A while back in my career I was having trouble with a co-worker. I worked at a large organization and was lucky enough to have a workplace wellness counselor on hand to coach me through this difficult situation. One of the most useful things she taught me was the term “assertive communication.”
Put simply, communicating assertively means finding the sweet spot between passive or passive aggressive communication and aggressive or angry communication.
Consider the following (oversimplified) scenario: Sarah has two candy bars. She wants to keep one for herself, but she is willing to give one away to a friend. Four friends are sitting with her at the table; they each ask for the second candy bar in their own way.
Suzy: “I want the candy bar. Give it to me.”
Joe: “You’re probably just gonna give the candy bar to Suzy cause you like her better.”
Jane: “Sarah, may I have the candy bar? It looks really good.”
Bill: (sits there quietly hoping for the candy bar but feeling like he can’t ask for it cause Sarah is more popular than he is)
Now think about your own life. You’re on the phone with the airline that has cancelled your flight, in your boss’s office trying to ask for a day off during a busy time, or sitting with your spouse at dinner. Which style of communication is going to get you what you want and also maintain a positive relationship with that other person? (Hint: we’re going for Jane’s approach here.)
It sounds obvious that taking a more direct but respectful approach is the way to go, but as children and adults we don’t always remember to talk to others like that. Learning to attach a name to this constructive style of communication allowed me to develop a signifier in my head when I approach any situation. In a way, the term has become my mantra.
I remind myself to express my feelings openly and constructively with my husband: assertive communication.
I remind myself to speak to an employee directly about a concern with his or her work performance rather than beating around the bush: assertive communication.
I remind myself to come down to my son’s level and ask him kindly and firmly to do something for me rather than yelling at him from the other room: assertive communication.
I've shared the term with my husband, my co-workers, and (in more simple ways) my children so that we can use this style of communication with each other. When we remember to interact this way (which isn’t all the time) we solve challenges more quickly and more peacefully.
I learned about assertive communication fairly recently, but it's something I want my children to know about much earlier in life. I believe that teaching my children to communicate assertively will allow them to interact with others more honestly and fruitfully. It will build their social capital and allow them to better navigate all of the challenges that will come their way.
It'll also help them to develop positive relationships with others that are so essential to happiness and belonging. Selfishly, I also believe that it will help us to better communicate as we navigate the years of parent-child interactions we have ahead of us.
From a broader societal perspective, assertive communication is a tool that may help children who come from less privileged backgrounds gain more equal footing. Teaching children how to respectfully ask questions of adults and how to assertively express what they need in any given situation can make a huge difference in a young person’s life as they interact with the authority figures around them.
They'll learn how to ask their teacher for help on an assignment, how to knock on the Dean’s office door at college to resolve an issue with a professor, how to ask for the salary that they deserve when they get their first job offer, or how to talk to their boss when conflict arises with a co-worker to successfully retain that job.
It seems so simple, but sometimes naming our goal is half the battle. Next time you’re in a challenging situation and you’re getting ready to talk it through with another person, try saying to yourself three times: “assertive communication; assertive communication; assertive communication.” See if it changes how you approach the situation or talk to that other person and see if the conversation is more productive.
If it works, share the idea with someone else in your circle and begin teaching assertive communication skills to your children at whatever level is appropriate for their age. You might be surprised by the subtle shift that emerges when you (or they) name what you are trying to accomplish and think more carefully about how you go about interacting with others.