How to Be Assertive
Welcome back to the course!
In yesterday’s lesson, we covered the four styles of communication. I hope this has given you a new tool to improve how you think about conversations. We’re halfway through the course, and that means you’re halfway through learning how to be a conversation pro.
Since being assertive is so important, it deserves its own lesson, so let’s dig into this most important conversation style.
Being Assertive, While Being Authentic
Those of us who have taken communication therapy are familiar with the trademarks of being assertive:
• Use “I” words to focus on your personal stakes in the conversation
• Avoid “you” words to avoid blaming
• Communicate your feelings, using feeling words
• State your needs
If you try to follow this too closely, it can make the other person feel like they’re talking to a counsellor, or like you’re quoting from a textbook. For example:
“I feel sad when I come home and see dirty dishes.”
“Why aren’t the dishes done? I’m sorry. I’m really upset.”
The above example runs more along the lines of textbook perfection. Whereas the second one is a bit more realistic.
In reality, when emotions like anxiety and anger are high, our thoughts—and the words we come up with—tend to be more disordered. This is why it’s easier to be assertive in a positive, uplifting conversation with a good friend than it is with a partner in the middle of a stressful few weeks.
I like to approach assertiveness from the same angle we approached listening: authenticity.
In authentic listening, you are trying to tap into a genuine form of listening based on curiosity. Along similar lines, in authentic assertive communication, you are tapping into a genuine form of assertiveness based on reframing how you see yourself in relation to the other person.
Instead of the hard-and-fast rules on how to make a perfect assertive sentence, you follow a list I like to call points of reframing.
Points of reframing should act like a mental bullet list hanging up in your imagination.
• Avoid “you” phrases
• Use “I” phrases
• Communicate feelings
• Consider the other person’s feelings
• Avoid blaming
• Create openings for the other person
Instead of entering a conversation with a memorized sentence format, you can be yourself by having these points of reframing as your guide. This gives you the ability to spin your conversation in different directions, at any point. This lets you remain spontaneous and authentically yourself in the conversation, while also equipping you with tools you can use to try and change the phrases you use.
What’s important about this is, it gets you thinking about each and every phrase in a conversation, rather than the whole conversation itself. Just because you were careless and forgetful for 5 phrases of exchange in a conversation doesn’t mean for the 6th that you can’t pause and try to work something in from your points of reframing checklist. That moment to work on that 6th point can then open up a whole new game of conversation, where communication shifts more toward assertiveness.
Shifting toward Assertive Communication
I mentioned in yesterday’s lesson that we can learn to shift each of the other three communication styles toward assertiveness. In fact, we will be devoting two whole lessons to this, since it covers two of the other important parts of conversations: arguments and criticism.
For the rest of today’s lesson, let’s look at the simplest of the three—shifting from passive to assertive communication, otherwise known as being honest.
You might be familiar with the term “yes-ma’aming”. This is a common result of passive communication, particularly in someone who is often passive.
Because many passive communicators are often conflict avoiders, they commonly avoid saying anything that will cause an argument. “Yes, ma’am,” is the flavor of most of their responses, though in reality it might look like this:
[Your friend] “I hated that movie, it was terrible!”
[You] “Yeah, I really was bored in the middle.” [though in reality, you quite liked the movie]
I am guilty of this quite a bit, especially when I am around someone I don’t want to disappoint. This is a hard one to overcome, but fortunately, there are some tricks, so let’s explore that in our tip of the day.
Tip of the Day: The “I Disagree with You, but” Standpoint
Just like “Yes, ma’am,” the “I disagree with you, but” standpoint is not going to be something you actually say, but the underlying intention. Below are some examples of how it can go—notice as well that I worded these very carefully so that they are assertive:
• “I definitely had a different take on it…”
• “That’s really interesting that we saw it so differently!”
• “I’m going to stick with my guns and say I really didn’t like it, but that’s just me!”
You can imagine these as applying to the above movie example. But they apply to many situations in life. Having different opinions is inevitable. We are not all carbon copies of each other. Some people see the world in an entirely different way from us.
Here is an example of how the passive movie conversation above could be different with this new standpoint:
[Your friend] “I hated that movie!”
[You, realizing you liked it a lot] “Really? I actually loved it. What did you hate about it?”
[Friend] “Well, first of all…”
[Conversation ensues, where you each discuss your take on it, and at the end are laughing together over how you both saw it so differently]
Because you’ve worded yourself assertively, you open a door to a discussion, rather than an argument. You’re not telling your friend they’re wrong. You’re simply telling them you have a different opinion, and would be interested to learn more about theirs.
Notice that, above all, this has now become assertive communication. Your friend’s needs here are to be able to freely express their opinion on the movie, and to feel respected as they do so. Likewise, you have identical needs.
Here, the “I disagree with you, but” standpoint has given you a way to frame the whole discussion as being one where no one person is right. Thus, you collaborate together, assertively—and authentically—to form a collective opinion on what the movie meant to both of you, and you feel comfortable together trusting each other to discuss it.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s lesson, where we’ll talk about how to deal with arguments.
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