2 Step Approach to Assertiveness
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
“To be passive is to let others decide for you. To be aggressive is to decide for others. To be assertive is to decide for yourself. And to trust that there is enough, that you are enough.” ~ Edith Eva Eger
The different communication styles are passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive and assertive. Each of those were explained before, as well as the reasons behind each of these styles.
If your communication style is passive you have a difficulty expressing your own needs and wishes. This can be out of fear of the potential consequences, out of a need to please others and go along to keep the peace, out of not really knowing how to express yourself, or perhaps you do not value your needs as very significant as compared to the other’s. Passive communication style usually reflects low self-esteem.
This can prove detrimental for relationships because if you consistently keep silent of what you want, resentment and frustration can build up within you; thus making it likely that you will eventually explode in an inappropriate way, or simply the relationship will at some point become unbearable for you to handle, because you feel you’re at the mercy of the other person’s control. Withdrawal or escape will then seem like viable solutions.
If your communication style is aggressive, you risk damaging relationships as well. Perhaps you have a strong sense of how things should be, and cannot contain yourself when you think that a certain behaviour from another was not right or fair. Or you have a need to control interpersonal events, and feel very angry if others violate your rules. The actual risk is that you may explode in a rage, say hurtful things you wish you could take back later, and push people away. Intimidation is most certainly not the way to go if you would like to have healthy and stable relationships.
Therefore, both passivity and aggression can destroy relationships. The optimal way to communicate is being assertive; being clear about what you want, and able to state it in a clear, direct, non-threatening and concrete way.
Assertiveness is your ability to act in harmony with your self-esteem, without hurting others. Although there are other components to assertive communication, such as effective coping and resolution of conflicts, negotiation skills, how to refuse in an assertive way, and how to employ assertive listening, I consider the above two steps as the backbone of assertive communication, which is why the focus of today’s post is this 2-step approach towards assertiveness, as suggested by the Interpersonal Effectiveness skills training of Dialectical Behavior Therapy .
STEP 1: KNOWING WHAT YOU WANT
As with anything else, self-awareness is the first and most crucial step. Without knowing what it is that you want exactly, how can you assert your wishes clearly to anyone else?
This is often easier said than done. Many of us do not have clearly defined boundaries inside, or we haven’t taken the time to reflect on what these are.
1. Identify your Boundaries and Values
It is essential to know your boundaries and values in interpersonal relationships. Your boundaries are your hotspots. The values that are most important to you are likely to be triggered if you feel them violated or disrespected. In such occasions you may end up acting in aggressive or passive ways, thereby hindering effective communication and smooth sailing in your relationships.
To define your boundaries and values, carefully consider the following questions:
What are those situations that mostly upset you?
What makes you specifically angry or sad?
Some common examples:
when you receive criticism
when you receive devaluing comments
when someone interferes in your personal choices
when you are ignored
when others don’t listen to your opinion
when others interrupt you
when others push you with demands towards a specific action
The list can go on, the above are just a few examples to help you get started. By identifying your boundaries, you are better aware of the situations that those are compromised or crossed.
2. What Do You Feel?
Your feelings are a reliable guide towards realizing what you want, or when your buttons are pushed. When you are faced with unpleasant interactions with others, this feeling of discomfort can be a sign that your needs are not being met.
After all, relationships flow smoothly when the “I want-You want” ratio is balanced. In situations two people want different things, negotiation is necessary in order to find a solution that satisfies both sides, even partly.
Identifying what your emotion exactly is, is substantial and will help you further into communicating effectively what you would like to see changed. Identifying emotions is not an easy task for everyone; sometimes you may feel confused about what you are feeling exactly.
The Wheel of Emotions can help you identify and thereby articulate your emotions in an easy way. It is essential that you can put your feeling into words.
3. Knowing What You Want- What Would You Like To Be Different?
Knowing the specific emotions that an unpleasant interaction with another makes you feel, is essential in order to clarify in your mind what you would like to change in the situation.
What would you like the other person to change?
Be as specific and concrete as possible about what you feel and wish to see changed.
This first step of the 2-Step approach is aimed in increasing self-awareness about your emotions and needs. It is absolutely essential in order to further communicate this to the Other.
STEP 2: KNOWING HOW TO EXPRESS IT EFFECTIVELY AND ASSERTIVELY
Assertive communication consists of 4 aspects:
The Facts: What you think the problem is
The Emotions: How this affects you emotionally
Your Request: What you want
Your alternative self-care solution should your wish not be granted (optional)
Let’s elaborate on each of these 4 aspects separately.
1. I think/ The Facts
The very first part is expressing to the other what you think the problem is. This should be expressed as a fact, your own understanding of the situation.
Your formulation should be as clear and specific as possible
Be conscious to not include judgment of the other person in the formulation of the facts, nor an assumption of what the reason behind their behaviour is
The WHAT of your communication will be better listened to if it is as less emotionally charged as possible. People tend to be more willing to listen to someone else and consider accommodating their needs if the initial request does not feel like a disapproval, an accusation or an attack towards them. There is time to express how you feel later.
This should be a clear and concise description of the situation that you would like to discuss, and probably change
I think we haven’t spent much time together lately.
I think the way you spoke to me last time we argued was quite offensive
I think the deadline of the project you assigned me is a bit tight
The payment of the last invoice I billed you has been delayed for two weeks
I think the current cleaning schedule of our house could use some revising
I finish work later than expected tonight, and I will not be able to make dinner on time
2. I feel/ The Emotions
After stating the facts, the problem in your understanding, next step is to express why this is important to you, how it affects you emotionally.
If you have put some time into the first step of this approach, knowing what you want, then you will be able to state more precisely what it is that you feel. It may be important to prepare what you want to say beforehand, so that you don’t get carried away by emotion while expressing yourself.
This should therefore be a brief description of the emotions triggered by the situation.
Make “I” statements: This is about You and how you feel. Therefore the focus is that you speak for yourself. The goal is to transfer your emotional experience to the other person.
Avoid “You” statements: Making “you” statements implies blame and accusation, and can bring the other person in a defensive state. When people get defensive, they kind of shut down and it is more unlikely then that they will listen to your request and give you what you want.
Don’t confuse facts with emotions: Often people confuse facts with emotions, especially in a situation that they are trying to explain what hurt them in the behaviour of another person.
For instance, they may say “I feel that you are selfish” or “I feel that you do not listen to me”. Both of these sentences are not valid, because when you use “I feel”, an emotion should be communicated. Not a fact, not what you think of the other.
Focus on the behaviour of the other, not them as a whole person: Sometimes to emphasize your emotional state, you may make a statement about the other person as a whole. However this comes across as blame again.
If you have to express what upset you in the other person’s behaviour, then pay attention to the details of how you verbalize that. For example: “I feel hurt, because I found the way that you spoke to me very offensive” rather than “I feel hurt, because you are very offensive”
Avoid all-or-nothing statements such as always and never: Talking in absolute terms may make the other more likely to strike back, and then you miss your point. Absolute statements very often are interpreted as accusations.
For example, if you say “You always make me feel inferior” or “You never come home early”, can you imagine what is the next possible response by the other person?
They will probably get defensive and want to prove you wrong, reminding you how they don’t always make you feel inferior or all those times they did come on time.
3. I want/ Your Request
This is the most crucial part of assertiveness. If you have taken the time to consider what you want (1st step of approach), then you have some guidelines about how to bring it forth already.
This is your request for change, where you express what it is that you want.
Ask for a change in behaviour: Your focus should be asking someone to change how they act and what they do. You cannot force someone to change the way they think or feel about a particular situation, just because you disagree with it. In fact, you cannot force someone to change in any way. But you can express to them what you would like them to do differently.
Be specific and concrete: Be as precise and specific as possible about your request. Describe what new behaviour you would prefer in simple words, based on the 3rd point of the first step of this approach. If possible, explicitly state all possible aspects of your request: where, when and how. Avoid general statements. It is better to not leave gray areas that can be easily misinterpreted.
For instance, “I would like to go out with you more” is not clear enough to the other. Instead: “I would like us to go out once every two weeks” gives a better idea.
Ask for one change at a time: Don’t overwhelm the other with a ton of things you would like them to improve or change. If you consider yourself in their position, I suppose you’d agree that you would feel pressured and cornered if another person would give you a whole list of points to improve. In addition, this could make you feel a bit worthless and inadequate. You want to come across as reasonable and cordial, not overly demanding.
Focus on the Present: Your requests should better be points that can be worked on in the immediate future. This is related to the point about being concise and concrete. If you ask something that is quite long-term, it can be regarded as vague and thereby disregarded. You want to see change now, so that’s where you emphasize
4. Otherwise / Self-Care Solution
This point is optional, and its aim is to show your counterpart that you do not solely depend on them, but rather have carefully considered ways to accommodate yourself in case they can not assist you with what you are asking.
This however is not blackmailing- you don’t threaten them to do as you please or else; it is a negotiation technique, aimed to provide encouragement and reinforcement to the person you are discussing with. The underlying message is that you respect yourself and take care of your needs.
The purpose here is to exhibit that you are not helpless, but have thought of alternative solutions to the problem.
If you are not on time for our shopping appointment, we will go on a different day, as I don’t want to feel time-pressured today.
If you can’t help with the cooking tonight, we will order delivery.
If you cannot help me with the project, it will take me 4 extra days to complete it since the workload is too big for one person.
An example of all the above points
I think: Since 3 months already, I have told you how much I want to go on a day trip to this amazing place, but we can’t seem to be able to schedule it.
I feel: I feel ignored and somewhat disappointed, because I am excited about it but you haven’t yet told me when you would like to go.
I want: Could we please arrange it for the coming month, since there is this cheap tickets offer until the end of next month?
Self-Care Solution: If you would rather not go, I will plan it with my friend, as I know she would be happy to join.
What are the benefits?
The above approach seems very easy to implement, yet if you think about it, you may find yourself often unable to communicate your wishes and your concerns in such a manner that can be listened to and taken into consideration…
Effective, assertive communication is essential for harmonious relationships, both personal and professional. Not only that, but there are multiple other gains to enjoy if you make a conscious choice and effort to start communicating more assertively right now:
There is a definite connection between assertiveness and self-esteem. The clearer and more efficiently you are able to express yourself and your wishes, the more empowered and confident you will gradually feel.
Improved quality of relationships
By practicing to be more assertive, you will feel more and more comfortable in your own skin. This immediately reflects on your relationships, as you will also be more comfortable to be around- as a partner, friend, sibling, parent, colleague or employee.
The reason for this is that others will realize more and more that you are attempting to express yourself and your wishes in a different, optimized way and they are likely to respond respectively. You will gain respect from others, and probably gain more satisfaction from the way you relate to others.
Improved decision-making skills
The more assertive you will become, the more confident you will feel in yourself and your ability to get what you want out of life. This automatically leads to more faith in your decision-making skills and consistency in the way you approach your responsibilities.
All of the above result in less anxiety and stress about how you are dealing with the significant issues in your life. Reduced stress levels may have an effect on your overall health, as there is an established relationship between stress and health.
Challenges urge you to grow
Becoming more assertive is not going to be simple and easy. Otherwise anyone would be able to do it! Instead, failed attempts and ruptures in relationships mostly come from communication breakdowns.
It is going to be challenging, especially if you didn’t learn or try it before. You are going to fall behind occasionally. And that’s perfectly ok! It is not going to be a straightforward path with no bumps. You may need assistance from others or through therapy in order to master the skill of assertiveness…
There are no guarantees that being assertive will always get you what you want out of your interactions with others. Communication is a two-way street.
But the process towards assertiveness is worthwhile, because challenging situations foster personal growth! Now it’s time to ask yourself: Are you up for the challenge?
More honest and authentic way of experiencing life
By being increasingly able and confident to directly state what you want and need, without coming across as aggressive or offensive to others, you will be living closer to your own values.
Therefore you are more authentic, you dare to express yourself in an honest way.
And isn’t a more authentic sense of Being the whole purpose of being human and experiencing life at its fullest?
McKay, M., Wood, J. C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation & Distress Tolerance. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications.