What Our Communication Styles Tell Us About Ourselves: How to Practice Assertive Communication
One of the top reasons my clients report for seeking out therapy services is relationship issues. When exploring these issues, I like to ask about my clients’ communication styles (they might have more than one!). I have found that the root of many relationship issues is not communicating effectively or assertively. Building up some insight into our own communication styles, as well as how we might be able to better “translate” what we’re trying to say, may help to alleviate some relationship issues.
There are many factors that may influence our own communication styles:
Our upbringing - Parents and caregivers model communication and communicative behavior. If you grew up in a household where communication is more aggressive (say, a family of “yellers”), you might have adopted this communication style yourself.
Our culture - Culture may influence what may be considered polite or appropriate behavior. For example, you may have a Midwestern client share that it’s impolite to make a direct request, while a client from New York may consider it rude to use indirect communication.
Our traumas - If you were punished as a child for trying to assert your needs, you may have resorted to another form of communication to get your needs met. Being passive may have meant that you wouldn’t face serious consequences. Being aggressive may have meant that you were more likely to keep yourself safe.
Our emotional intelligence - Being assertive requires us to know what we are feeling, how we’re being impacted, and what our needs are. If you do not know these things, you may be more likely to miscommunicate.
Let’s first try to understand the different communication styles to see which categories we might fall into. A common example that I like to use is talking to one’s partner (or roommate or family member) about cleaning the home. If your partner has a pattern of not cleaning up after themselves at home, and this stresses you out, what tends to be your response?
I highlight that the goal of assertive communication is to be respectful of oneself and of the other person.
If I use passive-aggressive communication, I’m not respecting myself because I’m not honestly communicating my needs, nor am I respecting the other person by being direct with them.
If I use passive communication, I may be “respecting” the other person by not directly confronting them, but I am again not being respectful of my needs.
If I use aggressive communication, I am communicating that my needs are important, but conveying my needs in a manner that is disrespectful to the other person (maybe communicating that my needs are more important than theirs).
Assertive communication is both respectful of the needs of oneself and respectful of how we communicate to the other person.
So how do I work on speaking more assertively?
I have clients start easy by using the I-statement “I feel ___ when ___ because ___. I need ____.” This helps clients to get in the habit of using I-statements, taking ownership of their feelings and needs, and to grow comfortable with using a different way of communicating. When I role-play these statements with clients, I also ask them for feedback on how it feels to hear an I-statement communicated to them.
I also like to tell clients that learning one way of communicating is similar to learning a foreign language. If you’ve spent years of your life communicating in one way, you must pause, “reinterpret” what you would normally say, then convey it in a way that will feel unfamiliar. Using different words and tones will be uncomfortable at first, and that’s okay! It’s better to try and be imperfect than to not try at all.
Example 1: “You’re late again! What is wrong with you?!” [Aggressive communication]
Translated: “I noticed you have been coming home late a few times this week. Is everything okay?”
Example 2: “Wow, you sure have had my book for a looong time.” [Passive aggressive communication]
Translated: “I need you to return the book that I loaned to you.”
Example 3: (When dining out with friends) “I’m okay with whatever.” [Passive communication]
Translated: “I would feel more comfortable dining out at a less expensive restaurant.”
What’s your communication style? What do you think may have shaped the way you communicate?