Communicating assertively

When trying to get a message across to others, we may resort to submissive, manipulative or aggressive behaviours. "I" statements provide an honest and effective alternative.

The 'recipe' for a 4 part "I" statement (or 'assertion statement') is easily learned. It is as follows:

When you… (a description of the other's behaviour)
I feel… (use a feeling word)
Because… (a brief description of the consequences of that person's behaviour upon you)
And I want… (explain what you want changed)

Make the statement as short and succinct as possible. Sometimes people think that by adding extra words, their communication becomes more polite, or is less likely to give offence. Assertion statements are not designed to give offence. Providing another person with a clear and unambiguous statement is a respectful way of communicating. Also, a shorter, clearer statement is more likely to be quickly understood by the recipient.

It is important to remember that we are not responsible for the response of the other person when an assertion statement is used. In the event of the other person becoming upset or angry, they own their own feelings and responses. If they have not received such an interaction from you before, they may be confused. You have changed the "rules" of your communication style, and this change may not have been anticipated.

When you…

Avoid interpreting the other persons's behaviour when describing it in the 'when you' part of the statement. Keep the description as objective as possible. The 'fly on the wall' criteria is helpful here: If a fly was on the wall, what would it see or hear when the other is doing the behaviour that you have a problem with?

"When you hurt my feelings by not looking after my kitchen" is an interpretation of the event. Whereas, "When you leave dirty dishes in the sink" gives a clear description of what has happened. The fly could see both the actions of the person leaving the dishes and the dishes themselves in the sink.

I feel…

Feeling words need to be just that. They are words that relate to the broad categories of 'mad', 'sad', 'glad', 'scared' or 'love'. Often, people substitute thinking words, which are not as effective. Again, keep the message short. An example is: "I feel angry."

Because…

Using the 'fly on the wall' criteria, ask: What are the consequences to me? If they are observable, they can be described in specific terms. On the other hand, if they consist of unpleasant thoughts or emotions, they will more likely be conveyed as generalisations or accusations. Just as the other person is responsible for their own thoughts and feelings when responding to an assertion statement, we are responsible for our own thoughts and feelings about the event(s) preceding it. It is not appropriate to dump our 'baggage' on the other person.

"Because you always do this to upset me" cannot be observed by the fly on the wall, and it imposes a judgment on the other's motives.

"Because the kitchen looks messy" can be observed, and does not interpret the other's motivation.

And I want…

Again, this needs to be something which is observable.

"And I want you to show me more respect" is not observable, and additionally implies - correctly or incorrectly - that the other has been judged as being disrespectful of the person giving the assertion statement.

"And I want you to wash and put away your dishes" tells the other clearly and simply what you are asking.

Put together, the assertion statement looks like this:

"When you leave dirty dishes in the sink, I feel angry because the kitchen looks messy, and I want you to wash and put away your dishes."

It can be analysed as follows: When you leave dirty dishes in the sink (observable phenomena), I feel angry (feeling word) because the kitchen looks messy (observable phenomena), and I want you to wash and put away your dishes (an outcome which is observable).

An ineffective statement might be:

"When you hurt my feelings by not looking after my kitchen I feel like I have to do all the work because you always do this to upset me and I want you to show me more respect."

Notice how unclear the message is here: the recipient does not really know what is being asked. Further, it feels manipulative, as if the other person is expected to be held responsible for the unpleasant feelings experienced by the asserter.

WHEN THINGS DON'T GO AS EXPECTED

Sometimes, people are so caught up in their own thoughts, they don't hear the assertion statement. Others perhaps, don't want to hear what is being said. Under these circumstances it is best to paraphrase their response as briefly as possible, so that they know that you are listening to them. Then, as closely as possible to the original words, repeat the assertion statement. This is called 'broken recording'. It may need to be repeated several times before it is truly heard.

Sometimes, people simply have differences of opinion which no assertion statement will alter. Sometimes people will 'push back' when they receive as assertion statement, using a strong "you" message, eg. "Look who's talking - you can't even make the bed". In such circumstances it is useful to not only paraphrase, but also make it clear that the other issue will be discussed - later. For example:

"You are saying that I don't make the bed. I will discuss that with you later. Right now I want to talk about the issue of the kitchen". Then repeat the assertion statement. You may need to 'broken-record' not only the assertion statement but also the message that your issue is first on the agenda. If the other person responds angrily, remember that you have choices as to how you allow that anger to affect you, and as to how you respond. You may find it helpful to reflect on the possibilities beforehand.

PRACTISE, PRACTISE, PRACTISE.

All new skills need to be practised before we become proficient in them. See if you can find someone to role-play this with you. Practise it using a variety of scenarios. Spend some time learning the "recipe", and try using it in different scenarios in your head, or if you are alone, do it out loud. Notice situations where an assertion statement might have been useful, and formulate one retrospectively. Do it so often, that it feels a part of you. In this way, when circumstances unexpectedly occur, you will not be left floundering, trying to remember the recipe, formulating a reply and trying to process your emotions all at once. Instead, an assertion statement will fall from your lips in a way that feels natural to you, allowing you to be free to concentrate on what is occurring between you and the other person.

Be consistent. If the other person makes a commitment to comply, and goes back to old ways after a short time, it is important to follow up, and deal with the issue again. If you do not do this, you are teaching the other person that assertion statements do not really matter, and you will be less likely to be taken seriously another time.

Remember that you have choices. You may choose not to use assertion statements sometimes. Consider the options that you have, before you respond to a situation.

FURTHER READING

There are many good texts on this topic. I strongly recommend "People Skills" by Robert Bolton (1987, Simon & Schuster). This book is very readable, and practical in its approach.



Posted on 14 January 2005 in - Library - Communication

Viv Cheesman


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