Being assertive can be hard. You are often socialized from a young age to put others first and pretend everything is ok. Or, perhaps you grew up in an environment were people yelled to be heard. If either of these early environments rings true for you, you may be communicating either passively or aggressively. Assertiveness is the balance point between passive and aggressive.
Learning about what assertive communication involves can help you to speak up for your needs in a way that increases the chance of getting what you are looking for.
What does assertive communication look like?
Assertiveness involves asking for what you need and saying how you feel in a way that is respectful and kind. You speak directly, because you believe in what you are saying and know that you deserve to have a voice. Your tone should be at a normal conversation level and your body language demonstrating engagement.
The language you use should be non-blaming. Otherwise, your requests will likely be met with defensiveness. Try starting sentences more with “I” and removing phrases like “you never” or “you always” from the conversation. It is important to speak factually and ask questions, rather than make assumptions about what people are thinking. For example, say a wife is feeling lonely about her husbands recently long workdays. To convey that she wants more time with him, she could assertively say: “Yesterday, I felt a bit lonely. I know things at work are very busy and that you are stressed. Tomorrow though, could we have dinner together at 6:00?” In this example we see the use of “I” statements, the wife sticks the facts about the situation and asks for something that would make her feel less lonely. She considers how busy her husband is and also expresses the importance of her request by telling him how lonely she has been feeling.
It is also important as well that you listen to what the other person has to say and give them a chance to speak. You need to be able to slow down long enough to really understand the other person’s point of view so that you too can respond with empathy. With this style of communication, you are operating from a perspective of equally considering both you needs and the other person’s needs. You are able to find solutions together with the other person while keeping the relationship healthy.
What do passive and aggressive communication look like?
It is helpful to understand what passive and aggressive communication look like in order to watch out for when we might need to practice being more assertive.
Passive communication involves sitting back and saying nothing at all but having a lot to say inside. You might fear the reaction of others or you might not believe that you are worthy of having a voice. People who use passive communication are often trying “to keep the peace” in order to avoid conflict. Often, if you do say something, you speak in a low voice, look away and add catch phrases like “only if you want to”. These catch phrases dismiss your needs, which can lead the listener to be confused about the importance of what you are asking for. You are often left feeling misunderstood, ignored or taken advantage of. Passive communication prioritizes the needs of others only and often you fear “damaging” the relationship. Using the scenario of the wife who feels lonely, a passive communicator might say nothing at all in regards to feeling lonely while her husband works late. Or if she says anything at all, she might say “Tomorrow, if your not too busy, could you come home early? But only if things at work aren’t too hectic.” Notice here there is an absence in the communication of how the wife feels and indirect language with disclaimers are used. The husband is unlikely to recognize how important the request is.
Aggressive communication is the opposite of passive communication. If your primary style of communication is aggressive, then you will often try to get what you need through shouting and blaming. You might often feel that you must speak loudly and use your body to show strength, otherwise your message goes unheard. You tend to blame the other person and have a hard time taking responsibility for your own needs. Through blaming and lack of responsibility, discussions can quickly escalate to conflict. Aggressive communicators often try to force their opinions on others and have difficulty compromising in a discussion. It is difficult for you to listen because you only prioritize your own needs. There is more of a focus on being right and less of a focus on what the relationship needs. For example, the wife in our scenario might yell at her husband as soon as he walks in the door late again and shout: “You’re always late. You could have called. Now dinner is spoiled again after all the work I put into it! You could act like you care at all about me once in a while!”. Notice the blaming that is created with the use of “you” instead of “I” and the lack of explaining the true personal feeling of loneliness and need for closeness. It is likely to husband will react defensively and the wife won’t get the quality time she is looking for.
Do you notice any parts of passive or aggressive communication in the way that you communicate?
How to start being more assertive
Assertiveness is a communication style that has to be practiced. Start to speak up assertively in little ways, such as reminding the waitress if she forgot your ketchup. Then gradually move into asking for more in your intimate relationships. You can start with small requests or preferences. Such as, being honest about what movie you would like to watch with your partner. Then move into needs that are more important to you.