A disagreement between two or more people over values, needs, beliefs, perceptions, or expectations. It can arise from ineffective and unclear communication, but this is not necessarily the case. Because we are all different, differences in points of view are inevitable. Conflict can be a good thing. It has the potential to increase understanding, stimulate positive change, and facilitate human relations, but it can also lead to relational stalemates
Learning how to communicate effectively with others, even in conflict situations, is critical. If I can communicate my concerns about a situation to you, and you can hear those concerns and respond with your own views, we have a good start on resolving conflict. As we successfully resolve conflicts, we gain self-confidence, we feel good about our “relational” abilities, and our relationships grow and deepen. One of the fundamental conflict communication skills is Assertiveness, which is where we’ll start. Later we’ll look more at our Defensive Corners (conflict patterns that are more entrenched and inflexible in us), and explore how we can identify and change them.
The way we communicate our feelings, especially negative feelings, can have a huge impact on our relationships. The ability to effectively communicate our feelings, needs, opinions, and desires provides the bedrock for establishing healthy relationships. If I am constantly communicating my needs in an angry way, I will likely develop few close relationships. I may, in fact, create enemies. Likewise, if I never communicate my opinions, positive or negative, I will start to feel frustrated in my relationships, because my needs will not be heard and therefore will not be met. Assertiveness is the communication point between being aggressive and being passive.
the appropriate interpersonal communication of negative and positive feelings in social situations.
“Assertive behaviour is behaviour that is socially effective” (Gambrill in O’Donahue & Krasner, 1995)
“The expression of negative and positive feelings in social situations” (Wolpe 1958 as cited in Gambrill, 1995)
As you can tell from these quotes, being assertive involves being able to communicate in effective and socially appropriate ways that inform others about your needs, wants, feelings, limits, etc. Being assertive involves both your verbal communication (what and how it is said) and non-verbal (e.g. eye contact, shrugs, posture).
Really Healthy Assertiveness Research
The relationship between assertiveness and well-being has been recognized in psychology since at least 1958 (Wolpe):
Less physical health problems in assertive individuals (Williams and Stout, 1985 as cited in Gambrill, 1995)
Assertiveness associated with better mental health (Wong, Yah, Lo, & Hung, 2003) and less depression (Rolon, 1999)
Assertive patients tend to have better access to health services
Likewise, lack of assertiveness has been found to result in anxiety, disappointment, anger, social isolation and physical symptoms.
There are a few different types of assertion. Usually we think of assertiveness as being “negative” assertion – what we don’t want to happen. Turning down requests (learning to say “No”) and asking for certain behaviours to stop (Please don’t leave the dirty dishes on the table.) are examples of this type of negative assertion.
Positive assertion is letting others know what you would like to have happen (Could I borrow some sugar?) or things that you’ve really appreciated (I really enjoyed your letter).
Finally, we can be assertive and take the initiative in offering an apology, disagreeing in a conversation, or simply ending an interaction. These may not be as dramatic a type of assertion as asking someone to stop leaving their dirty socks in the living room, but they help to give us a greater sense of control & personal honesty in our daily interactions.
Passive/Aggressive/Assertive Communication Styles
Let’s work through an everyday example to see what passive, aggressive, passive/aggressive and assertive statements look like. Imagine that you have just come home from work. You find that your partner/roommate has not picked up his/her dirty socks from yesterday or several days prior to that.
Patrick Passive might say, “If it’s not too much trouble, do you think you could put your socks in the wash?” Alternately, he might say nothing, just to avoid the conflict. His tone of voice might be soft and questioning.
Amelia Aggressive might say, “Put your #$* socks in the #$* wash. You are such a slob. The house looks like a pigsty, because of you.” Her tone of voice might be loud and grating, and her posture might be intimidating (fists, eyes glaring).
Passive/Aggressive Susan might say, “I don’t mind picking up your socks and putting them in the wash for you,” but then “accidentally” mix the white socks with a red shirt. Her initial tone might be soft and overly nice.
Arthur Assertive might say, “I feel very frustrated when I come home and your socks are on the floor. I would really like it if you would pick up your socks and put them in the wash. The house would look a lot better.” His voice would likely be firm, moderately loud, and his posture would be relaxed, but straight.
Think about your reactions to each of the statements as you read them. Which statement would make you more likely to change your behaviour? Most of us respond best to assertive statements. Aggressive statements tend to put us on the defensive and to make us angry. Generally anger and defensiveness don’t lead to behaviour change! Passive/Aggressive behaviour is often quite confusing for the person on the receiving end. It is hard to know what the passive/aggressive person really thinks or wants. Passive statements can result in no action, because the other person may not believe the problem is serious.
For more information on the differences among these types of communication, have a look at the table below. Can you see yourself in any of them?
This is a checklist of assertiveness to help you identify your level of assertiveness. Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 5 in each of the areas. You can also ask a trusted friend to give you feedback on your style.
When you are first learning to be more assertive, it can be helpful to use a formula or script. By putting your words into the formula, you can see what you might be missing or what you might want to leave out. A common assertiveness script is the following:
I feel like when you and so I would like you to consider
An example from earlier in this section was, “I feel very frustrated when I come home and your socks are on the floor. I would really like it if you would pick up your socks and put them in the wash. The house would look a lot better.”
Let’s look at it in a bit more detail:
State how you felt in the situation. This is almost always a good starting point, because people can’t easily dispute your feelings. Beginning with an “I” statement also helps them to feel less defensive.
Describe a specific incident clearly and without name calling. Compare, “when you leave your dirty socks around the living room” to “when you are such an idiot and leave your socks lying everywhere.”
Describe what happened for you as well if necessary “because then I felt I had to pick them up before my company came over.”
Provide some alternative actions for the person. “I wonder if you could consider putting your socks in the wash right after you take them off?”
In many instances you may also want to include an option to discuss further action. “Could we talk about this again in a couple of weeks, and see if it’s working out for both of us?”
(Steps modified from Girdano, Everly, Dusek, 1997; Rakos, 1991 as cited in Gambrill, 1995)
If you have a specific incident that you would like to handle assertively, try preparing your statement ahead of time. Write it down, try it out on someone else, review it in your head. Remember that when you are speaking assertively with someone, you are not trying to release all the resentment that’s been building up for days or weeks. Find other ways to blow off this steam before you try to communicate assertively with someone.
It is often difficult to be assertive. When we are used to being Aggressive, it can feel that we are being too “soft” when we are assertive. When we are used to being Passive, it can feel that we are being far too demanding – maybe no one will like us! When we are used to being Passive/Aggressive, it feels very risky to talk to someone directly about our needs.
Many people worry that when they begin to practise being assertive that they will go too far. This rarely happens. Occasionally a passive person will learn about assertiveness & will overuse it (it feels so good to find one’s voice!), but that generally settles down with a bit of time. More often the passive person ends up becoming somewhat more assertive, but no where near the aggressive end of the continuum. Checking with trusted friends or family about how you’re communicating can be helpful feedback during this transition time.