Do you find yourself agreeing to do things that you really don't want to do just because someone asked you and it was hard to say no? Do you feel like other people take advantage of you? Do you find yourself getting really frustrated in these situations and sometimes even have trouble controlling your temper? Do you feel like people should be able to know what you need/want/feel without you saying it, if only they would pay closer attention? If you answered yes to these questions, you might benefit from learning some ways to be more assertive. In this article I will talk about what assertiveness is, some problems associated with being unassertive, and some specific strategies for being more assertive in your relationships and communication with others.
Assertiveness is a term that describes the ability to clearly, directly, and honestly express your rights, opinions, thoughts and feelings in a way that does not attack, blame, or infringe on the rights of others. I will give some examples of assertive communication later on in this article, but here will just say that assertiveness tends to involve speaking from one's own opinion (and taking ownership of it), sticking to facts when expressing displeasure (instead of judging), and not overreacting to or personalizing others' responses to what you've said. It requires self-reflection, honesty, openness, and a willingness to listen.
While these are qualities that we would all most likely espouse, there are many of us who are not assertive in our interactions and struggle with the negative effects of unassertiveness. Lots of people are taught that it is wrong or selfish to consider our own needs before considering the needs of others. As children (and even as adults) we might have been told not to "rock the boat", or that we should just ignore people who say or do things we don't like. Though it is certainly useful to be able to choose to ignore someone or to consider someone else's needs first in some situations, the key to this is that it is a choice, not a reflex. When you think of someone else first ALL the time and try to ignore other people walking all over you instead of addressing it with them, you will likely begin to feel resentful and angry at others for taking advantage of you. You may even start to feel depressed (as this anger gets directed inward) leaving you feeling helpless and with no control over your life and relationships. This kind of resentment or depression can lead to frustration, hostility, and even violence in some cases. If you feel unassertive and unable to control or manage relationships, you might find yourself feeling increasing anxiety and a desire to avoid people altogether. These responses (resentment, depression, anger, and anxiety) can lead to very problematic relationships in which you find it exceedingly difficult to tell people how you feel, what you think, or what you need. And predictably, the relationship problems that stem from this difficulty in expressing yourself lead to further feelings of depression, hopelessness, and resentment.
If you recognize these kinds of behaviors and relationship problems from your own life, don't worry--you're not alone.Because so many people struggle with these issues, I'm going to talk about how to be more assertive. I will first review the three main components of any assertive statement, and will then outline some specific strategies for being more assertive (and thereby improving your relationships).
In most assertive communications there are three main parts. These are: empathy/validation, statement of the problem, and specific request. Let me give an example of an assertive statement and then highlight which part of the statement corresponds to each of these parts. An assertive person might say, "I know that you had a really tough day and are really stressed about school right now. I would guess that cleaning the apartment is the last thing on your mind.But when I get home and see that you left dirty dishes in the sink and dirty laundry on the floor, I get really frustrated and feel like I have to clean them up. Then I get mad at you and we end up fighting. Would you be willing to wash the dishes and put the laundry in the hamper before I get home? I think it would help change this pattern so we can get along better. "
In this statement the empathy/validation part is "I know you had a really tough day and are really stressed. . . . "When you start by showing sensitivity and understanding of what things might be like for someone else, you quickly reduce their defensiveness and help them to listen to the rest of what you're trying to say. It shows that you're not trying to pick a fight, but that you want to work together to improve your relationship in some way.
The next part of our example demonstrates a clear statement of the problem. ("But when I get home and see you left dirty dishes in the sink and laundry on the floor, I get really frustrated and feel like I have to clean them up. Then I get mad at you and we end up fighting. ")These two sentences clearly and concisely state what the problem behavior is and what the emotional consequence is for you. They are statements of fact rather than opinions or judgments about the other person. This part of an assertive communication sets the stage for you to ask for a change from the other person.
Asking for change involves making a specific request. In the above example, this is the last two sentences beginning with "Would you be willing. . . . ?"This request outlines the specific behavior that you would like the other person to change and provides a brief explanation of how you think this would be helpful ("I think it would help change this pattern. . . ").
There are some very specific strategies you can use to ensure that you communicate assertively and structure your conversations to include these three components. For example, using "I statements" can be helpful in this regard. If you're careful to start statements with "I feel. . . ", "I think. . . ", or "I'd like. . . " it is easier to express yourself clearly without judging or blaming someone else. This keeps the focus on the part of the interaction that is a problem for you--and sticking to communication about how something feels for you leaves very little room for argument. A general sentence structure that promotes this is "I feel when you do . Would you be willing to do instead?"
Another related strategy for communicating assertively is sticking to facts, not judgments. The difference between the two might look something like this: "Your hair is sticking up" vs. "You are a total mess; I can't believe you're going out like that!"Another piece of sticking to the facts is staying focused on one topic instead of bringing in other things you're upset about. If the person you're talking to starts bringing up other issues or criticizing/blaming while you're trying to communicate assertively, you might say something like, "I understand that there are other things that you're upset about. I'd like to finish talking about and then would be happy to hear about that upsets you. Could we get back to now?"
Sometimes the person you're speaking to will have a lot of resistance to listening, even when you're communicating assertively and clearly. In that case you might try using a "broken record" technique in which you keep repeating your point in a calm, pleasant voice. If this doesn't help (or if it seems to aggravate the situation), you can comment on that by saying something like, "This conversation doesn't seem to be going very well. Maybe we can start over. "You may also just decide that the time is not right and that you (and/or the other person) just need some time to cool off before talking about a heated issue.
Changing the way you talk to and relate to others can be difficult and generally requires a lot of practice in order to feel comfortable. It can be easier to practice assertive communication with people who you don't know very well as this can feel less scary (you have less at risk if strangers get angry with you).However, in general, people don't get angry and usually respond well to this kind of communication. More than that, being assertive in close relationships can actually improve relationships by helping people feel more connected and closer to one another.People will trust you more because they know that you will speak your mind clearly and honestly. Assertive communication can also improve your own self-esteem. If you feel empowered to speak clearly and directly, share your thoughts, and work on your relationships, you're bound to feel better about yourself in the end.