by Wendy McBrair, MS, BSN, CHES
People may use passive-aggressive communication when they are dealing with authority figures, such as bosses and parents, as a result of anger, frustration, and the inability to make a change. When you are irritated and feel that you do not know how to communicate with someone, you may resort to telling someone else about the situation, as Jim did, or “act out” against the person in other ways. While passive-aggressive communication may help you feel better temporarily, it is not likely to help change the situation or get you what you ultimately want. Instead, it can breed more hostility and resentment.
Assertive communication. When you communicate assertively, you speak directly, respectfully, openly, and honestly about your needs and feelings, and you listen to the other person and take into account his or her needs and feelings. Assertive communication focuses on the speaker, incorporating “I” statements such as “I feel hurt when I think I’m being left out of plans.” It does not involve name-calling or swearing, and there is no worry about being hurt physically or psychologically. The goal is to reach a mutual understanding, with both sides feeling listened to and respected. Here is an example of a conversation that demonstrates assertive communication.
Judy is speaking with her son about getting his homework done on time. “I feel very frustrated when I see that you are playing video games when you have homework to do. You have told me that you want to do well in school. Getting your homework done will help you to succeed and demonstrate to me that you are taking responsibility for your actions and goals. I feel that I become the ‘bad guy’ when I have to remind you all the time. What can we do to balance the video games you love and the work that needs to get done?”
Although you may think that assertively stating what you want or need is forceful or selfish, it gives you the best chance at having your needs, desires, and problems heard. Using assertive communication isn’t a guarantee that you will get you what you need or want, but at least it allows for further discussion while avoiding the creation of barriers between you and the other person.
Now that you understand what the different styles of communication look like, let’s look at a scenario and compare different possible responses. John is worried about his mother, Elizabeth, and her worsening arthritis and wants her to see an arthritis specialist. She has refused to see any doctor. John decides to visit his mother in the hopes that having a conversation will motivate her to find better care. Elizabeth tells her son that although she can’t get anything done because of her stiffness and soreness, she thinks she’ll feel better soon and doesn’t think going to a doctor is necessary. Which type of response from John is more likely to encourage his mother to get help?
Passive response. “All right, Mom. Call me if you need any help.”
Aggressive response. “Mom, get in the car — we are going to the doctor. You are the most stubborn person I’ve ever met. I don’t know why you won’t get help. If you don’t go with me now, I’m not coming back to help ever again — I mean it.”
Passive-aggressive response. John ends the conversation with his mother without further comment on her refusal to the doctor. Later, he calls his sister and says, “Mom looked terrible today. She is so impossible — she refuses to go to the doctor. I’m so disgusted. Don’t even bother to call her. She just doesn’t want help.”
Assertive response. “Mom, I’m really concerned about you. It looks like you are getting more and more stiff and sore, and I feel so badly when I see you in pain. I don’t know how to help you. Will you please consider seeing a doctor for your arthritis? I would be glad to go with you on the visit. Perhaps we could start with your family doctor and see what she suggests. I want you to get the help you need.”
As you probably guessed, the assertive response from John is the most likely to elicit the response he wants in return from Elizabeth. If he responds passively, the issue will not be addressed, and John may end up feeling helpless or resentful. If he responds aggressively, his mother may feel personally attacked and go on the defensive — and she may choose not to contact John if she needs help in the future. If John responds in a passive-aggressive manner, not only is the problem not addressed, but also his comments may get back to his mother and hurt her feelings. However, if John responds assertively, his mother may hear him out. Even if she doesn’t agree to go to the doctor right away, she will understand that John is motivated by his love and concern for her when he insists she does, and she may eventually come around to the idea.
Last Reviewed on July 13, 2011
Wendy McBrair spent 30 years as a health-care professional in the fields of rheumatology and orthopedics, where she specialized in patient and community service, patient education, and advocacy.
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