Are you comfortable talking with people you don’t know? Do you dread saying no? Do you allow strangers to cut you off in the cafeteria line? Do you regret stepping on others to achieve your goals? Do you feel you get your needs across to others?
Your words and behavior tell people who you are. Human communication and behavior fall into three basic categories:1. Passiveness. 2. Aggressiveness. 3. Assertiveness.
Passiveness is a reluctance or inability to confidently express what you think and feel. In the past, our society rewarded women for being passive and men for being aggressive. Fortunately, as more and more women voice their concerns in the workplace, this is changing.
Aggressive communication and behavior, whether direct or indirect, results in a put-down of the other person, causing hurt, defensiveness, and humiliation. Aggressive behavior does not take the other person’s goals or feelings into account. Only the aggressor’s goals are met. This often generates bitterness and frustration that later returns as resistance and dissension.
Think of a time when someone used aggressive communication at the expense of another person. How would you feel about approaching such a person? Aggression intimidates, demeans and degrades another person. It also degrades the aggressor.
Assertiveness is an alternative to the extremes of passiveness and aggressiveness. Norma Carr-Ruffino defines assertion as “confidently expressing what you think, feel and believe—standing up for your rights while respecting the rights of others.”
Assertion is rooted in respect: respect for yourself and for the other person. People tend to cooperate when they are approached or advised in a way that respects the needs of both parties. Assertive communication frequently allows both persons to get what they want.
Assertive behavior is self-enhancing. When you express your feelings honestly, you usually achieve your goal. When you choose to behave in an assertive manner, even if your goals are not achieved, you generally feel good about yourself.
It’s true that you must tailor your communication to circumstances of each new situation. Behavior that applies to some persons and circumstances does not apply to all persons or situations. Each situation is different. Sometimes a passive response is most appropriate. Sometimes, an aggressive response is needed. Most of the time, assertiveness is the key.
The ultimate goal is to be on good terms with people. Be true to your own thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Avoid direct or implied criticism of the other person’s thoughts, feelings or beliefs, and you are likely to retain the goodwill of those around you. Think in terms of I-messages. An I-message expresses your feelings and experiences—your inner reality without making the other person responsible for them. An I-message is honest, authentic and congruent. It doesn’t judge, blame or interrupt. It never tells the other person what she should think, hope or fear. Because you are saying what you feel, your verbal and nonverbal communication is in harmony. You sound confident and your words and gestures are compatible. Successful use of I-messages requires that you:• Know what you want and need. • Take personal responsibility for meeting your preferences. • Express yourself in an assertive way to the person whose cooperation you need. • Be willing to listen if the other person becomes defensive.
If you develop a full repertoire of assertive communication, you can choose appropriate and self-fulfilling responses for a variety of situations. All effective assertive communication, however, is characterized by a basic four-part message: 1. Nonjudgmental description of the behavior to be changed. 2. Disclosure of the assertor’s feelings. 3. Clarification of the concrete and tangible effect of the other person’s behavior on the assertor. 4. Description of the behavior that would be more satisfactory.
You’ll send more assertive messages when you use this formula: “When you (state the other person’s behavior nonjudgmentally), I feel (disclose your feelings) because (explain the impact on your life). I prefer (describe what you want).” This way, the four parts of the assertion message are stated as succinctly as possible and are contained in one statement.
This four-part assertive communication style requires conscientious practice. Others don’t know what behavior you want modified. You must communicate what the other person does that frustrates you. This is not easy. People seldom describe behavior accurately enough for listeners to understand how their actions frustrate the speaker. These guidelines will help you develop effective behavior description skills:• Describe the behavior in specific rather than general terms. • Limit yourself to behavioral descriptions. Do not draw inferences about the other person’s motive, attitudes, character, etc. • Be objective, not judgmental. • Be as brief as possible. • Communicate the real issues. • Communicate to the right person.
Many will respect your assertive communication style. But be prepared for those who may respond aggressively toward you, using verbal attacks, demands or put-downs. Sadly, many of us are used to the security payoffs non-assertiveness offers. But if you focus on safety, you deny your many strengths and assertive experiences. When you communicate from those strengths, you are most powerful.
Examples of effective assertion messages
Inappropriate messages:• “You’ve mined another Monday for me.” • “You kids don’t appreciate anything that you have.” • “I’ve really got to go. I’ve got too much to do to hang on this phone all day.” • “Why am I the only one who does the dinner dishes? I work hard all day too, you know.”
Appropriate messages:• “When you are late for our appointments I feel frustrated because it throws off my schedule for the rest of the day. I prefer that you schedule our Monday meeting at 9:00 rather than 8:00 to allow you to be on time.” • “When you insist on taking dancing and piano lessons and then refuse to practice either one, I feel unhappy because I have to pay for lessons that you don’t fully use. I prefer that you spend money more wisely by choosing only one lesson and following through with the required practice at home.” • “When you call me at work and talk for a long time, I feel tense because I can’t get all my work done. I prefer to phone you after my work is done.” • “When you do not put the dishes on the counter, I feel irritated because it makes extra work for me when I am already tired from working all day. I would like everyone to rinse and stack their own place settings on the counter by the dishwasher.”