People communicate with each other both verbally and non-verbally. Non-verbal communication includes body language, facial expressions, gestures, stance, etc. Interestingly, when there is a discrepancy between the verbal and non-verbal elements of our communication, we tend to believe the latter. It is, therefore, important to display a consistent way of communicating where verbal and non-verbal aspects are in line. The way we communicate falls into three main categories – aggressive, passive and assertive. These are the three main communication styles. This blog will focus on assertive communication skills as well as pointing out the differences among all three communication styles.
What is assertiveness?
Many of us are taught to always concede or defer to others. We learn that it is selfish to put our needs above those of others and if someone does something we don’t like, we just need to stay away from the person and not say anything. These beliefs and behaviors are consistent with the passive communication style. These ideas, however, can create 1) resentment at others for manipulating us or being taken advantage of; 2) frustration or letting others walk all over us; and 3) anxiety and avoidance because we feel uncomfortable around many situations and people, so we miss out on fun activities, job opportunities and relationships.
Assertiveness is the ability to honestly express our opinions, feelings, attitudes and rights in a way that respects the rights of others. Assertive behavior demonstrates respect for self and others, promotes self-disclosure, self-control and appreciation of self-worth. It is also the most effective way to solving interpersonal problems. Through direct communication, it is possible to reduce interpersonal conflict in our lives and as a result remove a major source of stress. According to Rimm and Masters (1979), “assertive behavior is an interpersonal behavior involving relatively honest and direct expression of thoughts and feelings that are socially appropriate an take into account the feelings and welfare of other people”.
The assertive communication style is a combination of passive and aggressive styles. It requires a balance between what we want and what others want. It is based on an open attitude towards ourselves and others, where we are able to hear others’ points of view while respectfully asking for what we need. Assertiveness, however, is not a natural behavior that most of us are born with. It is a skill that can be learned and that needs to be practiced so it can be used effectively.
The main difference between assertiveness and aggression is the respect for others that is an important element of assertive communication. Aggressive communication includes manipulation, threats, verbal abuse, and not taking into account or respecting the views of others. It often leads to further conflict. Passive communicators don’t know how to express their feelings and needs. They often fear conflict so much that they prefer to hide their true feelings and needs in order to maintain the peace with others. The other party always “wins” and the passive communicator often experiences a loss of self-esteem as a result.
Assertive communication has three important components:
Empathy/validation – show that we understand the other person’s feelings and not trying to pick a fight.
E.g.: “I know you get anxious when you are ready to go…”
Statement of problem – describe the difficulty or dissatisfaction with the situation and explain why something needs to change.
E.g.: “…but when you do that, I get really frustrated and feel rushed, so I take even more time. By the time we get in the car, we are both angry at each other and not in the mood to have a good time”
Statement of what you want – a specific request for a specific change in the person’s behavior.
E.g.: “from now on, let’s be clear on what time we want to leave, but if you are ready before I am, will you please just go to another room and watch TV?”
How to be effectively assertive
Use assertive body language – keep eye contact, stand or sit straight, face the other person, don’t use dismissive gestures, have a pleasant but serious facial expression, keep a calm and soft voice.
Use “I” statements – focus on your experience/feelings and the problem you are having, do not blame the other person. If you start with “you”, the phrase will be perceived as an attack and the listener will want to defend themselves and maintain the conflict.
E.g.: “I would like to tell my story without interruption” vs. “You are always interrupting me”
Use facts, not judgments – use factual descriptions of what upset you but do not attach labels or judgments.
E.g.: “Did you know that your shirt has some spots?” vs. “You are not going out looking like that, are you?”
Describe – do not exaggerate or judge, simply describe the effects of behavior.
E.g.: “We have less time available to discuss this issue, because I have another meeting at 6.30pm” vs. “You ruined my whole night”
Express ownership of your thoughts, feelings and opinions – E.g.: “I get angry when he lies” vs. “He makes me angry”
Make clear, direct requests – E.g.: “Will you please …”
The formula for assertive communication is – “when you (other’s behavior), then (result of behavior), and I feel (my feelings).”
E.g.: “When you tell the children that they can do something I forbade them, then my parental authority is undermined and I feel embarrassed.”
Assertiveness is not only a communication style, but a life-style in that it affects all aspects of life. People who acquire assertiveness skills often get their needs met and as a result experience less conflict, less stress, stronger relationships, a better mental state and improved health.
Assertive Communication References
Vivian Barnette, PhD. Wisconsin DHFS Caregiver Project. Retrieved from:http://www.uiowa.edu/~ucs/asertcom.html
Pipas, M.D. & Jaradat, M. (2010). Assertive Communication Skills. Annales Universitatis Apulensis Series Oeconomica, 12(2), 649-656.
Brehm Sharon S. Kassin Saul M., 2008. Social Psychology, Fifth Edition, Indiana University Bloomington, Williams College Steven Fein, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston U.S.A.
Nelson-Jones, Richard, 1996. Relating Skills. Redwood Books, Trowbridge, Wiltshire.
Perlow Leslie, 2003. When You Say Yes But Mean No: How Silencing Conflict Wrecks Relationships and Companies …and What You Can Do About It. New York: Crown Business.
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