Assertive communication is healthy communication. Communication problems arise when you’re too passive (not speaking up for yourself) or too aggressive (yelling, criticizing, or other expressions that are disrespectful or hurtful to others). Neither passive nor aggressive communication gets your message across or your needs met.
If you’re a people-pleaser, you probably tend toward being too passive and/or passive-aggressive. You have trouble saying “no.” You’re agreeable. You compromise your own needs to make others happy. You stay quiet to avoid conflict. But sometimes anger and resentment build and that’s where passive-aggressive behaviors show up. It’s an indirect way of expressing anger, such as the silent treatment, that we use when it feels unsafe to directly express ourselves.
Aggressive communication includes behaviors such as yelling, rude gestures, standing too close, threatening or intimidating. Some people think their message won’t be heard if they aren’t loud and dominant. Often, the opposite is true. You’ve probably been on the receiving end of aggressive communication and know how hard it is to listen when you’re hurt, angry, or scared.
What is assertive communication?
Assertive communication is direct, calm, and respectful. It allows us to directly express our feelings in ways that don’t hurt or violate the rights of others. Using “I statements” is a good method of assertive communication. For example: “I feel disrespected when you’re late to our meetings. I’d like for you to arrive on time.” When you start a sentence with “I feel”, it sets the stage for others to listen to you without becoming defensive.
Assertiveness is the middle ground between passive and aggressive.
What stands in your way of being assertive?
- Lack of practice. Communication is a skill and if you’ve never learned assertive communication or had it modeled for you, how will you know how to do it? It will feel uncomfortable until you practice it. Eventually, it will feel natural to stand up for yourself.
- Not feeling worthy. This is a biggie. When you believe your opinions, needs, or wants aren’t important, you’re not going to stand up for them. It’s as simple as that. You have to feel worthy if you’re going to make the effort to speak up.
- Wanting to keep the peace. Conflict is scary for a lot of us. Expressing yourself might lead to a disagreement or an argument. It’s true that there’s a risk that others will disagree with you and might be downright mean and hurtful. Again, it’s when you feel good about yourself that you can tolerate this and know that you have value despite what others might say.
- Fear of rejection. Rejections comes in many forms. Sometimes it is stated outright (“I’m going to divorce you”). And sometimes it’s the fears and insecurities in your head talking. These fears grow when you’ve experienced actual rejection in the past.
What are the benefits of being assertive?
- You feel understood. One of the big problems with passivity and people-pleasing is that you can’t be truly known and understood when you’re suffocating so much of who you are. Being assertive allows others to understand you.
- You get your needs met. The chances of getting what you want go way up when you ask for it. People can’t read your mind. You have to tell them in a way that they are going to hear and understand. So, whether it’s a raise or a hug, you’re going to get more of what you want when you’re assertive.
- Higher self-esteem. You’ll feel more confident when you stand up for yourself.
- It shows respect for yourself. When you speak up, you say, “I’m worthy of respect. My opinions and needs matter.” No one, including you, respects a doormat.
- It shows respect for others. Direct, calm communication respects the person you’re talking to.
- Better relationships. Trust grows when there is respect and assertive communication.
- Less stress. Stuffing all those feelings deep inside is stressful. So is tiptoeing to avoid conflict. Being assertive is freeing.
How do you communicate assertively?
- Express your feelings clearly, calmly, and respectfully. Your feelings aren’t “right” or “wrong.” It’s a matter of how you express them.
- Use “I statements”. Begin your sentence with “I “rather than “you.” “You” tends to be blaming and leads to defensiveness. An example is: “I feel frustrated when you come home late without calling.” Compare this to: “You’re so inconsiderate. You’re home late and did bother to call.”
- Avoid generalizations and qualifiers such as “always” and “never.” People are rarely always inconsiderate. These over generalizations trigger defensiveness and shut down open communication.
- Maintain an attitude of cooperation and joint problem-solving. It’s not about winning or proving yourself.
- Be a good listener. Communication is a two-way street, of course.
- Clearly and calmly ask for what you want/need.
Practicing these strategies will help you find assertive ways to communicate at work and at home. As I said, it takes practice and it isn’t easy at first. But like most things, it gets easier the more you practice. Journaling and working with a therapist can be especially helpful in identifying your feelings and needs. Sometimes, after years of people-pleasing, you’ve lost touch with who you are and what you want.
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©2016 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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