The Triton


Slight shift in words can make all the difference in communicating


Are you being aggressive when you think you’re being assertive? Assertiveness is often confused with aggressiveness. Can you tell the difference?

Telling someone how a system operates on your boat is different than having a conversation with someone. For example, when a new deckhand joins your boat, explaining how the system works for ordering new consumables requires telling him specific things: like where the list is kept, when to write on the list and how often stores are purchased. The telling will naturally include statements that start with “you must” or “you need to.”

When you talk about inanimate things like a system, the use of “should” and “must” are necessary. Challenges arrive for leaders when they use the same language when they speak with people as they do for their systems.

An example of this is a chief officer who comes on deck to see the deckhands re-doing a section of the wash down because they missed something. If the conversation starts with “you need to” or “you must”, the deck crew will not pay much attention because they have already learned their lesson through the mistake they made.

In this situation, the first officer comes across as a know-it-all, losing a little credibility with the deck crew.

On the other hand, if the first officer asks questions about why the section needs to be redone, the bosun is able to explain the reason. Dialogue can happen and a conversation takes place.

Leaders need to create a safe environment where people can speak their mind. A safe environment encourages everyone to make comments and put forward their ideas without being belittled or denigrated. This will encourage honest dialogue and your crew will be more forthcoming in communicating with you. The safe environment is created through the skillful use of asking questions and having conversations.

When you make controlling statements that start with “you”, as in “you should,” “you need to,” “you must,” “you never” or “you’re supposed to,” it creates defensiveness on the part of the listener. Defensiveness happens because you are making a declaration and speaking in absolutes with no room for discussion. Your listeners stop listening and start to think of why they “should not” do something or they create excuses about why something must stay the way it is. This is an unsafe environment where it’s easy to see the speaker being judgmental.

Whatever the situation, when leaders use controlling statements, they can come across as aggressive. Aggressive statements kill conversation. Being aggressive in conversation is not about doing anything physical to someone else. Instead, your words become a form of coercion.

Compare this to speaking assertively with others. Assertive people use a lot of “I” phrases and make clear, unambiguous statements when speaking with others. “I” statements deliver a clean, clear statement of your side of things. Let’s look at an example of assertiveness of a deckhand speaking with a first officer. If the deckhand says, “I would like to rearrange the line locker to be more user friendly, what do you think?” she is being assertive while including an open-ended question at the end of her statement.

That’s much different from the aggressive “you have to re-arrange the line locker” command the deckhand could have delivered to the first officer. The aggressiveness comes from making a statement to control someone else’s behavior — “you have to…” — which causes the first officer to be on the defensive. In fact, the first officer will immediately think of why she should not rearrange the line locker.

The first way, the assertive way, creates a situation where conversation can take place. Questions lead to dialogue, which is the source for all communication in both personal and professional relationships. The second statement is a declaration and closes off discussion.

The use of “I” displays to the listener that the speaker is taking responsibility for what they say. Also, the use of “I” statements encourage others to consider if they hold the same viewpoint as the speaker.

If a captain says, “You must brush your teeth after every meal.” This can come across as commanding, controlling and aggressive. Crew who aren’t used to this expectation from a captain may become defensive and confrontational due to the controlling nature of the requirement.

By changing the statement to, “I want everyone to smell clean for guests and their fellow crew mates, so please shower every day and brush your teeth after every meal.” This displays assertiveness, not aggression. This is a respectful way to express the purpose of your request, without being aggressive.

These may seem like picky details. You might say, “Most people know what I mean when I use those words, so what’s the difference?” The difference is that you may be getting results only because people are able to figure out your unexpressed intentions. However, you may not be getting their respect or loyalty.

The continuous use of absolute or imperative wording interferes with your ability to be truly assertive. It also interferes with being a truly effective leader because your credibility is often tested when you are wrong about your absolute statements.

To recap:

• Use “I” statements to be clear and unambiguous when speaking

• Ask open-ended questions to create communication

• Asking questions demonstrates humility toward others

• When talking about someone’s behavior or actions, avoid statements that start with “you should,” “you must,” “you always,” and “you never” as they cause the listener to become defensive.

Pay attention to your words and how they impact others and you will see your leadership influence grow.


Paul Ferdais is founder of The Marine Leadership Group based in Ft. Lauderdale and Vancouver delivering leadership training workshops and coaching ( He has a master’s degree in leadership and spent seven years working as a deckhand, mate and first officer on yachts. Comments are welcome at

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