It’s date night. You’ve organized the babysitter, booked a table, and left work early to get to the restaurant on time. Then, your partner is thirty minutes late. How do you ensure this doesn’t happen next time, without causing a huge scene and ruining the date completely? The solution is assertive communication: a win-win method of making our feelings, wants, and needs clear without disrespecting the listener.
To better understand assertive communication, it helps to first understand what it is not.
Assertive communication differs from aggressive communication
Assertive communication is not the same thing as aggressive communication: “You jerk! How DARE you keep me waiting on our date night!” Behaviors that would fall into this category include:
- Shouting or yelling.
- Insults or personal attacks.
- Harsh criticism.
- Blaming or accusing.
- Threats or intimidation.
- Interrupting or speaking over our partner.
- Physical violence such as slapping, kicking, or pushing.
Often, aggressive communication incites our partner into defensiveness and fighting back. What starts as a dialog quicky escalates into a conflict or an all-out fight. The point we were trying to make is lost and we create an even bigger issue to resolve.
Other times, our partner may give in to our aggressive communication. Although we might feel like we’ve won the argument, our relationship will have lost—and our loved one will feel we’ve “walked all over them.” This is likely to create resentment and later they’ll act out with aggression, passive-aggressive behavior, or simply withdraw.
Either way, if our aggressive communication is a regular feature of the relationship, our partner can suffer serious emotional harm. And, if we’re hurting our partner, we’re also hurting ourselves.
Assertive communication is not passive
Assertive communication also differs from passive communication: “Oh, I didn’t mind waiting. Don’t worry about it.” Sure, we’ve avoided conflict, but we’ve also failed to speak up for our own wants and needs. We’ve removed the chance that our partner will make things right or adjust their future behavior. They remain unaware of the hurt they’ve caused and are likely to repeat their bad behavior next time.
The same way that walking all over our partner hurts them, it’s also not healthy for us to be doormats. We’ll soon feel resentful, which is likely to brew and erupt later, leaving our partner confused about the mixed messages they’re hearing.
One version of passive communication is passive-aggressive communication—another trap that many of us fall into. This can initially look like feigning agreement, but later:
- Being stubborn, disagreeable, or irritable in the relationship.
- Complaining, criticizing, or protesting unrelated issues.
- Procrastinating, intentionally being forgetful, or performing tasks inefficiently.
- Ghosting, stonewalling, or giving someone the silent treatment, leaving them to piece together the cause of our unresponsiveness.
- Saying things to guilt-trip our partner, such as reminding them of past mistakes or failures.
- Using sarcasm, cynicism, or giving back-handed compliments: “Wow, your outfit is actually cute today.”
- Playing the martyr: “I guess I’m not worthy of being treated to a nice dinner.”
- Communicating with negative body language, like looking away, distracting ourselves with our phone, crossing our arms, or rolling our eyes.
As with aggressive communication, we may feel a temporary sense of satisfaction for getting even. But like with passive communication, we’re making it impossible to get our needs met. Instead, we’re cultivating defensiveness, resentment, and an ongoing power struggle that nobody wins.
Assertive communication is the middle ground between aggression and passivity. It means clearly stating how we feel, what we want, and what we need. However—and this is equally important—we do so while accepting and respecting the fact that others have their own feelings, wants, and needs.
Good assertive communication is specific, clear, and non-accusatory. We keep the focus on our internal emotions rather than what our partner may have been thinking (which we’re likely to get wrong). Speak in terms of Facts and Feelings:
- Facts: what is the situation, as you see it? State it simply, without exaggerating.
- Feelings: how do you feel? Use “I” statements and avoid blaming.
Try this formula: “When [fact], I feel [feeling].” For example: “When you arrived late to our date night, I felt hurt.” This is far more likely to start a productive conversation than “you clearly have NO respect for me—if you did, you’d have arrived on time!”
Then, request the change you’d like to see from the other person. “In the future, I’d appreciate it if you prioritized our evenings together.” By being specific, we make it easy for our partner to change successfully.
Rather than producing resentment, guilt, or all-out conflict, assertiveness is more likely to:
- Get our needs met. Our partner now knows that their actions have upset us. They hopefully feel motivated to change their behavior and arrive on time for future dates.
- Resolve conflict effectively. We haven’t insulted or shouted at our partner, just expressed our feelings. We’re in a good place to find and negotiate a solution that works for both of us.
- Strengthen our relationship bond. By expressing ourselves openly but respectfully, we’re building intimacy and mutual understanding with our partner.
Fear: the obstacle to assertive communication
Assertive communication is an important skill to have. However, it’s one that many of us struggle to do—especially when we’re overwhelmed by our emotions. Fear of being powerless or getting hurt tends to create an overly strong desire to protect ourselves. In turn, this self-protection desire can lead us into communicating in an aggressive or passive way.
When we’re trying too hard to defend our own interests, aggressive communication is often the result. We’re thinking in terms of sticking up for ourselves or getting even. Our inner voice is saying “I can’t let anyone disrespect me.”
The problem is, we’re often protecting ourselves from an imagined or distorted threat. Maybe our partner was absorbed in their work and forgot to keep an eye on the time. Everyone makes mistakes. Perhaps their supervisor asked them to stay behind. Clearly, coming at them with our communication guns blazing creates an issue where none existed.
On the other hand, passive communication is what happens when we avoid conflict believing that we’re protecting ourselves. We’re relieving our fear that our partner may say something hurtful, or worse, reject or abandon us. Sometimes that fear is justified if our partner didn’t respond well or we’ve suffered consequences when we spoke up in the past.
Nevertheless, we need to move past this fear in order to engage in our best dialogue. Once again, our fears may be predicting an outcome—a hurtful or dismissive response from our partner—that won’t actually come to pass. We’re far less likely to create conflict or defensiveness in them if we follow the guidelines for assertive communication.
How boundaries help with assertive communication
The concept of boundaries is a critical tool for assertive communication. It simply entails understanding and accepting that each individual in a relationship is their own person, with their own wants, needs, feelings, and free will. We’re not the boss of our partner, and they’re not the boss of us.
This is helpful is because it reminds us of where our control—and responsibility—starts and ends. We can explain our point of view and how we feel about something (remember those “I” statements!). If we want our loved one to do or change something, we have the right to ask them. But they have the right to say no or not do it. Likewise, our partner can ask us to do something and we can refuse or not do it.
Of course, it’s nice for our partner to cooperate with us and treat us kindly in general—that’s what we want from a relationship. But sometimes they will slip up, or cross a line, as will we. Nobody’s perfect, so be prepared to give grace.
When our request goes unmet
You’ve shared your feelings and requested that your partner do something differently, but their behavior hasn’t changed. Now what?
Perhaps it will take some time for your partner to make the changes you’ve requested. Old habits—like always showing up late—die hard. If you see them making an effort and sometimes doing better, appreciate their determination and praise them when they get it right. You’d want them to do the same for you.
On the other hand, if there is no sign of change, ask yourself, “Can I be okay if they never change?” If your answer is yes, accept that your partner can’t or won’t do as you’ve requested. Focus on what you can do to make yourself happy. Maybe you can use the time you spend waiting for your tardy partner to read an article or text a friend.
If the issue is more serious and your answer is no, you can’t be okay if your partner doesn’t change, then accept that reality and move on from the relationship. Do not try to make them change with aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior. As we’ve covered, this is only going to create an unhappy relationship and cause harm to your partner and you.
Practicing assertive communication
It’s not uncommon that we use aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive communication styles out of habit rather than as an intentional strategy. This may be especially true if we saw poor communication modeled by our families when we were children. Perhaps we adopted a dysfunctional communication style as a way of protecting ourselves in the past, but it no longer serves us well.
Like breaking any bad habit, improving our communication skills takes awareness of what we want to change and lots of practice. Look for indications that you’re using an aggressive or passive strategy. Resolve to do better.
To practice, identify some difficult conversations you need to have, then script out what a good, assertive approach might look like. Rehearse that conversation before you approach your partner. Be prepared to course-correct if you find yourself drifting into aggressive or passive communication styles. Taking time to prepare helps us to choose a communication style that’s just right.