Assertive Communication: 10 tips to improve relationships

By Leslie Marshall, MA, PCC

Most of us know that assertiveness will get you further in life than being passive or aggressive. But few of us were actually taught how to be assertive. Whether you are the parent or the child, the employer or the employee, the husband or the wife, you need to be able to communicate your needs and desires and know that you are heard, which decreases your own frustration.

If we look at it from a Biblical perspective, Jesus commented that he only did/said what God had revealed for him to do/say. Each of His statements were assertive. He did not have to be passive nor aggressive. Why? Because passivity comes from fear and aggressiveness comes from fear and false pride; neither fear nor pride was evident in the life of Jesus.

As Christians we are told to “speak the truth in love.” We are told to be bold and confident. When we are assertive, we build intimacy, we develop honesty in relationships and we solve interpersonal problems. Assertive statements should be spoken respectfully and honestly.

So, let’s look at how we may handle issues. What happens when there is a really difficult subject that needs to be discussed? Sometimes people have a tendency to water down the hard topics for fear of sounding dominant or bossy, and choose the wrong words to communicate their frustration, resulting in a passive voice:

‘Honey, pleeeezzze call me when you’re running late, you know how worried I get.”

Then, when the same passive request has been stated 7-8 times and the same behavior continues, the person has had it, so now the request comes out aggressively:

“I am so sick and tired of you not listening to me! What is your problem? Is it so hard to pick up the phone and call just to let me know you’re running late?”

This aggressiveness comes from a fear of loss of control, which stems from false pride.

When people choose alternatives to assertiveness, they fake their feelings, suffer silently, retreat from others, manipulate them or demand their way. Ultimately these options are self-defeating and harmful to relationships.

In addition to word choice, there is a difference in tone. This passive voice comes across as whining or ‘nagging’; while aggressive voices are just the opposite and have an angry undertone. The most effective way to communicate is with assertive words and an assertive tone. I call this “the kind NIKE attitude:” Just do it.

In order to develop your assertive voice, I have provided you with the following 10 tips that can benefit your communication with your friends, family, co-workers, and even service providers.

  1. Choose the right time & place. Imagine you’re dashing out the door on your way to work. Your 15 year old daughter is upstairs and you call out, “I’d like a clean house when I get home.” This passive voice will lead to more frustration on your part when she says “I didn’t hear you.” An assertive request would involve standing in front of her, making eye contact and saying “I need you to wash the dishes, put them away and run the vacuum before I get home at 5:00.” There is not room for miscommunication this way.
  2. Be direct. A passive comment would say “I just don’t know how I’m going to get everything done before your aunt gets here.” An assertive comment says, “Lisa, I need you to vacuum the living room and polish the living room furniture before 11 a.m.” Whether or not Lisa likes your request, she knows exactly what you’re asking of her.
  3. Say “I” or “you,” not “we.” Instead of passively saying, “We need to do our homework done before we turn on the TV,” assertively say, “You need to finish your homework, then you can watch TV.
  4. Be specific. Instead of, “Have you cleaned your room yet?” say, “I’ll be up to check your room by 5:00 p.m.” Believe it or not, kids love this, as you’re not constantly nagging them with ‘have you done it yet?’ and they know their deadline. This helps them with developing time management skills as well.
  5. Use body language to emphasize your words. Standing in front of your husband and making eye contact as you state “Johnny needs to get to Above the Rim practice at 5:00. I need you to take him because I have to work late,” is an assertive statement. But if you mumble “Johnny needs to be at the Above the Rim practice at 5:00” as you’re walking out the door, you undermine your message and Johnny may miss practice.
  6. Confirm your request. Ask your kids to repeat back to you what you just said. Looking back at example number 1, you could kindly ask Lisa, “Repeat back to me what I just said so I know you understand what I’m asking.”
  7. Don’t get personal. When expressing an annoyance or criticism, comment on the person’s behavior rather than attacking the person. For example if your 14 year old yells “GET OUT” when you walk in his room, you would say: “If you are busy you can ask me to come back later, but you may not treat me rudely.” rather than, “You are so rude!”
  8. Maintain eye contact when you are in a conversation. Note: This is a struggle for small children, especially boys, so encourage them with words like “I like seeing your eyes when you speak to me. It tells me you’re listening to me. That is helpful”
  9. Use “I” statements when commenting on another’s behavior. Instead of “You make me so mad… you always do this!” an assertive person would state, “When you cancel our plans at the last minute it’s extremely inconvenient and I feel frustrated.”
  10. State what you want. If appropriate, ask for another behavior. “Let’s sit down and try to figure out how we can make plans together and cut down on this kind of problem.”

When we are in our Father’s grip, we can let go of our fears and false pride, allowing Him to be in control. We can, as Jesus said, just let our “yes be yes, and our no be no.”

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