The Forest of Conflict
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.
Really Healthy Assertiveness Research
The relationship between assertiveness and well-being has been recognized in psychology since at least 1958 (Wolpe):
Likewise, lack of assertiveness has been found to result in anxiety, disappointment, anger, social isolation and physical symptoms.
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?
Passive, Aggressive, Passive-Aggressive and Assertive Communication Styles
Self-AssessmentThis 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.
Body Language: What do I look like?
Tone of Voice: How do I sound?
Guidelines for effective content: What I say in everyday non-threatening situations
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:
(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.
Arthritis Society (2002). Assertive vs passive and aggressive behaviour. Retrieved, January 9th, 2005 from http://www.arthritis.ca/tips%20for%20living/ communicating%20your%20needs/develop%20skills/assertive%20behaviour/ default.asp?s=1
Gambrill, E. (1995). Assertion skills training. In W. O. Donahue & L. Krasner (Eds.), Handbook of psychological skills training. Toronto, ON: Allyn & Bacon.
Girdano, D. A., Everly, G. S., & Dusek, D. E. (2001). Controlling stress and tension. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Rolon, J. (1999). An exploration of the impact of social support and assertiveness on the Psychological well-being of Puerto Rican women in New York City. Dissertation Abstracts International, 60 (4-B). (UMI AEH9924843).
Weisman, A. D., Worden, J. W. (1975). Psychological Analysis of Cancer Deaths. Journal of Death & Dying, 6(1), 1975, 61-75.
Wong, D. F. K., Yan, P., Lo, E.,Hung, M. (2003). Mental health and social competence of mainland Chinese immigrant and local youth in Hong Kong: A comparison. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 12, 85 – 110.
This site contains further self-assessment exercises and suggestions for improving assertiveness:
www.coping.org/relations/assert.htm. (It is also part of the coping.org cited at the end of the stress section.)
Many of us are, most of the time, flexible in how we respond to people. We can be more assertive in situations that require it and more diplomatic in others. We can retreat when a break is needed, and we can take charge when a leadership is required.
When our backs are against the wall, however, and we feel very threatened, we are likely to respond instinctively, and retreat to our “defensive corner.” When we are in this corner, we are much less flexible, and are only able to respond in one way, be it angry, retreating, conciliatory, or over-controlling. These events often stick out to us in our memories, because we feel that we responded badly, or that we were “stuck,” or that we reverted back to old habits that we thought we’d put behind us.
These defensive corners are often leftover from childhood patterns of responding. If you learned as a child that the only way you could survive as the youngest in a family of four was to fight strongly for everything that you needed, you are likely to find that same pattern coming out when you are backed into a corner as an adult. These patterns were survival patterns, and as such we need to honour and respect them. They helped us to survive difficult situations as children, and likely continue to protect us as adults. Because of our lack of flexibility when we are stuck in a particular defensive corner, however, they can also create major difficulties for us.
Let’s say that Joe disagrees with one of his colleagues, Bob, at work about the process of handling work orders. Joe is brave and decides to talk to Bob about procedures he feels could improve the process. If Joe is lucky, and approaches Bob in a respectful fashion, his colleague will listen and discuss it with him. Joe will understand Bob’s process better, Bob will understand Joe’s suggestions, and the work orders may end up being handled more efficiently.
Let’s say, however, that Joe approaches Bob, and Bob doesn’t really listen to him. Joe tries again, perhaps a bit more forcefully, and Bob begins to feel threatened and withdraws. Joe attempts to seek out Bob again, but Bob’s door seems to be shut most of the time, and he’s too “busy” to respond to Joe’s phone calls. Bob and Joe are now in a relational stalemate, and Bob, in particular, is in a “defensive corner.”
The Four Defensive Corners
One model that is very useful in thinking about our defensive corners was developed by Liz White, a Psychodrama facilitator (the text in this section draws freely and with permission from her materials – see her web site address at the bottom of this section and in the Thanks section).
The four corners represent our defensive styles. The inner circle represents our flexible self. When we are in the circle, we are able to be flexible. We can sample from all 4 different approaches, and use elements of those styles to help us in different situations. For example, when we need to be assertive in saying “No,” we might need to borrow a bit from the Annihilator. When a consumer on the phone is being unreasonable, we might need to draw on some of the Accommodator skills. The first scenario in the example above is of two people who are both in the inner circle, and staying flexible. When we feel threatened, and move into our defensive corners, however, we lose our flexibility, and simply respond, often in an unhelpful way, and sometimes in potentially damaging ways.
As you can tell from their names, the four defensive corners are characterized by markedly different interpersonal styles.
Although our defensive corners can be problematic for us, these tendencies, when used in a flexible way, are necessary in our relationships. The defensive corner is an over-developed role. The balanced developed role contributes uniquely to a group. So, for example, the person who can sometimes react as an annihilator, when they are grounded, brings leadership, courage, willingness to speak the truth, advocacy, challenge, etc. to a group. The person who might be tempted to accommodate out of fear, when they are grounded are flexible, caring, inclusive, and keepers of process as much as product. The person who can retreat to a cave in desperation can teach us how to step back and reflect, NOT to intervene, to take timeout, and to let others sort things out sometimes. They also are not afraid to leave a situation when it becomes unfitting. The person who controls is also the person who manages, who has the overview and keeps the group true to its agendas and its values, and sets boundaries. You’ll see these flexible aspects of our defensive corners in the diagram, just on the edges of the circle, nearest to its own corner.
What’s my Defensive Corner a worksheet on identifying your defensive pattern
Defensive Corner Visualization use visualization and clay to befriend your defensive corner
Moving Toward the Centre, Toward Flexibility
Because these patterns have been with us since childhood, they are very well-worn grooves in our brains – it’s like water following a stream bed. If we want to follow a different groove, we’ll need to practise, and give ourselves lots of chances.
Steps to Conflict Resolution
We’ve talked a lot about conflict in the inflexible defensive corners. At times, however, we can be flexible, and yet get into conflicts that are difficult to sort out. These steps can be helpful to work through with the other person, or sometimes on your own to find out what your next step could be. These same steps work when we are faced with almost any type of problem.
Defining the conflict is also critical. Sometimes we take on very large, vague issues that are not resolvable. Defining a conflict can assist us in being able to brainstorm some possible solutions. When you do move on to considering different options to resolve the issue, work hard to keep an open mind, and be willing to try solutions that were not your first choice.
Once you’ve chosen a solution, give it a fair test. It is easy to sabotage any plan, but often takes more patience to make something new work. Make sure that you build in an evaluation component and time frame. If people have concerns about the solution, they can engage in the trial more wholeheartedly if they know it will be evaluated. When you evaluate the solution, look at all the pros and cons, and try to accept or reject it based on the evidence. Consider adopting a part of the solution that did work, and modifying aspects that did not.
Information on conflict styles from Liz White (2004), www.lizwhiteinaction.com/action/
This is a helpful website with information on preventing and resolving interpersonal conflict:
Belliafore, D. R. (2004). Interpersonal conflict and effective communication. DRB Alternatives Inc. Retrieved February 10th, 2005, from http://www.drbalternatives.com/articles/cc2.html.
Refer to a the following article for an overview of research on interpersonal conflict:
Roloff, M. E., & Soule, K. P. (2002). Interpersonal conflict. In, Knapp, M. L., & Daly, J. A., Handbook of interpersonal communication (3rd Ed). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.