One of the most common challenges I see day to day in my personal practice is the challenge of assertive communication. Many of my patients have trouble expressing how they are feeling to themselves let alone to another person. Sharing how you are feeling, and more importantly, what you need from others can be immensely difficult. Here are a few ideas for how to improve your assertive communication skills.
Please bear in mind this article is intended for everyday challenges with assertive communication. If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship with another person who threatens your safety there is a different approach you will need to take which may include seeking assistance from professionals.
#1 Set boundaries early, and politely enforce them as often as needed.
When you are dealing with someone who has challenges with respecting your needs, feelings, and time it is important that you set clear boundaries to help them understand the best ways to interact with you. Boundaries can be firm and loving though sometimes people might say that if you cared about them more you wouldn’t set boundaries. To those people, I usually say, “I set boundaries with my time, needs, and feelings because I care about you. I want to be the best self I can be when I do help you.” Usually, the people we need boundaries with the most are the people who will test those boundaries the hardest, you will need to clearly restate your boundary and stick to them. Even the most persnickety boundary testers
Examples of stating boundaries in a firm but polite manner:
“I only check my phone messages once a day. If you really need to get my attention don’t leave a message, call me again after a little while and I will answer your phone call as soon as I can.”
“After 10 pm my ability to interact with others comfortably decreases dramatically, if you want to spend time with me we need to meet earlier in the day.”
“I understand that you need help with this problem and that you are feeling a lot of pressure, but I don’t have the time right now to help. I would be happy to help as soon as I am finished with this project first.”
“It sounds like you are very upset about that, but I am not equipped to help you with that problem. I think you would have more success if you sought help from someone with more expertise than me.”
When you set boundaries it is important to keep them. When you allow others to step over boundaries you send the message that you don’t really care about your boundaries and therefore others don’t need to care either. If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable about a boundary you set you can always review what you set and determine if it’s just because others are putting more pressure on you, or if you didn’t consider all the possible negative consequences of setting that boundary then you can always re assess what your needs are and adjust. Just be sure to let others know why you are readjusting. It’s ok to say “I didn’t consider all the negative outcomes setting this boundary would cause, so I adjusted it to better meet your needs and still protect my time, feelings, and stress levels.”
#2 Write your thoughts down and then role-play.
When you feel that you have difficulty expressing your ideas in the moment of pressure, and you notice a pattern of times that you are unable to fully express what you are feeling about a situation you can try writing down what you need and then reading it out loud to yourself or a friend. When you do, ask yourself or your friend the following questions:
“Did I clearly state what I am feeling and what I need?”
“Did I accidentally or unwittingly leave room to be pressured further because I was trying to be polite?”
Roleplaying with a friend to prepare for a difficult conversation allows you the chance to experience having another person continue to apply pressure to change your mind or actions without the real-life commitment or consequences. Have your friend try several times to push against your assertive statements or boundaries while you reassert your ideas or boundaries.
You can also do this with yourself in a mirror, or while you shower. I have made some of my best arguments while talking to myself in the shower. The act of trying on the assertive role will help build your confidence in speaking assertively in everyday situations. You can sort through your thoughts without pressure, and you will learn how to formulate your statements so as to have maximum clarity and confidence.
3. Use the Phrase, “I’m not comfortable with…”
Anytime you may find yourself in a situation where you are feeling pressured to act in a way that causes you abnormal levels of stress, puts you in conflict with your personal values or causes guilt and shame if you don’t do what the other person is asking trying saying, “I’m not comfortable with that.”
I have heard again and again about the pain caused by peer pressure, unreasonable expectations, or even outright manipulation from others to get what they want. This problem is doubled for anyone who has trouble asserting themselves, and if they have not had a history of asserting themselves others may have consciously or unconsciously learned to apply enough pressure until they get what they want.
When you are with people who care about you, most of the time, they will respect your feelings. They can’t argue with your feelings of discomfort, they may want you to change or may disagree with the response you are giving, but only you can feel what you feel. Saying “I’m not comfortable with…” is a clear way to share your needs while still allowing others the opportunity to consider alternate solutions to problems.
For example you might say:
“I am not comfortable with that movie, it’s way to violent for my tastes, and I know I will have nightmares.”
To which they can say:
“Ok, maybe we can look for a different movie we will both like.”
Applying all three tools.
Consider the following real-life story, shared with permission, as an example of all three of the above tools in action. The Names those involved have been changed to protect privacy:
Sarah and Tom had been dating for over a year when she came to me to ask for some help with past trauma and current relationship distress. Sarah shared with me that Tom felt that the relationship was progressing really well and that he wanted to begin including sex in their relationship. Sarah also felt that the relationship was progressing well, and she really cared about Tom, but Sarah was not ready for anything beyond holding hands, snuggling up to watch a movie, or short kisses. Tom had explained to Sarah that he was beginning to feel hurt because it seemed like she didn’t care as much about him as he did about her. Sarah continued to express her love for Tom, but also maintained the boundary she set. Tom was initially very respectful of Sarah’s boundaries but began to apply pressure on her more and more regularly using phrases such as:
“How can we say that we love each other, but every time I bring up sex you get really upset? We have both had sex before, so I know it’s not about sex. I feel really hurt when you shut me down like this.”
“I understand that you are not ready, but when will you be? Sometimes I feel like you are in the mood, but when I try to engage or ask you about it you make me feel like I am gross or a bad guy.”
Sarah felt that Tom’s feelings were valid, but the pressure that Sarah was feeling from him was not helping her feel like she could comfortably move into a sex either. On the one hand, She did love Tom very much, but on the other, She did not feel that she was ready for sex. She wanted it to be special and without anxiety on her part. Sarah noted that Tom, despite expressing frustrations and hurt feelings, had always been respectful of her choice and most of the time didn’t even bring up the topic of sex. They spent many days together and got a long well almost all of the time, but she was afraid of losing him by not being willing to have sex.
Sarah’s reasons for not wanting to include sex in her relationship with Tom were rooted in past sexual abuse. Sarah had spent many years dealing with the pain from that abuse and was trying to sort out her feelings about her body image, her worthiness to be in a loving relationship, and other challenges that resulted from that trauma. Sarah had never shared her trauma experience with Tom because she was afraid it might make Tom feel like she thought he was, or worse that we would feel disgusted with her past and leave her anyway. After extensive work to address these beliefs caused by Sarah’s trauma we started to use role-play conversations to help Sarah find the words to express what she was feeling. She came up with the following statements (paraphrased here because I don’t remember the exact wording.)
“Tom, I really love being with you. I love that you treat me with so much respect and love, and I am grateful to be with you. I really love you and I want our relationship to keep getting better, I am just not comfortable with having sex yet. I hope to move toward sex in the future, but I need time to work through some of my own challenges.”
Even though that phrase alone was all that really needed to be shared Sarah also added the following:
“The reason I am not comfortable with sex right now is that I am working on being comfortable with my own body again, and it’s taking me some time. I have a hard time loving my own body right now. Even though I know you love me no matter what, I want our first time together to be enjoyable for both of us, and I want to be fully present with you when we do have sex.”
After Sarah had practiced saying these things a few times and had tweaked them to fit exactly what she was feeling she shared them with Tom. Tom was very accepting of the feedback, and he was able to share with Sarah that he was willing to wait as long as she needed. He felt closer to her because she shared the reasons why she was setting a boundary, and that helped him feel like he could wait. Even though Tom still felt like they could progress their relationship to include sex more quickly than Sarah, he shifted his language to be supportive of Sarah by asking her how he could help her feel more comfortable. Together they talked through Sarah’s feelings and concerns and came up with a plan together that would help them both feel happy with the physical side of their relationship while still allowing Sarah the time she needed to prepare for satisfying intimacy.
There is no magic button…
There is no magic button that will make a person suddenly more confident with being assertive, but assertive communication is a skill just like any other. You can learn how it works, practice it, and become a master of it. Simply remember that assertive communication is more about clarifying what you are feeling or why you need things to happen a certain way. Assertive communication does not mean you will never compromise, in fact, assertive communication makes room for compromise and collaboration. When other people know where you stand more clearly they can more easily work with you to find solutions to both their challenges and yours.
(c) 2022 all rights reserved, Richard Stubbs, LPC, MT-BC, CATP