment of a tumor outweigh the risks inherent in the procedure.”

This is typical physician talk.  It works well with nervous patients.  It is the linguistic structure of calm and assertive leadership.

From a risk management perspective, no customer should ever be told that any intervention is “perfectly safe” or that any investment is “perfectly secure.”  It unnecessarily opens the institution to a Pandora’s Box of litigation.

Watch your language.

      “On One Hand, But On the Other.”

Let’s examine the same issue in another field: weather forecasting.

A weather reporter can be calm but not assertive:  “On one hand, it might rain but on the other hand it might be sunny.”   President Truman was so impatient with such unassertive advise he asked if he could hire a “one armed economist.”

Our reporter could be assertive without being calm: “I guarantee it will rain today.”  Some viewers might be reassured.  Many viewers might be agitated since weather patterns can be unpredictable.  And the television station’s risk management staff ought to be very concerned with such a statement.

The reporter could be both calm and assertive:  “There is a 70% chance of rain.”

      Use a Likert Scale.

The late University of Michigan psychologist Rensis Likert developed a useful way of asking questions we recommend our clients use as a method of communication.  He would first make a statement and then ask for a confidence rating about that statement.  For example, a classic Likert question in medicine is “I am in pain.”  Please give me a number between 0 and 10 to express how much you agree with that statement with 0 being total disagreement and 10 being total agreement.

A typical business question using a Likert scale is called the Customer Loyalty Index:  “I would recommend this company’s product/service to a friend or colleague.”  Please give me a number that best expresses your level of agreement from 0 (never) to 10 (always).

Consider phrasing your arguments in Likert ways: make a strong statement but then qualify it with a number from 0 to 10 to express your confidence.  Keep in mind that a “10” is equivalent to the physician assistant’s comments that the medical intervention is “perfectly safe.”

     An Example From My Search Practice.

A company has retained me to conduct a search for a Board member.  My job is to present candidates that fit the job qualifications and would add value to the Board.  I introduced a candidate the following way:  “I believe this candidate is worth meeting.”  On a scale of 0 to 10, I would give my level of confidence as an 8.  The client reviewed my report and responded in the following manner:  “I have reviewed the candidate report you presented and would give this person a “4” on your ten point scale based on the following reasons: x, y, and z.” 

Through the mutual use of Likert phrasing, we were able to keep the discussion job focused and away from emotional words like “good” “bad” “awful.”

I had given the candidate an “8” and my client had given the candidate a “4.”  I clearly had missed something important.  My client’s calm and assertive way of using the Likert system to point out my failure allowed me to listen in a more open manner and to make necessary adjustments.

      Script It to Leverage It.

Creating a calm and assertive leader may require coaching.  Creating a calm and assertive culture may require explicit use of Likert-like scripts and enforcement over the years through the use of incentives and monitoring. 

Once you think about leveraging scripts, you are moving from leadership intervention into system-wide organization culture change.