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  • Elizabeth Tullis, S-MFT

Assertive Communication: How to get what you want, with skill.


Communication. The #1 issue couples go to therapy for and one of the main things I work on with my clients in session.


But it makes sense, our emotions get heightened when communication gets tough and even more so if resolution isn’t reached. We can feel misunderstood, invalidated, threatened, or offended when we’re not communicating effectively.


Now, we may know exactly how it feels to be on the receiving end of a communication style that isn’t helpful to reach resolution, but in this post I’m going to ask you to take a good look at yourself.


After all, the only person we have control over to change is us!



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Before we jump into assertive communication (the gold standard for healthy and effective communication) let’s dive into 3 other types of communication that miss the mark.


Passive

Many times this is someone who frequently puts the needs of others over themselves, but at the cost of their own needs and emotions. The problem with passive communication is it can seem like a positive trait that is rewarded. People might say things like “you’re so easy going” “or you’re so flexible” while in reality this person isn’t getting their needs met or being heard. This can result in bottling things up and exploding later, or even harboring resentment. Another sneaky trap passive communicators can get into is behaving in ways that don’t actually align with their values. When someone doesn’t stand up for what’s important to them, they slowly sink into living a life outside the bounds of what matters most to them.


Not stating feelings or needs clearly can also lead these people to being taken advantage of or manipulated even by others who aren’t aware or malicious.


So what does passive communication sound like?


-Saying “Whatever you want to do, it doesn’t matter” when there is a part of you that cares

-Apologizing just to “end the argument or ease the tension”

-Backing down quickly when others have other opinions

-Agreeing with others even if you disagree



Aggressive

Aggressive communicators are often people who are afraid if they don’t defend themselves with strong intensity they won’t get what they need. A main problem with this communication style is that others can feel bullied into doing what these communicators want, not out of agreement or compromise, but fear.


Another hallmark of aggressive communicators is using criticism, humiliation, name calling, or an aggressive tone to get what they want. It goes without saying why these traits are not productive to healthy communication with others. Doing something out of fear will not create good relationships, and although others may comply, these people tend to push others away.


Aggressive communication can sound like:


“You don’t know what you’re talking about”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“It’s almost like you don’t want to get over it”

“You’re crazy that’s not what happened”



Passive Aggressive

Those who use passive aggressive communication are usually people who are harboring anger, irritation, or hurt but are afraid to clearly communicate what they need. They might be scared of making someone upset and losing a relationship, not being able to effectively communicate their feelings or needs, or being seen as “dramatic” if they were to clearly state what was wrong.


Passive aggressiveness is probably the sneakiest communication style because those who use this tend to try and pass the jab off as a joke. This lets the communicator think they can “get off the hook” if the other person gets upset by what they’ve said, telling them to “calm down” or “chill out”.


Let’s be clear though, passive aggressive communication is no joke. If you don’t say what you mean and leave the interpretation up to others for guesswork, it makes it almost impossible to actually get your needs met.


Passive aggressive communication can sound/look like:

Rolling your eyes while saying something

Saying something with a dramatic tone

“Oh yeah he’s always on time”

“Wow that’s really gonna help”


Cue song “say what you need to say” to all our passive aggressive communicators out there!


Now, we’ve all been on the other side of these styles and know how frustrating they can be, but did you also notice which one you can catch yourself falling into?


We all do it, whether it’s what we saw our parents do, or developed later on, these 3 communication styles can feel much more comfortable than the alternative: **assertive communication***.


The reason so many of us struggle with being up front and direct is because it can be really uncomfortable. Being assertive means you need to be in touch with your emotions, thoughts, needs, wants, etc…and for many of us that sounds a little overwhelming!


AND. Those of us lucky enough to be on the receiving end of assertive communication can appreciate just how big of a deal it is. We can trust assertive people not only to be honest about where they're at, but that they’re a safe space for us to be honest because they are respectful towards others' needs as well.


Safety and trust?? Now that sounds like a recipe for healthy communication!


So the real question is, do you want to do the hard work to change your communication style and become more assertive?


Now, assertive communication is not for the faint of heart. Truth be told, most of us aren’t great at it unless we actively work on it.


But fear not! Here are 4 things to know about assertive communication and what you can work on to get what you want with skill.


The pragmatics (your body language is the first thing others pick up on)

We know this, but we need to be actively engaged with our body language while communicating. Having a confident tone, eye contact, and shoulders back can make a world of difference in how others perceive you. Don’t wait to feel confident to try these either, work backwards! Doing these even when you’re nervous can give you a confidence boost!


Get clear on your values, emotions, and what you want

So, no small feat here, but being in touch with what matters most to you and how you feel is huge in being able to communicate assertively.

This can be something to work out with a therapist, or journal about. If you’re curious what your top values are, lookup a values sheet online and choose your top 5. Once you have these use them almost as guideposts to your needs and why you might be feeling a certain way.

Getting clear on values will also serve as a guardrail to help you recognize if and when you’re not staying true to yourself (talking to you passive communicators!).


A quick tip for talking about how you feel:

Use “I” statements. For example: Instead of saying “you’re making me feel really overwhelmed right now” try “I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now, I’d really appreciate it if you could____.”


Tying all 3 of these together:

“Going away this weekend was really important to me to spend time with the family (value). When you decided to sit this one out it made me feel pretty sad and hurt (feelings). I’d really appreciate it next time if we can talk about what these weekends can look like together before final decisions are made (what you want).”


Listen

It’s common to be thinking about what you want to say next especially when you’re in an argument. Instead of taking a posture of proving something, try making your only job to listen while the other person is talking. If you’re feeling up for it try out the acronym LUVR on hand. This stands for Listen, Understand, Validate, and Repeat. This helps you to really empathize with the other person and be able to actually summarize what they’re saying. And fear not, when you make others feel seen and understood, you're creating a respectful environment where your feelings will be listened to as well . But remember, you listening isn’t a way of getting out of you stating what you want, or a way to manipulate someone into getting what you want!


Be flexible

Being assertive does not mean being rigid. It does mean being clear about what you want and why, while also leaving room for other’s needs and at times compromise. Being assertive doesn’t say “only I matter” or “only you matter” but “we both matter the same”.


Now you may be wondering what assertive communication sounds like, here’s some good examples:


“I know you probably didn’t intend this, but when you did ____ it made me feel ____. I’d appreciate it if next time you____.”


“When you _____ I feel ____, can we figure out a better way to do this”


Assertive communication in response to other communication styles:


Aggressive:

If you are going to keep saying unkind things then I’m going to end this conversation”


Passive:

“I hear you saying you don’t care, but I don’t enjoy only doing what I want. Is there a way we can both make a decision together?”


Passive aggressive:

“I would be happy to have a conversation with you about how you feel about this, but I won’t engage with this kind of communication.”



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I hope this post is helpful for you to not only identify which communication style you find yourself in and has also inspired you to work towards being more assertive. If you’re wanting more specialized help with this, therapy is a great option!




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