by Wendy McBrair, MS, BSN, CHES
If you aren’t used to communicating assertively, it may not come naturally at first. Use the following tips to help yourself.
Be prepared. If you anticipate a difficult conversation, prepare yourself ahead of time. Write down what you want to say and rehearse it with a family member or friend, or even say it to your dog. Think through what the other person might say. He or she may have a variety of responses — some good, some bad. Think about how you might address those responses.
Be willing to negotiate. When discussing a problem or a situation you want to change, be prepared to compromise. Even when using assertive communication, you may not always get your way, so try meeting the person halfway. In the case of John and his mother, although he wants her to go to a specialist for her arthritis, they might compromise by agreeing that she will see her family doctor instead. Going to the family doctor might lead to a meeting with a specialist, especially if John goes to the appointment to help direct the visit. If you and the person you’re negotiating with cannot come to a compromise right away, try to find some common ground and then work toward more agreements. This is the art of negotiation.
Avoid the all-or-nothing position. If you use words such as “always,” “never,” “no one,” or “everyone” when speaking with another person, chances are you’re taking an all-or-nothing position. For example, you might be tempted say, “You never accept any help when you need it” or “I always end up doing all the housework.” But seldom is a statement like this entirely true. Try using words and phrases such as “most of the time,” “sometimes,” or “some people” instead.
Try not to use dramatic language. Avoid using words that really don’t apply. “Hate” and “kill” are two examples. More appropriate words to use might be “upset” or “frustrated.”
Try the “broken record” technique. It can be helpful to repeat yourself in a calm voice until the person finally hears you. An example might be telling your daughter you will not allow her to go out until she cleans her room. Simply say over and over, “When your room is cleaned up, you can go out to play.” Sooner rather than later your daughter will know you mean it, and you will not have had to take an angry tone.
Use “I” messages. Use “I” messages rather than “you” messages. For example, instead of saying, “You never help with the housework,” say “I feel frustrated when I end up doing more than my share of the housework.” “You” messages come across as blaming and judgmental, and blaming others is not a good way to get the support you need from them.
Just say no. Even when you’re feeling your best, it is often impossible to fit everything in. If you are asked to do something you don’t want to do or don’t have the time or energy to do, it is OK to say no and not feel guilty about it. For instance, if you get an invitation to go to the movies but your joints are stiff and sore and you don’t feel up to going, you can politely decline and let the person know that you were glad to have been included and would like to go another time.
Give more information. Sometimes it helps to give additional information to encourage someone to cooperate. Instead of just saying, “I need help moving furniture tomorrow,” you might add, “I have company coming in two days and moving furniture tomorrow would help me get ready early. Would you have a chance to come lend me a hand?”
Pay attention to nonverbal communication. Keep in mind that most communication doesn’t happen through words. Be mindful of your and other people’s facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures — they can express a lot.
Observe communication within your family. You probably first learned what to say and how to say it in family situations. These early discussions and confrontations may have taught you how to handle problems. Identify your family’s style or styles of communication and see how they match up with your own. Do you and your family use assertive communication skills? What lessons can you learn from past family situations?
Take responsibility for your own feelings. Remember that no one can make you feel anything. Others may try to make you feel angry or guilty, but you can choose to agree or disagree with them. If in doubt, you can ask, “It sounds as though you are trying to make me feel guilty. Is that correct?” Be aware of how you really feel and what you really want, and do not let others manipulate you into feeling otherwise.
Communicating openly, honestly, and directly isn’t always easy, especially when it comes to subjects that bring up difficult emotions. But the fact is that others won’t know how you feel, what you want, or what you need unless you tell them. Improving your communication skills may take time and work—but it’s well worth it.
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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