Assertive Communication

During a conflict, it can be difficult to communicate with others, whether or not they are involved in the conflict.  You may react using previously learned unhealthy expressions of anger, communicating aggressively, passively, or maybe not at all.  Choosing any of those three ways of communication will more than likely compound your troubles.

In order to be better at managing your experience of anger, you need to begin to communicate assertively.  Assertive communication can allow you to clearly and respectfully voice your opinions, your unmet needs, your feelings, and perspective. This enables you to communicate in a way that others are better able to hear, and in a way that may open the door to peaceful solutions.

Let’s take a look at three ways of communicating.

Aggressive Communication

You read earlier about unhealthy expressions of anger. Most of these expressions aren’t just explosions of feeling, they also function as a form of very ineffective communication. Aggressive communication may clearly communicate your emotions, may work to enforce a position of power, or may work as way to defend yourself.  This form of communication however, does not take into consideration anyone else involved. In fact, it may be communication at the expense of the others with whom you are interacting. While this may have some short term benefits, the long term negative effects are typically apparent.

Aggressive communication can include any or all of the following:

  • often uses blaming
  • negative criticisms
  • humiliation
  • physical aggression (ex. punching walls, throwing things, standing over someone, etc.)
  • using a loud voice
  • threats

Communicating aggressively may seem effective. It certainly can get the point across. It also can create rifts in relationships, it can disintegrate trust, or it can make others feel unsafe or unconsidered.

Consider the following:

Kevin saying, “Meredith, what an idiot. You can’t cook anything without burning it,” isn’t an effective way to let Meredith know that he is upset that the house is full of smoke, his belly full of hunger, and his life lacking a sense ease.  In fact, it only effectively communicates that Kevin feels that Meredith is inferior, incorrect, and small.

Passive Communication

Passive communication is an evasive way of communicating. Passive communication attempts to please others and/or avoid sharing what you are actually feeling or thinking. It may actually even be an ineffective way to attempt to manage anger by trying to deny related thoughts and feelings.

Using Passive communication a person:

  • may avoid sharing an opinion or answering a question directly
  • may seem to be making an attempt to avoid conflict
  • may be making an attempt to appear nice or unaffected

Passive Aggressive Communication

Passive aggressive communication can be described as a sly form of aggressive communication.  It initially can be a way to feel as though you are being kind, avoiding a conflict, or being nice, while ultimately expressing your aggression in behind the scenes, backwards, or underhanded ways.  It could be a result of feelings of powerless, fear of judgment, wanting to save face, or a desire to please others, making it hard to say no.  A prime example is when Person A makes a request or demand of another Person B that Person B has no desire to do. Instead of initiating a dialogue about their resistance to doing the requested task, Person B might show their displeasure through their body language, tone of voice, or other cues that indicate they have no desire or intention to do the requested task.

Passive aggressive communication can include:

  • sarcasm
  • non-verbal communication that is opposite of what you are saying
  • agreeing to something while creating excuses or reasons you cannot follow through

How to Communicate Assertively

The best way to communicate is assertively.  This may take some practice but the benefits of effective communication will far outweigh the initial difficulties that you may encounter.  Here are some quick tips for assertive communication that we will explore further as we continue the course:

  • Be decisive when saying no. You do not need to begin a refusal with apologies or excuses, but be prepared to offer possible solutions.
  • When dealing with conflicts, focus on statements that begin with “I,” addressing your thoughts and feelings, taking care not to place blame or guilt on another person. 
  • When dealing with conflicts that arise from another person’s action, comment objectively on the person’s action, and not their character.  Stick with the facts.
  • Be concise with your responses and use appropriate tones.
  • When someone offers a criticism, think of it as feedback instead of criticism.  Use this feedback for self-improvement, recognizing they may offer an alternative perspective toward something you have said or done.
  • If someone is insulting you, it’s likely they are using general statements that aren’t necessarily accurate.  Using this as feedback you could assess what truths might exist within their insults and what exaggerations or mistruths may exist as well.

Assertive Communication in Practice

Assertive communication is best practiced during times of low-stress, so that it can become a healthy habit that your brain can access with ease.  Soon, assertive communication will become natural, and the amount of conflict faced may reduce significantly.   But what does assertive communication look like during a time of disagreement?  What does it look like when emotions and stress are relatively high?

  1. It is important to check in with your body.  Take notice of  any anger cues, remembering back to previous exercises and how you felt anger in your body (tension, flushed face, rapid breathing, etc).  Breathe into those parts of your body by envisioning each breath entering into that space where you feel tension. If it’s helpful, you can imagine that your breath is cool, refreshing air that is being sent to the part of your body that has become overheated.  You may want to try counting your breath.  Recognize that in high-stress situations, you are more likely to fall back into old habits and old patterns of communication.  You may repeat the same aggressive, passive or passive aggressive communication habits that you have worked hard to replace. Realize that it is okay to repeat old patterns because they can become learning opportunities, to get more knowledge on your old, habitual ways of doing things.
  2. Slow yourself down.  Imagine your life as a reel of film and pause the situation.  Is this a dire situation?  If it is not life or death, realize that you have time to negotiate, compromise, and take some space to figure out a peaceful resolution.  Slow the conversation down and try to let go of any feeling of urgency or of being rushed.
  3. Examine the situation.  If you would like to address something that has been bothering you or to talk about a problem with another person, then it is best to step back and understand fully what is actually creating tension within you.  Once you know why something is upsetting or rubbing you the wrong way, then you are in a position to better communicate that realization with the other person.  When you want to address a problem or situation that has been bothering you, avoid using criticizing or generalized statements, such as “You’re so lazy,” or, “This is so stupid.”   Instead, begin with your own experience of the situation, saying something like, “Having  a clean kitchen is important to me.  A clean kitchen helps me feel relaxed.  So when you do not wash the dishes, I end up washing them so that the kitchen stays clean, and I feel annoyed.”  Notice how this statement showcases what you are feeling without blaming someone else for your emotions.
  4. Next, present a solution for the issue.  Your personal awareness regarding how you are feeling, what you are thinking and what you need, as well as gaining an understanding of the other person’s needs and feelings, will assist you in coming up with some possible solutions.  Offer solutions that may address both of your needs, acknowledge how your needs may conflict with theirs if they do, and accept that you both may have to compromise slightly to come to a solution you can agree on.  Also keep in mind that the solution might require you accepting a situation as it is, or making changes you may not feel excited about.  In the above example with the dishes, you may have to accept your decision to clean the dishes at times without judging or blaming your roommate for your discomfort.  Maybe your roommate has to work late, feels overwhelmed and can only get to the dishes at the end of the week.  The solution may be that you ask that your roommate tell you when he/she is feeling overwhelmed so that you can decide to either do the dishes during this time or find a way to manage your anxiety until your roommate can do them.
  5. Try your best to listen even if the other person isn’t communicating assertively.  If another person has come to you with a problem and they have not communicated assertively, you may feel that they are blaming you. This may make you feel small, or ashamed.  This is especially true if the person was criticizing or making judgmental statements.  It would be easy to disregard the problem entirely, especially if the person was downright insulting.  Sweeping the problem under the rug unfortunately does not solve the problem.  In fact it may make the problem worse if you hung on to hurt feelings or anger related to how you felt when they presented the problem to you.  Instead, try to really listen and attempt to discover the person’s intention for bringing an issue to you.   Are there any unmet needs that this person is trying to fulfill?  Take note of these mentally but be careful to not make assumptions.  Ask questions or ask about the importance of this problem.  Once you know their needs or intentions you can address them.  For instance, if the person says, “You never help at all!”  you can acknowledge that the person feels that they need more help with the upkeep of the household, and that maybe sometimes you don’t help as much as you could.
  6. It’s not always what you say but how you say it.  Be mindful of your tone of voice, as well as the volume you use.  Stay brief in your response, focus on the facts, and keep your body relaxed.  In a relaxed physical state it is easier to stay in a relaxed mental state. It also helps you maintain a less threatening physical presence.
  7. Be respectful of the other person.  Acknowledge the issue they are presenting.  For instance, if they told you that you were lazy due to the fact that the dishes are not clean, maybe acknowledge that they are correct that you did not do the dishes.  This may work to defuse the situation, because the person’s feelings are acknowledged, but you did not accept the generalized criticism of your character.  Avoid matching their aggressive, disrespectful, or critical response.
  8. Stay on topic.  Keep the discussion focused on the solution and only the necessary parts of the past that relate to solving that problem.  Try to avoid getting caught in over-generalizations of past issues.  If the other person involved gets off topic, gently and respectfully request that the conversation stay focused on the matter at hand.

If you feel the other person isn’t listening or understanding what you are saying, feel free to ask what they heard.  If you are still at an impasse, ask if there is a better time to address this problem or issue.

Exercise

Practice assertive communication.  Make sure to begin practicing in situations that are not stressful.  When you are assertive, you show confidence and self-control.

Write down the times when you did not use assertive communication.  It’s okay that this happens, because being assertive is difficult and is a skill most of us never learn as children. Imagine an assertive response that could have been used in these situations.

Continue to track your conflicts and your times of feeling angry.  Write down whether you were extremely infuriated or only annoyed.  The next time you feel angry, feel your anger throughout your body, and then begin concentrating on your breath.  Once your attention is fully on your breathing, begin counting slowly as you breathe.  Breathe in for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds.  Imagine your breath as a constant loop.  Extend the time for five seconds if you feel comfortable. Write down your experience.

Assertive Communication, Continued

Lesson 35

We gave you a quick run down in the previous section of how to begin to communicate assertively.  We are going to continue working on these skills in this section.  Hopefully you have now had some time to practice or think about some of the ideas we presented.

Assertive Communication, What Is it Good for?

Perhaps you’re wondering what assertive communication is doing in an anger management course.  Assertive communication goes hand-in-hand with anger management because a lot of unhealthy expressions of anger arise due to communication issues.  Assertive communication is the most effective way to connect with others and the most effective way to express your needs.  It opens the door to understanding between two disagreeing parties, it creates confidence and improves self-esteem.  Assertive communication reduces the tension and anxiety that can sometimes accompany unhealthy confrontation.

Frame of Mind

Perhaps the most important part of communicating assertively is being aware of what is happening in your mind and body — being aware of your thoughts, feelings, sensations in your body, and needs. Demonstrating assertive communication lets others know you are the best authority on your own situation.  This does not mean you are not considering the feedback of others, but it does mean that you know you have a right to your own feelings and needs.

Assertive communication requires not only keen self awareness but also a belief and trust in yourself, a knowing that your perspective is just as valid as others.  Keeping this in mind immediately gives you positive reinforcement. In order to make sure your point is received fully you cannot undermine yourself or your message by using negative or self-doubtful phrases.

Increased awareness and effective communication, as previously stated, require honesty with yourself.  This means challenging your own thoughts and beliefs.  Miscommunications, misunderstandings and conflicts can go hand in hand.  Making assumptions that others should know what you feel, assuming that you know what another person is thinking, and assuming you know how you’re feeling when you don’t, are all examples of a lack of awareness/unchecked thinking.  Clarifying, identifying unhelpful thinking patterns, and challenging your own thoughts and beliefs will be discussed more in upcoming sections.

Consider the following:

Beatrice invites Francis to a party.  The invitation is extremely short notice and Francis has spent all week looking forward to an evening alone to read and catch up with his work.

Francis phones Beatrice, saying, “This might be crazy but I would rather, I think, stay in for the evening.  I would really love to go but I think I’ll remain home, if that’s okay.”

Francis’s response is long-winded and full of doubt.  It provides space for Beatrice to believe Francis wants to go.  She is currently busy planning the party, so does not hear his reluctance.  She insists and Francis feels unsure of himself — it’s evident he is afraid of hurting Beatrice’s feelings.  Francis ends up going to the party and he feels miserable and agitated for the rest of the evening.  He spends the night dreaming of the work he could have accomplished and the book he could have read.

It would have been in Francis’s favor if he said simply, “No, Beatrice, I cannot attend the party this evening.”  As his own authority of himself, he does not necessarily owe Beatrice an excuse, explanation, or apology.  It would, instead, reduce stress, and therefore reduce any possible unhealthy expressions of anger.   Francis would show confidence in his response, and in himself.

Effective Body Language for Assertive Communication

We have spent a lot of time on assertive communication thus far. We’re going to delve into it a little deeper in this next section. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, unchecked assumptions, and unclear expectations can lead to frustration, irritation, hurt feelings, sadness and ultimately anger.  If a situation involves another person, then that situation also involves communication.  One of the crucial keys to effective anger management is healthy communication skills!

We have already explored how to speak assertively and how to listen actively.  It’s fairly essential to be self-aware and aware of others. Being aware of one’s boundaries and the boundaries of others is also essential. Now we are going to look at body language.

Consider the following:

You do not like that your husband has not been picking up after himself.  You say something like, “I see your socks are still on the floor.  I spend a lot of time cleaning the house and sometimes I don’t have energy to pick up your socks as well.  When you take off your socks, I would like for you to put them in the hamper.” So far so good, right?

How do you think your message changes if your arms are crossed over your chest or you are pointing your finger at your husband’s face?  What might it say if you aren’t making eye contact or you are shuffling your feet?  Your husband may feel you aren’t being serious or he may feel defensive.  Either way, he will not be listening so much to your words as he will be listening to your body language.  Body language accounts for the majority of how people hear the words that we say.  In other words, it is not always what we say but how we say it.

How to Demonstrate Assertive Body Language

When using assertive body language, confidence is key. Conveying confidence lets other people know that what you are communicating means something to you and that it’s most likely worthy of their time.  The following are some ways to display confidence and physically communicate assertively:

  • Make eye contact.  This reaffirms the importance of what you are saying and the importance that you are saying it to them.  It’s important to note however, cultural differences related to eye contact, taking into consideration that in some cultures too much eye contact can be seen as aggressive or disrespectful.
  • Keep a neutral facial expression, if not a positive one.  This will make it less likely for someone to feel defensive.  Try to reduce any tension in  your face, this in turn will decrease the likelihood of having a scowl or frown on your face.
  • Keep your chest open and your body relaxed.  Maintain a straight or neutral posture, ensuring your shoulders are relaxed, not slumped or pulled forward.  Crossed arms close off your chest.  You want to work on opening your chest and keeping your head held up.
  • Keep gestures small, fluid, and relaxed.  Try to avoid overbearing hand gestures that could be intimidating. 
  • Keep level with the other person.  If the other person is standing, be sure to stand.  If the other person is sitting, sit.  This puts everyone on a level playing field.

Exercise

Continue practicing assertive communication.  Most of us are socially conditioned to be polite and respectful, often feeling that in order to do this you must be agreeable or not be honest about how you are thinking, feeling, wanting or needing.  You may feel reluctant to try assertive communication, as you are not sure how others may respond, do not feel you can trust the other person, or are afraid of hurting others. Look back to your previous log of information.  Imagine possible outcomes for communicating assertively.  Are these outcomes positive or negative?

If you imagine these outcomes to be negative, why do you think you feel that way?

Think of some conflicts you are currently facing, plans you would like to decline, or other difficult situations you need address.  Think of offering solutions or alternatives to these conflicts.  Francis, for instance, could have told Beatrice he would come next time, especially if there was more advance notice.

Practice assertive body language in front of a mirror.  Practice appearing confident and relaxed in front of friends or colleagues.  The more practice you have, the more likely you will use it in times of stress or anger.

Continue to take time out of your day to bring attention to your breathing, and awareness of your body.  When your anger or frustration arises, be sure to rate it however you see fit, using either a scale of 1-10, or a range of a little annoyed to extremely enraged. 1 is barely annoyed, and 10 is red hot fire anger. Start trying to gain more clarity about where your anger is located on this scale in any given moment when you feel on edge.

 Assertive Communication in Practice

Lesson 36

 

Assertive communication is best practiced during times of low-stress, so that it can become a healthy habit that your brain can access with ease.  Soon, assertive communication will become natural, and the amount of conflict faced may reduce significantly.   But what does assertive communication look like during a time of disagreement?  What does it look like when emotions and stress are relatively high?

 

  1. It is important to check in with your body.  Take notice of  any anger cues, remembering back to previous exercises and how you felt anger in your body (tension, flushed face, rapid breathing, etc).  Breathe into those parts of your body by envisioning each breath entering into that space where you feel tension. If it’s helpful, you can imagine that your breath is cool, refreshing air that is being sent to the part of your body that has become overheated.  You may want to try counting your breath.  Recognize that in high-stress situations, you are more likely to fall back into old habits and old patterns of communication.  You may repeat the same aggressive, passive or passive aggressive communication habits that you have worked hard to replace. Realize that it is okay to repeat old patterns because they can become learning opportunities, to get more knowledge on your old, habitual ways of doing things.

 

  1. Slow yourself down.  Imagine your life as a reel of film and pause the situation.  Is this a dire situation?  If it is not life or death, realize that you have time to negotiate, compromise, and take some space to figure out a peaceful resolution.  Slow the conversation down and try to let go of any feeling of urgency or of being rushed.

 

  1. Examine the situation.  If you would like to address something that has been bothering you or to talk about a problem with another person, then it is best to step back and understand fully what is actually creating tension within you.  Once you know why something is upsetting or rubbing you the wrong way, then you are in a position to better communicate that realization with the other person.  When you want to address a problem or situation that has been bothering you, avoid using criticizing or generalized statements, such as “You’re so lazy,” or, “This is so stupid.”   Instead, begin with your own experience of the situation, saying something like, “Having  a clean kitchen is important to me.  A clean kitchen helps me feel relaxed.  So when you do not wash the dishes, I end up washing them so that the kitchen stays clean, and I feel annoyed.”  Notice how this statement showcases what you are feeling without blaming someone else for your emotions.

 

  1. Next, present a solution for the issue.  Your personal awareness regarding how you are feeling, what you are thinking and what you need, as well as gaining an understanding of the other person’s needs and feelings, will assist you in coming up with some possible solutions.  Offer solutions that may address both of your needs, acknowledge how your needs may conflict with theirs if they do, and accept that you both may have to compromise slightly to come to a solution you can agree on.  Also keep in mind that the solution might require you accepting a situation as it is, or making changes you may not feel excited about.  In the above example with the dishes, you may have to accept your decision to clean the dishes at times without judging or blaming your roommate for your discomfort.  Maybe your roommate has to work late, feels overwhelmed and can only get to the dishes at the end of the week.  The solution may be that you ask that your roommate tell you when he/she is feeling overwhelmed so that you can decide to either do the dishes during this time or find a way to manage your anxiety until your roommate can do them.

 

  1. Try your best to listen even if the other person isn’t communicating assertively.  If another person has come to you with a problem and they have not communicated assertively, you may feel that they are blaming you. This may make you feel small, or ashamed.  This is especially true if the person was criticizing or making judgmental statements.  It would be easy to disregard the problem entirely, especially if the person was downright insulting.  Sweeping the problem under the rug unfortunately does not solve the problem.  In fact it may make the problem worse if you hung on to hurt feelings or anger related to how you felt when they presented the problem to you.  Instead, try to really listen and attempt to discover the person’s intention for bringing an issue to you.   Are there any unmet needs that this person is trying to fulfill?  Take note of these mentally but be careful to not make assumptions.  Ask questions or ask about the importance of this problem.  Once you know their needs or intentions you can address them.  For instance, if the person says, “You never help at all!”  you can acknowledge that the person feels that they need more help with the upkeep of the household, and that maybe sometimes you don’t help as much as you could.

 

  1. It’s not always what you say but how you say it.  Be mindful of your tone of voice, as well as the volume you use.  Stay brief in your response, focus on the facts, and keep your body relaxed.  In a relaxed physical state it is easier to stay in a relaxed mental state. It also helps you maintain a less threatening physical presence.

 

  1. Be respectful of the other person.  Acknowledge the issue they are presenting.  For instance, if they told you that you were lazy due to the fact that the dishes are not clean, maybe acknowledge that they are correct that you did not do the dishes.  This may work to defuse the situation, because the person’s feelings are acknowledged, but you did not accept the generalized criticism of your character.  Avoid matching their aggressive, disrespectful, or critical response.

 

  1. Stay on topic.  Keep the discussion focused on the solution and only the necessary parts of the past that relate to solving that problem.  Try to avoid getting caught in over-generalizations of past issues.  If the other person involved gets off topic, gently and respectfully request that the conversation stay focused on the matter at hand.

 

If you feel the other person isn’t listening or understanding what you are saying, feel free to ask what they heard.  If you are still at an impasse, ask if there is a better time to address this problem or issue.

 Exercise

Put these suggestions to use this week.  Review your other exercises regarding assertive communication.  Take note of when you didn’t use assertive communication.  Take note of when you did.  Was the conversation productive?  What kind of compromise was made?  How did you feel during?  After?

Effective Body Language for Assertive Communication

We have spent a lot of time on assertive communication thus far. We’re going to delve into it a little deeper in this next section. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, unchecked assumptions, and unclear expectations can lead to frustration, irritation, hurt feelings, sadness and ultimately anger.  If a situation involves another person, then that situation also involves communication.  One of the crucial keys to effective anger management is healthy communication skills!

 We have already explored how to speak assertively and how to listen actively.  It’s fairly essential to be self-aware and aware of others. Being aware of one’s boundaries and the boundaries of others is also essential. Now we are going to look at body language.

 Consider the following:

 You do not like that your husband has not been picking up after himself.  You say something like, “I see your socks are still on the floor.  I spend a lot of time cleaning the house and sometimes I don’t have energy to pick up your socks as well.  When you take off your socks, I would like for you to put them in the hamper.” So far so good, right?

How do you think your message changes if your arms are crossed over your chest or you are pointing your finger at your husband’s face?  What might it say if you aren’t making eye contact or you are shuffling your feet?  Your husband may feel you aren’t being serious or he may feel defensive.  Either way, he will not be listening so much to your words as he will be listening to your body language.  Body language accounts for the majority of how people hear the words that we say.  In other words, it is not always what we say but how we say it.

How to  Demonstrate Assertive Body Language

When using assertive body language, confidence is key. Conveying confidence lets other people know that what you are communicating means something to you and that it’s most likely worthy of their time.  The following are some ways to display confidence and physically communicate assertively:

 

  • Make eye contact.  This reaffirms the importance of what you are saying and the importance that you are saying it to them.  It’s important to note however, cultural differences related to eye contact, taking into consideration that in some cultures too much eye contact can be seen as aggressive or disrespectful.

 

  • Keep a neutral facial expression, if not a positive one.  This will make it less likely for someone to feel defensive.  Try to reduce any tension in  your face, this in turn will decrease the likelihood of having a scowl or frown on your face.

 

  • Keep your chest open and your body relaxed.  Maintain a straight or neutral posture, ensuring your shoulders are relaxed, not slumped or pulled forward.  Crossed arms close off your chest.  You want to work on opening your chest and keeping your head held up.

 

  • Keep gestures small, fluid, and relaxed.  Try to avoid overbearing hand gestures that could be intimidating.

 

  • Keep level with the other person.  If the other person is standing, be sure to stand.  If the other person is sitting, sit.  This puts everyone on a level playing field.

 

 Exercise

Practice assertive body language in front of a mirror.  Practice appearing confident and relaxed in front of friends or colleagues. The more practice you have, the more likely you will use it in times of stress or anger.

Keep practicing assertive communication in less stressful situations.  Politely and assertively decline the cashier asking for your email address.  Don’t offer to do a favor for a friend when you feel it may be overwhelming.

Continue to track your anger and rate it.

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