In this post, I flesh out all the components of assertiveness so that you can communicate clearly and effectively.
Assertiveness is one of those foundational communication skills required in any successful relationship.
There’s often a lot of talk about being assertive in your communication, but not many people truly understand the nuances of this skill.
1. Keep your eye on the prize ( what’s your intention?)
I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of initiating a conversation or raising an issue without much forethought. You know the discussions where you just start talking without a plan, or worse still, you blurt out the issue you have been sitting on only when your partner raises a separate issue (also known as piggy-backing).
When you initiate a discussion or raise an issue, the outcome will almost always be better for both parties when you ‘keep your eye on the prize.’ Don’t lose sight of what you are wanting to express or have known. Consider your intention before you begin and hold onto that, especially when the going gets tough.
And if your intention is about you expressing something about yourself, (I feel, I thought, I imagined…), then your prospects for a good outcome are significantly higher.
Communication tip: Consider what’s your intention before entering into any challenging conversation. Keep your eye on the prize and don’t let it waver, particularly when the stakes are high.
2. Lose battles to win wars
This reminds me of my favourite saying ‘you can be right, or you can be in relationship.’ It’s human nature to want to be right. We get a sense of righteous pleasure or feel superior and better-than. But when it comes to relationships and communication, if you’re fixed on being right, you are guaranteed a lose-lose outcome.
Lose battles to win wars means consider letting go of your need to be right in favour of your bigger picture. Your big picture may include wanting a harmonious relationship, supporting your partner’s desires or creating a compassionate, warm and loving relationship.
Communication tip: When you hold on to the big picture, the small battles lose their importance.
3. Ground your communication in empathy, compassion and love
I learned in my post-graduate studies that assertiveness was communicating in a way where you treat the other as an equal, not less than or better than yourself. This made sense to me, but it was missing something.
Empathy, compassion and love bring a whole new dimension to your relationships when you hold these intentions in the background of your communication. They help you ‘tune in’ to the other, feel the person behind the eyes and relate with an openness that’s an outcome of feeling love for the other.
Communication tip: Open yourself up to the other by feeling your own empathy, compassion and love for yourself. Paradoxically, this frees you up to feel these things for your partner.
4. Practice unilateral virtue
Living with virtue is about being congruent with your own moral code and living your code in your day-to-day interactions.
When it comes to relationships, consider the code or values that you believe in or feel strongly about. Practicing unilateral virtue is then about the simplicity of living that code, even in the face of provocation. It’s unilateral because you alone take responsibility for living by the values that you find meaningful and virtuous.
Communication tip: Take time to reflect on your own relationship virtues. Then practice unilateral virtue when you are deeply triggered or provoked by another.
5. Communicate for yourself, not to change others
This is one of the most common communication issues I see in my work with couples. Many couples get stuck in their relationships by communicating with the goal of having their partner change.
The problem with this style of communication is that before you even begin to discuss an issue, you are setting up a pattern where the listener will have to defend themself. This often leads to escalating and competing messages where no one gets heard and everyone loses.
Change your mindset to enter a conversation with the goal of discovering something new about YOURSELF and allowing yourself to be known.
Communication tip: Use this formula: When I hear/see X, I feel Y, because I need Z…and I request…
6. Communicate with dignity and gravity
I like this step because it reminds me of how empowered I can feel when I communicate with dignity and gravity. The essence of this step is about truly being for yourself. This means that you support, value and encourage yourself, even when you are being deeply triggered by another.
When you enter into communication while being an advocate for YOUR wants, needs, thoughts, feelings and desires, the likelihood of being heard is much greater. What’s more, your message is given the value and respect that it deserves.
Communication tip: Be your own greatest advocate when communicating what’s important for you. Communicating with dignity and gravity gives weight to the message you are sending and will be received in that way.
7. Listen for the deepest wants and desires
When you communicate with assertiveness, it’s a two-way process. Your partner receiving the message will respond, and this gives you an opportunity to listen in a different way.
As you listen to the response, go beyond the content you are hearing and listen for the deepest wants and desires that are embedded in the message. Don’t get caught up in the details, but go deeper into the message and pick up what’s not being said.
Not only will this help you step out of your own reactivity, but it’s likely you’ll pick up on important information that is not being spoken. You can then address these wants and desires together, which promotes a greater sense of connection.
Communication tip: Move beyond the content you are hearing and tap into the deeper wants and desires of your partner. Ultimately, this is of more significance than what you are hearing.
8. Focus on ‘from now on’
Another common pitfall couples fall into is constantly bringing up the past and rehashing it in the present. When something is unresolved, it will continue to re-surface between you. It’s nature’s way of saying that there is unfinished business requiring attention.
However, if you constantly draw on material from the past, you are unwittingly injuring each other by causing distress and hurt to your partner. Your focus on the past is getting in the way of staying in the present and moving into your future.
Communication tip: Address unfinished situations and then focus on ‘from now on’, so that you move your focus to the future and create plans for positive interactions.
9. Make clear plans and agreements
This might seem like a no-brainer, but many couples forget to make clear plans and agreements once they have expressed themselves.
Once you have communicated with assertiveness and incorporated the steps above, it’s important that you each agree on what outcomes you would like and what you both agree to.
This is an important step because it consolidates all the other steps and gives a concrete resolution to your communication. Without this step, it’s easy to leave the conversation and not be sure of what was achieved.
Communication tip: Once you have communicated with assertiveness, step back and look at the big picture of what outcomes you can both agree on. Make these agreements clear and simple, so there are no doubts between you.
10. If appropriate, negotiate solutions
Not every assertive conversation needs or should have a solution. If your communication opens up the possibility of a solution make sure there is space to discuss one.
However, many couples fall into the trap of moving to solutions too quickly and negate the important steps of listening, understanding and validating. Make sure you engage in these practices before negotiating possible solutions, to facilitate the resolution of the issue.
Communication tip: Don’t rush to solutions, but don’t ignore them if one is needed. Focus on understanding, listening and validating, before negotiating a solution that is agreeable to both parties.
Do you need relationship help?
Thanks to Rick Hanson who, inspired me to write about these tips that he spoke of at his ‘Neurodharma of Love and Power’ workshop.
Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.