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Assertive Communication: How to Prevent Four Common Pitfalls To Improve Your Relationships

“Connecting is not magic.  Like any other skill, it can be learned, practiced, and mastered.” John Gottman (author of The Relationship Cure)

Have you noticed a pattern in your relationships of unmet needs, frustration, and dissatisfaction? What often lies at the core of unhealthy relationships are patterns of counterproductive communication that erode self-worth, cause emotional harm and fuel misunderstandings. In contrast, a key component of healthy and respectful relationships is assertive communication. Let’s examine four communication styles to develop the vital skill of assertive communication.

As we review the different communication styles (outlined by Dr. Randy Paterson, The Assertiveness Workbook, 2nd Edition, 2022) try to consider in what situations, and with whom, you have used them in your life. Identifying if you tend to use one style more than the others may reveal one source of difficulty you are having in relationships. Identifying a problem and becoming more aware of it is the first step in trying to make positive change!

Track athlete with performance anxiety preparing to run at the starting line

Submissive

The Submissive communication style is typically rooted in a desire to avoid conflict. The primary feature of this relational style is the tendency to prioritize the desires and needs of others over one’s own. This behavior is often reinforced by being viewed by others as “easy going” and “agreeable”, as well as by the temporary relief of avoiding confrontation. However, going with the flow too often means your needs are suppressed or unmet, ultimately fueling dissatisfaction and/or resentment.

Example: Maya, a warm-hearted woman, tends to put others’ needs before her own. In her relationship with Raj, she often finds herself taking a passive role. When Raj wants to make plans, she immediately agrees, even if it inconveniences her. She ignores her own preferences in order to avoid disagreements. Over time, Maya begins to resent Raj and comes to realize that by consistently suppressing her own needs and opinions, she is missing a sense of joy, purpose, and control in her life. She longs for a relationship where her voice is heard and her feelings are acknowledged and valued. 

Unrecognizable woman menacing submissive elderly man

Aggressive

Contrasting submissiveness is the aggressive communication style, which involves dominating conversations, assigning blame, and resorting to intimidation to achieve one’s objectives. While this might help the aggressor immediately get what they want, they are unlikely to solicit true cooperation from those they hope to influence. This way of relating to others inflicts emotional harm and erodes trust, resulting in strained relationships. In addition, others may conceal their true needs and feelings and distance themselves from the aggressor, leading to social isolation and disconnection for both parties.

Example: Alex is a passionate individual who tends to communicate aggressively  with his partner, Carol. When they have disagreements, Alex raises his voice, blames Carol for causing the conflict, and threatens severe consequences if she does not give in to his demands. Instead of listening to Carol’s perspective, he tends to dominate conversations with his opinions and harsh judgments. Carol feels constantly criticized and unheard, and trust between them has begun to erode. Their frequent conflicts leave both feeling emotionally drained and anxious about future interactions. While Alex’s aggression usually provides him a momentary sense of control and relief, it has turned their once-loving relationship into a battleground of hurt feelings and mistrust, leaving them both less satisfied than they have ever been.

Angry couple being aggressive toward each other

Passive-Aggressive

Passive-aggressive communication is a subtler form of aggression, involving indirect expressions of dissatisfaction or resistance. For instance, rather than explaining why someone finds a request unreasonable, an individual may display their resistance by making sarcastic remarks, completing the task half-heartedly, or not completing it and making excuses to deflect accountability. While this approach sometimes allows people to escape direct conflict, it is likely in the long run to create misunderstandings, tension and disconnection within relationships.behavior

Example: Consider a workplace scenario with coworkers Omar and  Elena. Elena habitually takes credit for Omar’s ideas during team meetings. Instead of addressing the issue directly with Elena, Omar opts for passive-aggressive communication.

One day, after Elena presents one of Omar’s ideas as her own yet again, Omar sarcastically remarks, “Oh, Elena, you’re so creative! I should really learn from you.” Elena brushes it off, thinking he is just being playful.

Omar’s passive-aggressive comments continue to escalate with comments like, “I must be invisible because no one notices my ideas,” and “Maybe I should just let Elena do all the talking.” These comments leave Elena feeling uncomfortable but unsure of what is bothering Omar.

Their working relationship becomes increasingly strained, with tension simmering beneath the surface. Elena grows increasingly distant, while Omar’s frustration and resentment continue to build. The passive-aggressive communication style ultimately contributes to a breakdown in their professional relationship, making it harder for them to collaborate effectively and diminishing job satisfaction for both of them.

Alternating Between Styles

Reading through the above styles, you likely noticed that you have used some styles more than others, depending on the person and situation. Many people with relationship difficulties alternate between submissive and aggressive styles, but most often, they keep their opinions to themselves and behave passively. Occasionally, after bottling up their feelings (in an attempt to avoid conflict), eventually people become increasingly frustrated, and explode with an aggressive outburst. Then, after feeling guilty about their outburst, they go back to being passive—bottling up their needs and feelings once again. This style of communication differs from the passive-aggressive pattern, which involves being both submissive and aggressive simultaneously. Instead, it is characterized by a “bottle-and-blow” pattern. In this pattern, people experience the negative impacts of both the submissive and aggressive communication styles.

Assertive

Assertive communication is a balanced and respectful communication style where individuals express their needs, opinions, and boundaries in a clear and confident manner while also respecting the rights and perspectives of others. Unlike submissive communication, where one may avoid conflict and neglect their own needs, or aggressive communication, which can be confrontational and disregard others’ feelings, assertive communication strikes a middle ground. It avoids the pitfalls of submissive behavior by ensuring one’s voice is heard and needs are considered. It also improves upon aggressive communication by emphasizing respect, clarity, honesty, and collaboration instead of domination. Additionally, assertive communication steers clear of passive-aggressive behavior, which involves indirect expression of anger or frustration, by promoting open and direct dialogue, reducing the likelihood of misunderstandings.

Depending on which communication style you use the most (and find to be problematic), you may consider different approaches to modifying your communication in ways that are more aligned with assertiveness.

People talking confidently and assertively with each other

Ways to Develop Assertiveness

The following general strategies may help you to develop a more assertive communication style, though they may not all apply to your unique individual circumstances. For help more specifically tailored to your life situation, it is recommended to seek professional support (e.g.,  psychologist, psychotherapist or social worker) to recognize your relationship patterns and receive assistance in implementing changes in your life.

A woman in “reflection” mode

Increase your self-awareness. Start by understanding your own feelings, needs and desires. Take time to reflect on what’s important to you and what you want to change in your communication style. Specifically, when it comes to interactions that are difficult for you, spend time observing:

  1. What you say
  2. How you behave
  3. What needs are going unmet
  4. With whom you find it difficult to be assertive

Analyze how your communication style impacts the situation (e.g., avoiding perceived conflict, gaining power/control, etc.) and also what it costs in the long-term (e.g., resentment, disconnection). Having a true account of these will help you realize what you stand to gain by improving your communication style.

Uncover and Transform Self-Limiting Beliefs. Many self-limiting beliefs lie at the root of dysfunctional communication in relationships. Through cognitive-behavioral therapy, CBT, you can uncover and transform beliefs such as, “I am unworthy of having my needs met”, “I must be forceful and convincing for anyone to listen to me”, or “If people knew the real me, they would leave me”. For example, a CBT therapist can assist you in modifying cognitive distortions (inaccurate & unhelpful thoughts) and ineffective behaviors that emanate from self-limiting beliefs. They will guide you to gradually come into alignment with an assertive perspective, such as: “Everyone, including me, has unique needs and perspectives and are within their right to express them.”

Practice, Practice, Practice. Commit to learning the skills needed to develop assertive communication, including:

  1. Active listening: Improve your listening skills by paying close attention to others when they speak. Show that you value their input and are genuinely interested in their perspective by paraphrasing their points and asking for clarification where needed. 
  2. Use “I” statements: Instead of saying “You make me feel…” or “You should…,” express your needs using “I” statements. For example, say, “I would appreciate it if…” or “I would prefer that…”
  3. Practice assertive body language: Maintain eye contact, stand or sit upright and use open and relaxed body language to convey confidence.
  4. Practice assertiveness exercises: Engage in role-playing exercises or assertiveness workshops to improve your communication skills. You may even consider role-playing a person that models assertiveness well in your life or in popular media.
  5. Start with small steps: Begin by asserting yourself in less challenging situations, for example a show you would prefer to watch or a meal you would rather eat. Gradually work your way up to more difficult conversations and interactions. This can mean starting to practice assertiveness with strangers and acquaintances before proceeding to do so with colleagues, your partner, or friends.
  6. Stay patient and persistent: Becoming more assertive is a process that takes time and practice. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you slip into old habits from time to time. Remind yourself of your progress and your goals, then resolve to implement what you’re learning along the way!

Remember that assertiveness is a skill that can be developed with time and practice. By following these steps and remaining committed to your goal, you can develop an assertive communication style, leading to healthier and more fulfilling interactions in various areas of your life.

References:

Paterson, R. J. (2022). The assertiveness workbook: How to express your ideas and stand up for yourself at work and in relationships. New Harbinger Publications.

Dr. Abid Azam

Dr. Abid Azam

Clinical Psychologist

Please note: this article is for informational purposes only, and is not intended as a substitute for therapy or advice from a qualified professional.