Assertiveness: what does it look like?
Take a moment now and think about the conversations you have with different people in your life. Do you ever find that you can’t seem to help snapping at someone you love and you feel guilty afterwards?
Or have you ever felt overwhelmed because you can’t find the words to express yourself and you let other people make decisions for you?
Or maybe you feel misunderstood by your partner and you take a dig at them - hoping that they will pick up on this - rather than openly expressing your needs and feelings.
These are just a few examples, we all have our own communication style, which is the way we communicate our words and exchange information with others.
And there are four basic communication styles that you could identify with: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive and assertive. This last one being the most effective, leading to clear and positive interactions.
Understanding what these communication styles are and how they interact with each other can help you in lots of situations:
- When you need to react in a confrontation with a difficult person.
- When you struggle to get your point of view across in that work meeting.
- When you’re talking with a loved one and you feel they aren’t being clear.
It's important to understand that we have a choice on what communication style we use, and we tend to change this depending what situation we are in or who we are talking to. You would talk very differently to your boss compared to your friend for example.
So, our communication style is constantly moving along a spectrum of the main styles, where assertiveness is right in the middle between being too aggressive and too passive.
Although we are able to alter our style, we tend to have our standard communication style which we revert to as our natural baseline. Some people use more effective styles than others, which can be the result of different things – our age, our experiences and our culture being a few of them.
We are all able to work at improving our communication style which takes a high level of self-awareness and can need practice.
The starting point is to figure out your own communication style, as well as how to recognise other people's, then you can begin to communicate more effectively, understand what effect that has on your relationships and create more positive interactions.
Let’s begin by understanding the basics of assertiveness.
As we mentioned, the healthiest form of communicating is using the assertive style. In a nutshell, this means that you communicate in a way which allows you to stand up for your point of view, whilst respecting others. Essentially assertiveness is based on mutual respect; it’s about being straightforward, to state openly, clearly and honestly what you would like to happen, but not demanding it.
So, assertive individuals express feelings, needs and preferences directly to another person, in a way that respects them both.
Assertiveness is the balance between a passive and an aggressive attitude and for many people this is something extremely difficult to reach.
By using this style, it allows for clear communication with little room for misunderstanding. It’s really useful to boost your own confidence and strengthen your connection with others.
How can you spot assertive communication?
You may notice that assertive people use “I” statements, such as "I think I understand what you are saying, but I am in disagreement.”
An unhealthy way to say this could be “You are wrong” or “Don’t be stupid” or “Sure, that’s fine, but most people will disagree”.
Now, can you see how different it sounds? And can you imagine the different consequences this would have on the interaction and on the way people receive it? Imagine you are on the receiving end of these words, how would you feel?
As you can see, the assertive words indicate ownership of opinions as well as the responsibility for them, without belittling the other person.
Assertive communicators feel competent and in control and don’t allow others to abuse or manipulate them; they listen carefully, without interrupting, and speak in a calm and clear tone of voice; they have good eye contact and a relaxed body posture.
Another example of effective communication could be “I feel frustrated when you walk away from me when I am speaking”. I know it’s not always easy to share how you feel, but your partner, or your mother, or your friend, is not a mind reader. Unless you express this, they won’t know and will continue to behave in this way.
Sure, you may as well say something like “don’t you dare walking away from me” or some people could think that it’s safer to hold it in, out of fear that it could put the relationship at risk. Again, think of the real consequences of these two actions: if you choose to lash out, it’s likely that the other person will feel attacked and that it could escalate into a conflict.
And if you choose to be passive and hold it in, the other person will never know that their behavior bothers you, they would be likely to continue, you will build up your frustration and resentment, and ultimately the relationship could actually be at risk.
But if you have the courage to express how you feel in front of a certain behavior, you give yourself the chance not only to express your voice, but also to have a meaningful conversation. This can lead to a profound understanding, if you and your partner are willing not just to open up, but also to listen to each other with respect and with a compassionate attitude.
Let’s do just a couple more example of assertive communication:
When you express your opinion in a meeting at work and you get interrupted and you say “Excuse me, I would like to finish what I was saying”. Or if a friend denies you a favour that was really important to you, you could say “I understand that you are also very busy, thank you anyway”. Or when you are waiting for your turn in a shop and someone skips the line, you could say “excuse me, perhaps you didn’t see me but it’s my turn now”.
I hope that this article has helped you see how choosing to communicate openly and respectfully has a huge impact not only in that one interaction, but to a much deeper level on the way you feel, on they way the other person feels and on the relationship you have. If you want to build a safe and trusting relationship you cannot excuse yourself - and others! - from trying to communicate healthily.
I know this can be difficult at times and I still happen to lose it when I feel really angry or frustrated: the point is, even if you snap, you can humbly take a step back, and with awareness reflect to what you just said and apologise if you need and rephrase it.