9 tips: How to be assertive, but not aggressive, on Zoom or Teams

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise and offices continue remote operations, employees vie to share opinions and observations. Here's how can they be noticed without appearing pushy.

Student on video call from his home during lockdown

Image: Alistair Berg, Getty Images

It's been months since most office workers shared an actual conference room with co-workers, as businesses went remote. Meetings have shifted to video conference platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Webex. For those accustomed to meeting in person, the move to all online can be awkward, especially as the number of participants grows. How many virtual meeting attendees are too many? Too many so that more reserved colleagues can't get a word in edgewise?

Despite the necessity for social distancing, the impulse to show your best self to bosses remains strong. A well-worded email can garner attention, but doesn't quite have the impact of a video conference. As many are now seated in front of a laptop, looking at a gallery of faces and competing voices, it remains critical to be both seen and heard. We asked experts for advice on how to be assertive in group video calls, without having to resort to being--or perceived as being--aggressive. 

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Here are the top nine tips:

  1. Always use video for meetings (don't default to audio), said Apurva Davé, vice president of marketing for the enterprise SaaS management platform Productiv. "When you collaborate over video, you can better read the body language and facial expressions of your fellow meeting participants. Seeing your colleagues leads to more productive collaboration and fosters stronger trust in working relationships---just as it does in face-to-face meetings. 'Reading' facial cues and body language is also critical for assertive communication, be it in-person or via video."
  2. Large and in charge: "Command the room," said Kathy Gardner, senior director of PR and media, FlexJobs. "When it's your turn to speak, make eye contact with your webcam to hold attention and avoid gazing toward another monitor that requires you to turn your head away from the camera."
  3. Find a way to raise your hand: It can be difficult to find a way to join the conversation if you're on a video call, especially if you're the only one that is calling in. Set up a system with the meeting organizer in advance that allows you to literally or figuratively "raise your hand" when you'd like to add a comment.
  4. Speak clearly and without pausing: Remember that, just as it is difficult for you to hear everyone while you're on a video call, they're facing the same challenge listening to you. Speak slowly and enunciate clearly, and don't pause to ask if the other participants can hear you. When you finish your statement, make it clear that you are done by asking if anyone has questions or reactions to what you said.
  5. Patience is a virtue: "You might talk over someone else without even realizing it, in the same way you would notice if you were all in the same room," said Tracy Cote, chief people officer at Zenefits. "This may cause eye-rolling and surreptitious side conversations amongst other meeting attendees, and nobody wants that. Slow down, you'll get your turn. If you realize you talked over someone (it's so easy for two people to start talking at once), when you're done making your point, ask the other person to speak next."
  6. Be conscious of overlapping talk. The meeting leader should ask those not addressing the group to hit the mute button. Video conference software is highly sensitive. Sounds are not just from the meeting participant and their movements, but any ambient sound," Davé said."If in your enthusiasm, "you're loud or excited, then you might block out others; that can come across as aggressive. Keep an eye out for others who want to say something and give them space. If there are several people, use the 'raise hand' or chat comment features to contribute to the discussion. Also, don't forget that some participants may experience the occasional delay, which can cause unintentional interruptions."
  7. Leave the funny business to comedians: "The most efficient approach is in a direct and straightforward manner," Cote said. "Humor is difficult, so don't try to be funny. Get comfortable using chat. If you have a question, the best way to ask without interrupting the speaker is to use this feature." The meeting organizer has the power to mute others, to facilitate turn-taking, and to set the ground rules for good meeting etiquette.
  8. Be polite, but still participate: "Some hiccups are inevitable, so don't miss out on the conversation because you waited too patiently to speak" said Maria Marquis, customer educator at Coda and founder of Coaching by Maria. "When in doubt, interrupt and apologize."
  9. Use firm language, but leave the door open for others to react: "Make sure others know you have an opinion on an issue, using phrases like 'I recommend' or 'I strongly believe,' but then pull others into the discussion, Davé said. "Asking, 'Do you agree or disagree?' or 'What do you think?' balances your assertiveness with openness."

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