Updated: Jun 2, 2021
If you’ve clicked on this article, you probably had times where you struggled to communicate during disagreements and moments of potential conflict.
Maybe you were in a situation where someone took your parking spot and you didn't know what to do so you flipped them off. Or, maybe your boss told you to do something you didn't agree with but you felt like you couldn't say anything.
These are pretty common everyday encounters which can affect our actions and how we feel by bringing up emotions such as anxiety, anger, or disappointment.
By practicing assertiveness skills, you can skilfully communicate your point of view without needing to rely on aggression (such as flipping off the other driver) or passiveness (such as overly apologising).
Getting started with assertive communication isn’t as hard as most people think. There are 3 basic ways you can get started with getting your point across in an argument.
Before we jump into the steps, we need to understand what assertiveness is.
What Makes Assertiveness Different?
Assertiveness is a strong and neutral approach. Essentially, standing our ground without pushing (aggression) or pulling back (passiveness). This will usually result in the other person responding in a neutral fashion once they realise you’re not “taking the bait” or reacting as usual.
Not to be confused with being aggressive which may involve shouting, name-calling, threats, or even violence. Assertiveness is also not the same as being passive which may involve apologising for sharing your opinion, deferring to the other person or trying to placate them to move the conflict on faster.
Being assertive means that the chance of these conflictual situations escalating will be unlikely and that you will be able to say your piece and resentment will be minimised.
These basic steps on how to be assertive should work with most reasonable people in most common disagreements. However, for more emotionally fueled arguments or with those that are typically quite emotionally reactive, more communication skills will be needed (these will be in a later post…watch this space).
But without further ado, here are the 3 basic steps to being more assertive!
1) Empathise with the Other Person
Usually, when you have conflicts with people, there’s an existing connection or relationship. Because of this, you want to maintain this relationship which is why people who tend to be passive will placate the other person, for fear of upsetting someone they care about, and why those who become aggressive, tend to experience regret and remorse for lashing out at someone they care about.
In an argument, most people are usually trying to get their point across as the “right” one. Most people aren’t actually listening to the other person. By empathising with them, they’ll start to listen to you, rather than just getting ready for their counter-argument. This can look like an, "I understand you've been stressed lately", or "I can see that you're angry" statement.
2) Express Your Feelings
When you express how the situation made you feel, most people won’t try to argue with you about your personal experience. By doing this in a neutral way, you can keep the situation relatively settled and calm.
Try to stick with “I” statements rather than “You” statements. “You” statements tend to get people’s backs up and defensive. When someone is in that state, they’re no longer listening to what you have to say, rather, just trying to be heard. By stating “I felt” a certain way, in a certain situation, you are identifying the situation as the issue, rather than the other person.
3) Suggest a Compromise
By suggesting something that would be towards the middle of what you both want, you’re showing that you’re making an effort to understand the other person and resolve the argument.
In a disagreement, someone has to make the first move. By being the person extending the olive branch, you’re showing your commitment to the relationship which most people would take well.
Let’s say your boss has been in a bad mood all day with a deadline coming up. Your boss has been short with everyone and has come over to your pod. Your boss impatiently asks where you’re at with your part of the project. You let them know you’re still working on it and your boss starts raising their voice that they need it done asap.
If you’re anything like me, you might tend towards the passive end of the spectrum and say “Sure thing boss, I’ll have that work on your desk asap”. You might also have a daydream about jumping up out of your seat and telling your boss where they can shove their work and say, “I quit!”
But we’re working on becoming more assertive and keeping our jobs, so let’s give the 3 basic steps a go!
First comes the empathy to make sure your boss is listening: “I can see that you’ve been really stressed lately with the deadline coming up”.
Second comes expressing your own feelings: “I feel embarrassed when I’m given feedback in the middle of the office”.
Lastly comes the compromise: “I would appreciate it if future feedback was given in a calm manner, preferably in a private space”.
When it feels Unsafe to be Assertive
Now if your boss is a reasonable person, they’ll probably have a look of surprise on their face and potentially apologise for raising their voice. Or they might mumble something deflective and walk off.
If, however, your boss is generally quite emotionally reactive and aggressive, you might not feel comfortable with the above approach. This is perfectly understandable given there isn’t a safe workplace culture.
If you feel that you can’t say anything at all for fear of retribution, then maybe that’s an important piece of information that we need to get out.
If logically you think that your boss is reasonable and you’re worried how they’ll react, just treat this like an experiment. See what happens across a few different scenarios and see if this approach will work with you and them.
Assertive communication has often been confused with either being aggressive or passive (depending on which opposite approach you normally take).
We’ve reviewed 3 basic steps to being more assertive by showing our commitment to the relationship through trying to resolve the disagreement in a neutral but strong fashion.
The more we practice these skills, the less intense our anxiety will be about expressing our opinions. Our confidence will grow, and relationships will be strengthened, as we see that others respect our views and take steps to come to a compromise.
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