The assertive communication formula is one of the first and most pivotal lessons I learned in the life skills group. I’ve talked about assertive communication before, but I’ve learned recently that it can be used in many more useful and healing ways than telling a friend or whatever how you feel and letting go of the outcome.
Let’s back it up for a minute first and cover the assertiveness formula basics. The purpose of the assertiveness formula is to speak your truth/stand up for yourself, without blame, passive-aggressiveness or victim-hood. You have to own the statement as your interpretation/perception, because it is your truth and the other person might have perceived/interpreted the situation totally differently. It is imperative that you let go of the outcome. You cannot control the other person’s actions or thoughts. All you can do is tell them how you feel and let them decide how they want to proceed. Keep in mind that others are not responsible for our feelings, nor are you responsible for theirs (this does NOT mean you should be unkind). For this reason, you should also avoid saying “make/made me feel.” This may not sit right with you at first, but the truth is that you, and only you, own and control your feelings. You have the power to decide what they are, so nobody can MAKE you feel anything. Just to reiterate, try to use “I” statements, instead of “you,” to avoid the blame/defensiveness dynamic. For example, I feel hurt, instead of you hurt me. I feel ignored, instead of you don’t care. I disagree, instead of you are wrong.
All of that said, here is the formula:
These are the things I’ve learned about using this formula (in chronological order of realization):
- Assertive communication is the only way to end the self perpetuating cycle of passive-aggressive, codependent behavior (more about that here). It is the period to: he did this, because she did that, because he did this, because she did that, etc infinity. Don’t get sucked into blame, defensiveness, and insults. Just repeat the issue, your feeling about it, and what you need, until the other person either hears you, or gets tired of arguing with someone who won’t argue back.
- It is important for your inner child/heart/source/whatever you like to call it to know that you take her feelings seriously and will not dismiss them. You can’t control the outcome of what happens after you have expressed your feelings, but simply bringing them to light will make you feel better. Maybe you can let it go after saying it out loud. Maybe you just get to stop obsessing about “what-if.” Regardless of the outcome, you can rest easy in the knowledge that you were true to yourself. You were authentic. When you put your best self out there, great things will start to happen.
- Sometimes (many times), when you tell someone how you perceived a situation, or interpreted their action, you find out that it was a misunderstanding. Everybody has their own reality. For example, if you tell a woman with psoriasis on her arms to bring a long sleeved shirt to the lake, she might perceive that you are judging her skin condition or find her repulsive. Meanwhile, you might have been thinking about the fact that it would be getting cold, or that the sun would be strong/dangerous, or that long sleeves might protect her from mosquitoes. My own thoughts can (and have) turn(ed) a perfectly harmless question or comment into a vicious insult and in the past I have allowed these “insults” to fester to the point of ruining relationships.
- Lastly, or most recently, since I bet there are still more lessons to be learned, I realized that going through the formula in my mind forces me to name the feeling I am experiencing and the reason, or what caused it, to myself; this is helpful, especially in situations when the perpetrator is not easily identified. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking/talking/learning about cognitive distortions, and as it turns out, sometimes my feelings about a situation are based on HUGE distortions. Take what happened earlier this week for example. Once I unraveled the distortions (shame, guilt, all or nothing thinking, etc), I was able to see some positives in the situation and resolve my negative/harmful feelings about it.
Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t made a complete 180 and now think that there are wholesome intentions behind every negative or negative seeming interaction, but just like they can’t all be good when you get to the bottom, they also don’t all have to be bad. I would say the biggest takeaway for me is that the assertiveness formula allows you to process your feelings by lovingly questioning the feelings and their sources. After that, if you determine that an assertive conversation is still warranted, you already have the words ready to go.