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Assertive Communication Skills: Taking a Stand Without Putting your Foot in Your Mouth

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Sometimes it seems like the hardest thing to do in life is CHANGE ourselves.  It’s a terrible word isn’t it? Change? Just makes me shiver.  Why can’t everyone around me change?!  I mean, honestly!  Unfortunately, we often find the hardest part isn’t to change ourselves, but rather for everyone that we love and care about to believe that we have changed!  It is even harder to maintain our changes when the people around us keep wanting us to be the same person and do the same things as we did before.

Learning assertive communication skills can decrease unnecessary stress and anxiety in your life.  It can also help you to improve your relationships so that they are more fulfilling.  Another benefit of assertive communication skills is that it helps us to accept ourselves because we no longer feel that other people are controlling us.

Take the Assertiveness Quiz!

  • When you make plans with a friend and they cancel at the last minute with what you consider to be a lame reason:  You respond by doing which of the following:
  • Saying, “No problem.  I understand.” And then going home and sulking to yourself thinking about how mad you are at them
  • Saying, “What the hell?  We made plans.  I can’t believe you are flaking on me!  I never want to hang out with you again!” and hanging up the phone.
  • Saying, “I really wish that you would have told me in advance that you weren’t going to be able to make it.  I’m not very happy with the fact that you are flaking at the last minute because it is very inconvenient for me, but it’s not the end of the world.  If we make plans in the future, please let me know as soon as possible when you need to cancel.”

Now before scrolling down to look at the answers (which are on the last page), label each one of those statements with the following:  Assertive Communication Style, Passive Communication Style, and Aggressive Communication Style.

Go ahead and peek at what the answers are…

Now ask yourself these questions:

1.  Which one of the communication styles (Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive) is most likely going to help you maintain your friendship with that person, but also let them know that you are not okay with them treating you that way?

2.  If you are a Passive communicator, do you often find yourself getting angrier and angrier as people continue to do the same rude things to you? (such as flake on you, take advantage of you, etc.)

3.  If you are an Aggressive communicator, do you often find that you don’t feel better after getting angry with that person because they continue to do the same things to you, or just completely avoid you because they are scared you will  be outrageously mad at them?

4.  If you use Assertive communication skills, do you find that usually you have pretty good relationships with people, where you can tell them when you don’t like things and your relationship stays the same?

That is the goal!  To keep our relationships, and minimize unnecessary drama and conflict.  So how do we do that exactly???? Be assertive!

Most people in this world do not practice assertive communication skills.  Being assertive is a delicate balance between being passive and being aggressive.

Here are some Crucial Habits for helping to maintain your changes with our toughest critics (usually our family members and spouses/partners):

  • Problem: We blurt things out without realizing what the impact of our words may be!

Crucial Habit #1: Think before you speak and make sure that you are truly saying what you want to.  If necessary, jot things down on a piece of paper before a difficult situation.

  • Problem: Allowing ourselves to be overrun by others and saying Yes to their every desire.

Crucial Habit #2: Remind yourself that it’s ok to say No!  The tone that you use and the way you say it makes all the difference.  Be genuine and considerate of the other persons feelings, but stay firm in your answer or you will regret it later.

  • Problem: We all believe that everyone must see the world the same way we do….So we constantly try to convince other people to come to our side.

Crucial Habit #3: Stop trying to convince people that your opinion is the “right one”  It is a losing battle!  Everyone is entitled to their own opinion (including you).  Choose not to get upset with others when they don’t share your views.  Remind yourself that everyone is unique and there is no one right way.

  • Problem: Thinking about what we are going to say next in an argument instead of actually listening to what the other person is saying.

Crucial Habit #4: Actually listen when people are talking to you!  One way to practice this is to ask for clarification on things if you are unsure what the person said.  Summarize their words and then reflect them back to them.  They will be impressed with your new listening skills, and most likely less defensive.

  • Problem: Challenging other people’s emotions.  Ask yourself: How can you really challenge how another person feels?!

Crucial Habit #5: Validate the other persons emotions.   You don’t have to agree with them.  If someone says that they feel angry because of something we did, they can choose to be angry.  It may not be helpful to conflict resolution if they are angry for something minor, but are you really going to resolve the argument if you get angry because they are angry for a reason you don’t agree with? A nice phrase to use to diffuse potentially conflictual situations is “I can understand where you are coming from and there may be some truth in what you are saying.” Then you can go on to express how you feel.

  • Problem: We fight other people’s resistance to our change.

Crucial Habit #6: Accept their resistance!  Stick to the facts when discussing your dislikes with loved ones. Don’t label, exaggerate, or judge them.

Just describe the facts of what happened, such as this, “We were supposed to have lunch at 12:00p.m. Unfortunately, now it is 12:45p.m. so I have less time to spend with you because I need to be back to work by 1:15p.m.

You can use this same formula: “when __(you do whatever)_____, then _(this happens)______, and I feel.  When you show up late, I don’t have much time to spend with you, and I feel agitated

  • Problem: We expect our loved ones to catch us making changes

Crucial Habit #7: Accept that most people will not see changes in you right away.  If 1 + 1 has always equaled 2, it is going to be hard for someone to believe that 1 + 1 could equal 3.  No matter how hard we are trying, it usually takes awhile of us practicing our new selves before people realize it. One reason for this is that a lot of times if we change it means the people around us have to do something different!  For example, if a child kicks, yells, and screams every time he doesn’t get an ice cream, and after throwing a tantrum for 20 minutes his parents give in every time. If they stop giving in, the child will have to figure out a different way of getting his parents to give in (or maybe they won’t!)  Prepare yourself before going into a situation with the difficult person by repeating a certain phrase over and over again that helps you to get a healthy perspective on the situation.  An example would be:  “I am strong.  I can handle this.  Hopefully, they will see that I have changed in time, but if they don’t that is ok.”

  • Problem: When we are in difficult family situations where people are acting the same toward us, we get impatient.

Crucial Habit #8: Persevere!  It only takes 14 days for us to make a habit.  It takes many more for someone else to understand we have a new habit J If you are happy with the changes you have made for yourself, stick with them!

  • Problem: We are DEMANDING things from other people.

Crucial Habit #9:Use Preferences: I feel, I like it when, I would really appreciate it if you… For example:  Instead of telling someone, “I hate it when you don’t call me back the same day. Everyone has to call me back as soon as possible” Try: “Next time I would really prefer if you could call me back the same day.”

  • Problem: When talking to family, we are quick to do one of two things: 1) always accept the blame for things when we didn’t do anything wrong, OR 2) Blame everyone else!  Does any of this sound familiar to you?  Can you think of a time when you were the blamed or the blamer?  My guess is that you ended up communicating these feelings either Passively or Aggressively!   

Crucial Habit #10: Use “I” statements: I think, I feel, I prefer.  This type of communication is much harder to argue with because it is more difficult to challenge someone’s emotions.  For example:

Blamed or Blamer would say “You never listen to me.  You make me so mad!!!!  How do you think the person will react?  Let me guess:  “You don’t even know what you are talking about.  You never listen to me!”  It becomes an instant argument because now both people are defensive.

Assertive Communication skills would be, “Sometimes I really feel like you don’t listen to me.  I get myself upset when I feel like you are not listening.  I would really like to find a way for us to communicate more effectively with one another.

  • Problem- Our Ego is in the Way! It would help us to be less egotistical! Not everything in life is about us!  Sometimes people are rude or curt with us simply because they are having a bad day and we are the nearest target.

Crucial Habit #11: Ask the person directly:  “Are you Ok?  Did I do something to offend you?”  By doing this, you are cutting out any potential for incorrect assumptions, such as “She is mad at me.” When in truth, the person may have just gotten lectured by their boss.

Final Thoughts

  • Be aware of your body posture- have open body posture, use calm inviting tone
  • Don’t forget to validate yourself!  Reward yourself for making improvements in your relationships.
  • Be firm, but kind
  • Try to find a way to compromise that you and the other person(s) can both agree to

Answer Key:

A= Passive Communication Style

B= Aggressive Communication Style

C= Assertive Communication Style

Say Yes to Love,

Dr. Michael Arn & Dr. Ashley Arn

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