June 7 , 2019 • 5 minute read • by Saeed
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
George Bernard Shaw
In life many of us are taught that we should always concede, appease or defer to others. Sometimes this is cultural. Sometimes it’s familial.
We are taught that it is selfish to consider our needs above those of others. We are taught not to assert our needs, wants and desires.
And like a bean bag chair, what gets pushed out the other end is either passive or aggressive or passive-aggressive communication and behaviors that are self defeating, and cause more harm to relationships.
I have seen many careers go down in flames in the flash of an eye because the person had not developed assertive communication skills.
Moreover, assertive people tend to have fewer conflicts in their dealings with others, which translates into much less stress in their lives.
First let’s define assertiveness.
Some people mistakenly think they are being “assertive” when in fact they are being aggressive.
Assertiveness is the ability to honestly express your opinions, feelings, attitudes, and rights in a way that respects the rights of others.
Aggressive communication and behavior involves communicating in a demanding, abrasive, or hostile way. It is insensitive to others’ rights, feelings and beliefs. The usual goals of aggression are domination and winning, forcing the other person to lose.
On the other end of the spectrum is passive-aggressive communication. We have all experienced the person who expresses their feelings in an indirect way through passive resistance, rather than by openly confronting an issue. Instead of directly communicating the desires and needs, they resort to sulking; ignoring; complaining; procrastinating; deliberately being late or slow; intentionally dropping the ball; acting in a way that will frustrate others; giving you the silent treatment and ‘acting innocent’ when they have done something to hurt someone.
Assertive communication is important because it helps us avoid:
- Resentment: I feel anger at others for manipulating, exploiting or taking advantage of me.
- Frustration: How could I be such a push-over? Why did I let them walk all over me? What’s wrong we me?
- Anxiety and Avoidance: When we begin to avoid situations or people that we know will make us uncomfortable, we may miss out on fun activities, job opportunities, relationships, and lots of other good stuff.
Some people may believe that they don’t have the right to be assertive. Others fear repercussions of acting assertively and others still just lack the skills to express themselves effectively.
It is extremely important when communicating that you focus on the person’s behavior and not their personality. This is what it looks like in action:
1. Tell the person what you think about their behavior without accusing them.
2. Tell them how you feel when they behave a certain way.
3. Tell them how their behavior affects you and your relationship with them.
4. Tell them what behavior you would prefer them instead.
Assertive communication has three important components:
1. Empathy/validation: It’s important that you first demonstrate that you understand the other person’s feelings. This shows the other person that you’re not trying to pick a fight and it takes the wind out of their sails.
For example: “I know that you have a lot going on and it’s sometimes difficult for you to meet all the demands of your day…”
2. Problem Statement: Using “I” messages, describe your difficulty or dissatisfaction with the situation and why you need something to change.
For example: “…but I feel anxious when you don’t return my emails because I am not sure how to interpret the silence…”
3. Solution Statement: This is a specific request or solution for a specific change in the other person’s behavior you would like to see.
For example: “Moving forward, could we agree that you will just let me know that you received my email with a simple short reply even if you don’t have time to answer my question?”
As you practice this approach, you will become more comfortable with assertively communicating your needs, wants and desires. Remember that voice tone, eye contact, and body posture are important parts of assertive communication.
Make sure your body language matches your words. Your listener will get mixed messages if you are speaking firmly while looking at the floor.
Speak at a normal conversation volume, rather than a shout or whisper, and make sure that you sound firm but not aggressive.
Tell the other person how you feel as honestly as you can, and remember to listen to what they say as well.
A Final Word
The purpose of communication is to share ideas and negotiate relationships. Communicating assertively will not guarantee the other person will change his or her behavior and give you what you want, but it will help you establish limits and boundaries with others. Assertiveness is a skill which requires you to practice in many different situations. You objective should always be to create mutual purpose while you balance what’s best for yourself, others and the relationship.
In the words of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, “Communication works best when we combine appropriateness with authenticity, finding that sweet spot where opinions are not brutally honest but delicately honest.” The result for both parties is win-win.
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