Communicating assertively

You won’t be surprised to learn that communication is really important to a successful transition. The tone you should be aiming for in all your communications on the subject of your transition is assertive – not passive or aggressive – but honest and respectful. Here are some helpful tips from AnxietyBC, a Canadian charity that helps people with anxiety disorders.

ConversationAssertiveness
Assertive communication is the honest expression of one’s own needs, wants, and feelings, while respecting those of the other person. When you communicate assertively, your manner is non-threatening and non-judgmental, and you take responsibility for your own actions.

If you are socially anxious, you may have some difficulty expressing your thoughts and feelings openly. Assertiveness skills can be difficult to learn, especially since being assertive can mean holding yourself back from the way you would normally do things. For example, you may be afraid of conflict, always go along with the crowd, and avoid offering your opinions, and as a result have developed a passive communication style. Alternatively, you may aim to control and dominate others, and have developed an aggressive communication style.

However, an assertive communication style brings many benefits. For example, it can help you to relate to others more genuinely, with less anxiety and resentment. It also gives you more control over your life, and reduces feelings of helplessness. Furthermore, it allows other people the right to live their lives.

Remember: Assertiveness is a learned skill, not a personality trait you are born with. It is what you do, not who you are

To start, ask yourself the following questions to identify what area(s) to work on:

  • Do I struggle to ask for what I want?
  • Is it hard to state my opinion?
  • Do I have trouble saying no?

Tips for communicating assertively:

  • Many people find it hard to ask for what they want, feeling that they don’t have the right to ask, or fearing the consequences of the request. For example, you may think, “What if he says no?” or “She would think I am rude for asking”.
  • When making a request, it can be helpful to start by saying something that shows that you understand the other person’s situation. For example, “I know you probably have had a lot on your mind lately.”
  • Next, describe the situation and how you feel about it. For example, “This presentation is due next Friday and I am feeling pretty overwhelmed, and worried that I won’t be able to get it done in time.” It is important to talk about your feelings, and not to make accusations to others. For example, it is better to say, “I feel resentful when you show up late to meet me” than it is to say, “You are always late! You don’t care about me!”
  • Then, describe what you would like to see happen. Be as brief and positive as possible. For example, “I’d really like to figure out how we can share more of the work responsibilities.”
  • Last, tell the person what would happen if your request was honoured. How would you feel? Sometimes, you may want to add what you will do in return. For example, “I would make sure to help you with the slides for your presentation next week.”
  • Many people have trouble expressing their views openly. Perhaps you wait for others to give their opinion first, and will share yours only if you happen to agree. Being assertive means being willing to state your opinion, even if others haven’t done so or if your opinion is different.
  • Being assertive means that you “own” your opinion; that is, you take responsibility for your view. For example, “My personal view is that it was unfair for her to ask that of you.”
  • Being assertive also means being willing to consider new information, and even changing your mind. However, it does not mean changing your mind just because others think differently.

Tips for saying no:

  • Saying no can be difficult for you if you are usually more passive. However, if you are not able to say no to others, you are not in charge of your own life!
  • When saying no, remember to use assertive body language (e.g. standing straight, eye contact, speaking loudly enough that the other person can hear).
  • Before you speak, decide what your position is. For example, think about how you will say “no” to a request, such as, “I would like to help you out, but I already have quite a bit of work to get done this week.”
  • Make sure you actually wait for the question, and don’t say “yes” before the other person even makes the request.
  • Take care not to apologize, defend yourself, or make excuses for saying no when it is not necessary.
  • If saying no right away is too difficult, practise telling someone, “I need to think about it” as a first step. This will help break the cycle of always saying yes, and will give you a chance to think about what you really want to do.

Remember: Everyone has the right to say no!

Practise your new assertiveness skill:

  • First, think of a couple of past scenarios when you avoided giving your opinion or preference, saying no, or asking for what you wanted. How could you have handled the situation differently? What would be an assertive way to communicate in those situations?
  • Practise saying your assertive statement out loud to yourself, to get used to it. For example, “Actually, I thought the movie dragged on a bit”, “Unfortunately, I can’t help you out next weekend”, or “I’d like the dishes done before nine o’clock”.
  • Next, think of a situation that is coming up in the next week in which you could use your assertiveness skills. Begin with a scenario that is easier, for example, giving your opinion or saying no to more familiar people, and then try it in more difficult situations.
  • Try it out – how did it go? Notice how the other person reacted. Would you do something differently next time?

Remember: assertiveness is like any new skill, and requires time and practice. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you are feeling nervous, or not getting it quite right. Reward yourself when you do speak up!

Note: Sometimes people who are not used to us being assertive may need some time to adjust. Just because people may not initially respond in a positive way, doesn’t mean that being assertive is wrong – they just need to adjust to the change!

Myths about assertiveness:

  • Myth #1: Assertiveness means getting your own way all the time. This is not true. Being assertive means expressing your point of view and communicating honestly with others. You may often not get “your own way” when you are assertively giving your opinion. But telling others how you feel, and trying to work out a compromise, shows respect for both yourself and others.
  • Myth #2: Being assertive means being selfish. This is false. Just because you express your opinions and your preferences does not mean that other people are forced to go along with you. If you express yourself assertively (not aggressively) then you make room for others. You can also be assertive on behalf of someone else (e.g. “I would like Susan to choose the restaurant this week”).
  • Myth #3: Passivity is the way to be loved. This is false. Being passive means always agreeing with others, always allowing them to get their own way, giving into their wishes, and making no demands or requests of your own. Behaving this way is no guarantee that others will like or admire you. In fact, they may perceive you as dull and feel frustrated that they can’t really get to know you.
  • Myth #4: It’s impolite to disagree. This is not true. Although there are some situations where we don’t give our honest opinion (e.g. most people say how beautiful a friend looks in her wedding dress, or we only say positive things on the first day of a new job). Much of the time, however, other people will be interested to know what you think. Think how you would feel if everyone always agreed with you!
  • Myth #5: I have to do everything I am asked to do. False. A central part of being assertive is setting and keeping personal boundaries. This is difficult for many people. With our friends, we may worry that they will think we are selfish and uncaring if we don’t do everything they ask. At work, we may worry that others will think we are lazy or inefficient if we don’t do everything we are asked to do. But other people cannot possibly know how busy you are, how much you dislike a particular task, or what other plans you have already made, unless you tell them. Most people would feel badly to learn that you had done something for them that you really didn’t have the time for (e.g. writing a report that requires you to work all weekend) or that you really dislike doing (e.g. helping a friend move).

Final tip: Although it is important to test skills out and use the trial and error process, we can learn a lot from observing others. Ask yourself who you feel comfortable interacting with – what do they do (lean forward, smile, etc). Try to identify some of the things that other people do that make you feel good interacting with them and then try doing those things yourself.

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