Do you ever find yourself getting angry over small things that would not usually phase you? Not understanding why you just blew up at your partner about a toothpaste cap? It is likely that you are not angry about those dishes in the sink. You are instead reacting to something else entirely. What happens with anger, is that when left unchecked, it builds on itself. In my emotion regulation work with clients, I often describe anger as an empty water bottle. The empty bottle slowly fills with the small things that happen in life until it is so full that it finally explodes. The goal is not to allow your water bottle to get so full in the first place. One way to do this is through the use of assertive communication.
For example, if you tell your partner that you are feeling frustrated about the way you are managing your finances as a couple and that you would like to come up with a solution that makes you both happy, you do not run the risk of holding this frustration in, and allowing it to become resentment, that then blows up into a fight about whose turn it is to walk the dog.
When I first broach this topic in sessions, I often get the response that it is merely annoying to deal with the day to day fights and that there is “nothing underneath them.” Upon a closer look, however, we usually find the things that people have been holding onto that have become resentment over time. The good news is, that when people begin to practice assertiveness on a regular basis with their partners, the resentment that they once felt fades away. Think of how good it feels to be heard and have your needs met! Being assertive simply means learning to communicate clearly and to be able to advocate for yourself, while still showing compassion. Being assertive is not to be confused with aggressive communication, which is a selfish and scary form of communication! Let’s take a look at how to be more assertive.
9 Ways to be Assertive:
Taking responsibility means taking ownership of your part in the conflict. It does not say that you should blame yourself in an unhelpful way, or blame yourself for parts of the conflict that are your partners’ part in things. It does mean that you can take an inventory for yourself and examine where your self-growth should be.
Take the initiative.
Taking initiative means getting to the action part. If there is something big that has not been discussed in your relationship, chances are it is playing out in some way, whether you are aware of it or not. Taking the initiative to have difficult conversations with your partner is the first step in having a more honest and open relationship. A relationship where there is no need for resentment and grudges.
Active listening describes a form of communication where you are truly hearing what your partner is saying. It does not mean half-listening while you scroll through Facebook and watch a show on TV. It means eliminating distractions and giving your partner your whole attention. Nod your head and let your partner know that you are listening based on the sounds you make and your body language. You should be maintaining good eye contact and paraphrasing what your partner is saying to show that you are listening.
Active listening is not waiting for a small enough break in what your partner is saying to give your rebuttal; it is listening to truly hear what your partner is trying to tell you! In addition to the benefits for your relationship of really hearing your partner, there is usually the added gain that your partner will then feel heard, and will then be less on guard, and more open to hearing what you have to say.
Speak Up Constructively.
This is a significant difference from aggressive communication. Constructively speaking up means that you advocate for yourself, in a way that helps further the conversation and your relationship. It is not demanding that you be heard, or that things are to change in the exact way you want or else. Constructively speaking up means that you are sharing your wants and needs while still attending to the feelings of your partner, and looking for ways to have both of your needs met. It is often the beginnings of a compromise.
Using our example from earlier, saying something like, “I really appreciate the time and effort you put into making sure our bills are paid on time. There are times though that I feel a little left out of the loop. Can I sit with you while you pay bills this month so that we can get on the same page as far as finances?” Statements such as these state how you are feeling, and ask for your needs to be met, in a constructive way. It is unlikely that a statement like this would cause your partner to become defensive. This is because you are discussing the issue with “I statements,” not accusatory “you did this” statements).
Most people are pretty good judges of when others are being sincere or not. The best way to keep your partner from becoming defensive is to be sincere. This will also prevent you creating a conflict that does not solve anything for you. Pairing the “I statements” from the last section with sincerity creates a much more palatable statement that your partner can more readily take in. Being genuine with your facial expressions, body language, and words create an atmosphere that encourages conversation, instead of fighting.
Focus on Solutions.
Sometimes there are solutions that you already have in mind, and sometimes there aren’t. The key here is that if you have an idea about how to solve your problem, that you present the idea, and ask for feedback. Even if you have come up with the best solution ever, it is essential to be open to other ways of seeing your problem. If you enter into the discussion sure that you are right and your partner is wrong, you are looking for an argument, and not a genuine solution to your problem. If you are unsure of how to fix your problem, that’s okay too! Open dialogue allows you and your partner to come together to find a solution. You may even discover a solution that neither of you may have previously considered!
Use a Confident Voice and Body Language.
Confidently presenting your wants and needs is the best way to be heard by your partner. Think of how you receive someone who looks at the ground and softly asks for something. Contrast that to the person who keeps their head and posture up, looks you in the eye and asks for what he or she wants in a calm, direct way. It is human nature to listen to a more confident person and take in more of what they are saying. You deserve to have your wants and needs heard, so give yourself that chance!
Addresses Concern Directly.
Just like you have had your concerns heard, it is now time to listen and respond to your partner’s concerns. Have you had any blind spots in your part in this problem? Just as your concerns deserve to be heard, so do your partners. It is sometimes difficult to hear feedback that is less than positive from our partners. However, if you both get into the habit of using healthy assertive communication, then you will both have the opportunity to be heard and will begin creating your solutions together!
Asks for Needs.
Lastly, and most importantly, don’t forget to ask for what you need. Partners are not mind readers! Let me say that again: partners are not mind readers! Asking for what you need is the only way that your partner will truly know what you need. Assuming that your partner “should know” or “does know” what you want is a recipe for disaster. Take the games out of your communication and be direct, your relationship will thank you!