What Does It Mean To Be Assertive?
Relationships can be tricky. Everyone argues with their family members, friends, or partner at some point or another. It’s natural. We just don’t get along with everyone all of the time. In fact, above anything else, we are most likely to experience tension and anger in interpersonal relationships. We are just not always sure how to communicate with our partners without stressing both of us out even more.
One thing that we can do to improve communication in our relationships is to work on how assertive we are. Assertive is a misunderstood word. When you hear the word assertive what comes to mind? If you are like most people then assertive represents a strong and attacking word. But in fact, being assertive is the most effective way to communicate with our partners. First, let’s review the three basic ways to communicate: passively, aggressively, and assertively.
Passive communication is not being direct but instead beating around the bush. It is asking for something indirectly and hoping that your partner can read your mind and “just know” what you want. But unfortunately, we are not mind readers (and that includes therapists). Most of us need everything spelled out for us. Relationships are challenging enough without having to make your partner guess what you want. Sometimes we are direct with what we want, but do so in a very timid way. Let’s say I drop my keys on the floor, and although you see me clutching my back you don’t know for certain that I have back pain. Consider how you might respond if I were to ask you “Can …can… you maybe hand those to me, if you do not mind? I really don’t want to inconvenience you. But, maybe, you might consider getting them for me.” Do you want to get my keys for me? You might get them because it isn’t much of an inconvenience, but it certainly makes me appear pathetic. Asking in a passive manner is not likely to lead to the best outcome for you or for the relationship.
An alternative way to communicate is to be aggressive. Of the three communication styles, being aggressive is most likely to damage your relationship. In fact, it is more likely to make people want to hit you rather than help you. Aggressive communication takes a combatic approach against the other person. Similar to the example above, if I were to drop my keys on the floor and with my hand on my lower back say: “Holy shit. Give me the keys. Can’t you see my back is hurting me? God damn!” That is not likely to leave a good taste in anyone’s mouth. In fact, most people would not want to help me, and the few people who would help me are likely doing so out of fear. And, if that is our partner, do we want them to be afraid of us? This approach usually makes the other person feel defensive and angry, thus, tending to lead to a fight.
The approach that is most likely to get what we want is the assertive approach. Being assertive is the equivalent of being an 80 out of 100 (with 100 being the angriest we could be), but operating at a 40. It is treating the other person with mutual respect, maybe even in spite of how they have treated you. Following the same example as above, “Excuse me. I feel a bit uncomfortable asking this, but can you please hand me my keys? My back is hurting me and I can’t move around well.” This is the middle ground between the two and this assertive approach is most likely to get the other person to hand you your keys, as well as maintain (and maybe even enhance) the relationship. The content of what I said and how I said it were different from the first two approaches. I was not too soft spoken and I was not demanding. I expressed my feelings and I politely asked for your help. Taking this approach in conflicts that emerge in relationships often helps for both of you to get what you want and improve the relationship.
Additionally, when communicating in an assertive manner it helps to use “when-then” statements. Saying something like: “When you lied to me, I felt betrayed. It seems like you didn’t trust me and it makes it hard to trust you.” In this case, the when is “when you lied to me” and the then is “I felt betrayed. It seems like you didn’t trust me and it makes it hard to trust you.” By using these words, you are being open and honest with the other person by telling him or her how you feel. You are also doing it in a way that is most likely to get the most desired reaction, which is the lying. I cannot highlight enough that an important part of this is to communicate how you are feeling, not what you are thinking. People often conflate the two, but feelings are usually a single word and relate to an emotion, whereas thoughts are often more than one word or phrase and are an idea or opinion. Communicating how you are feeling makes it less likely that you and the other party will get into an argument.
I encourage you to try practicing being assertive even when you are not angry. It is challenging enough to use the skill, let alone when emotions are high. Just like how baseball players don’t step into the game without practicing first, we need to practice this skill before we try to use it while angry. If you find this to be repeatedly difficult (and it certainly can be) then I would encourage you to reach out to a professional.