There are multiple postures or attitudes people can take up when communicating with one another. People can take an aggressive and challenging posture towards others, for instance, by making accusations and threats designed to intimidate or compel particular responses. They can also take a passive posture towards others, for instance, by accepting threats and accusations without challenge. There are serious problems with both of these postures, however, in that they both tend to produce and prolong unnecessary conflicts, and in general to create stress where it doesn't need to exist. Aggressive communication postures convey a lack of respect for those who are threatened, while passive postures convey a lack of self-respect on the part of the person being threatened. Thankfully, a third way to communicate called assertiveness doesn't have these problems.
Assertive communications are active like aggressive communications, except that they are defensive where aggressive communications are offensive. Where passive communicators allow people to invade or degrade them, assertive communicators defend themselves against invasions and degradations. Assertive communicators take all necessary steps to defend themselves, but are careful to stop short of invading someone else. To be assertive means to communicate respect for yourself and for whom you are communicating with at the same time. An assertive person communicates freely, but in a respectful, non-threatening manner. Assertiveness is a balancing act, requiring thoughtfulness and social awareness.
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No one is born assertive. Rather, it is a skill that must be learned and cultivated. Assertiveness is a skill worth learning because it helps you to communicate more effectively and to minimize the number of stressful situations you have to deal with in life.
You can use the following strategies in situations that require an assertive response.
- Stop. Interrupt your initial angry impulse so that you can think up a more useful response.
- Regroup. Take some deep breaths and use a relaxing cue, such as repeating the word calm over and over. Take a 'time-out' if necessary – minutes, hours, days – whatever is necessary. Don't respond until you are calm. Once you are calm, try to identify the things that have triggered your anger so that you can defuse them. Anger will distort rather than clarify your proper response.
- Communicate. Respond to the person who has caused you to be angry. Do so in a calm manner that shows you will defend yourself if necessary, but will not otherwise go out of your way to unnecessarily attack. If possible and appropriate, talk about how you have been affected by what has been said. Talk about your feelings – how you were affected, as opposed to making accusations. Talking about your own experience is unlikely to make the person you're speaking with defensive, and is more likely to get your message across clearly.
Consider the following example: Your significant other unexpectedly comes in very late without having called. You feel mistreated by this lack of communication which seems to indicate thoughtlessness and a lack of caring. Instead of yelling at your significant other (an aggressive response), or simply not commenting on the lateness (a passive response), you might try talking about how you have been affected. For example,
"I feel apprehensive when you are late because I care about you and worry that something might be wrong. I would really appreciate it if you would try to let me know when you are going to be late."
This assertive statement is likely to be much more effective than saying (aggressively),
"You are such a selfish jerk. I feel so mad I could scream when you don't call when you know you won't be home for dinner. You obviously don't care about your family because you are so thoughtless!"
Although the two examples both nominally talk about your experiences, the first example is more positive because it takes the other person's feelings into account. The second statement is rude, insulting, and more likely to antagonize the other person into continuing their uncommunicative behavior.
In the above example, your choice to lead with an assertive request versus an aggressive one can lead your conversation towards very different outcomes. There may have been no intention on the part of your significant other to be late – it may have been simple absentmindedness that he or she did not call. If you act on your hurt feelings without considering this possibility (providing him or her with the benefit of the doubt) you might end up causing him or her to become defensive or angry, making the situation worse. If you don't say anything, you may sulk and be upset with your significant other for a long while, also making the situation worse. A fight may ensue, or both of you may disconnect from one another lowering the chances of intimacy or reconciliation. If, however, you lead with an assertive statement, talking about how you were worried and concerned and even annoyed by what happened, your significant other is far more likely to hear what you have to say, and agree to your reasonable request that he or she should call you in the future.