When Words Aren't Enough, Dig Deeper

Part 4 of this 4-part series on assertive communication is about the role of assertive communication in situations that are not so straight forward. We will address how to create a safe space, manage difficult situations, and understand the role of assertive communication when there are subconscious dynamics that operate below the surface.

Creating a Safe Space

You may have heard the statistic: 93% of all communication is nonverbal. While this might not be entirely accurate, it shows us that to improve assertive communication, you must go beyond the words you say or your careful management of a specific dialogue. Successful assertive communication requires you to increase your awareness of your body language, posture, tone of voice, personal space, facial expression, and eye contact.  To be effective in getting your message across, tune into how you convey empathy and kindness. Cultivate a safe space for the other party to hear your message.  Consider this famous quote from one of my favorite authors, Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel." 

Whether your dominant style is passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive, it may help you to consider Maya Angelou's wisdom. Before you provide feedback, create a “safe space”, a container of sorts, for yourself where your emotions are in check.  This will help reduce feelings of awkwardness or tension, and will also put the person receiving the feedback in a better space to receive your message. Maya's quote expresses how people walk away with a feeling and an experience, and an experience isn't just about what was said. For some tips on how to use non-verbal communication techniques, have a look at the section, “change is hard," in the second post of this series. 

The Elephant in the Room

At one time or another, we all face difficult situations that require assertive communication to help us feel safe and solve problems in our lives.  In these tough situations, in addition to applying assertive communication skills like DESO (Describe, Explain, Specify, Outcome)  laid out in Post 2 of this series, it's wise to consider your approach carefully and apply a greater degree of self-awareness. For example, a friend recently told me about her daughter’s middle school holiday performance, during which the 6th grade performers were being heckled and bullied by 8th grade audience members. To my friend’s shock and horror, the administration and teachers did nothing to stop it. As a result, many of the 6th graders, including my friend's daughter, felt humiliated. The next time they perform, it's likely that many of them will now be anxious.

My friend was understandably upset, but she waited to cool down, gather her thoughts, and process them with her husband. The next day, she called the school principal .  She told the principal what she witnessed, how she and her daughter felt, and what she needed, which was the ensure that the administration, learned of the incident in the event that they did not know of it, developed a response, addressed the students in an effort to prevent future incidents and, established a policy and protocol for how they will handle similar situations in the event they occur again. 

She calmly explained the events, not putting the responsibility entirely on the school, and avoiding criticism and blame. Speaking objectively, and from a standpoint of social responsibility, she said, "as a parent, I want to do my best to support safety in the school community, so how can I help?"  She also used it as an opportunity to teach her daughter the importance of strength and resilience of character. She allowed her daughter to see that the actions were about those 8th graders and their own trauma and hurt, and not about her or her classmates' performance. To summarize: my friend took the time to process her feelings, put her emotions in check, and carefully consider her approach so that she could be most effective. 

The Root: Underlying Dynamics

Let’s face it. When it comes to learning assertive communication, it’s hard to “fake it until you make it”, especially with those closest to you. In stressful situations involving your significant other or family members, your knowledge and skill in assertive communication strategies may not get you very far until you address the root cause of the conflict.

History, family patterns of behavior, and core beliefs all play a role in establishing a family dynamic. Building up your assertiveness skills will serve you well in all areas of your life, but when underlying dynamics are at the root of a persistent conflict, then assertive communication alone may not resolve that conflict.  Tension can be alleviated by using “I" statements and focusing on how you feel while avoiding finger pointing or placing blame.  However, although this may reduce tension, the underlying reasons for the situation must still be addressed, a process that should involve self-discovery. In intimate relationships, for example, when foundations of trust have been shattered, or deep-rooted resentment over unmet needs have built up over time, those emotions will not change through improved communication strategies alone. The improved communication strategies can be a vehicle,  however to get to the root of the matter processes like self-discovery,  therapy is encouraged.

Core Beliefs

Building up your assertiveness skills will serve you well in all areas of your life, but when underlying dynamics are at the root of a persistent conflict, then assertive communication alone may not resolve that conflict.

Relationship dynamics are also the result of our core beliefs. How we view ourselves, the world, and people around us will contribute to those dynamics.  If you grew up in a neglectful or abusive household,  you may feel deep down that you are unlovable, and that people are untrustworthy. This lens through which we view ourselves and the world contributes to our role and our dynamic in a relationship. For example, you may operate very cautiously in an intimate relationship, demanding perfection in your partner or setting up conditions for constant affirmation. However, what you may really need is to work on a better understanding of the basis of your needs. You may benefit from understanding how to nurture yourself and meet your needs internally, instead of constantly seeking affirmation from outside sources. Your demands may not be realistic, in which case you will always be disappointed.

Let’s say you blow up at your husband for making dinner reservations with a group of friends at a sushi restaurant when he knows you hate sushi. To you, this is an example of his insensitivity, and not valuing you.  His action is the trigger for your anger, and not necessarily the cause. Maybe there are other personal and relationship dynamics at play, such as, you felt that as a middle child in a large, loud family, you never got a word in edgewise.  There could also be other unexplored power differentials that heighten the impact of his slight inconsiderations, for example, you relocated to a new town with no friends or family to further his career, or he makes a lot more money then you do.

Dynamics also become entrenched due to our inability to express our wants, needs, and desires.  Let’s say you or your partner were never encouraged to identify a feeling, let alone express a feeling. Often, these feelings become deeply etched in our character and come out in our behavior, often as anger, rage, or even abuse. There are differences in communication styles that are also divided along gender lines.  Socially, men are more likely not to be encouraged to talk about how they feel. The message is to “man up” and not to show weakness. On the other hand, when women express their feelings, they are often cast off as “irrational," “emotional,” or “needy," and not taken seriously.  

If you have tried to communicate your needs to your partner, and they do not understand their own unresolved needs, then conflicts over the same issues will arise again and again,  until you both feel frustrated and angry.  You may end up fighting about superficial things because at the core you both may have deep needs that continue to go unmet.  The inability of your partner to express feelings bears a heavy burden.  When you do to address your needs, the response can often be defensive. In turn, your partner may end up feeling that “nothing I ever do measures up” because they don’t understand themselves and their own desires well enough to understand yours.

 Family Relationships

 Everyone has a role to play in the family, and when someone tries to break out from that role, it can be viewed as unsafe and threatening. There’s a safety in being predictable; following the norms can feel safe. During the holidays, when people spend more time with their families, emotions are heightened, and there are high expectations for what “quality time” should be like.  Maybe you’ve worked hard to grow and change outside of your family and feel like you are yanked back down into the role you played growing up every time you are around them.  Recognizing where you have control is empowering, and helps you avoid blaming others when you encounter a stressful situation.  If you can’t change a situation, you can change your perspective, and learn to manage your feelings and emotions in relation to your perspective. Too often people look outside themselves for what needs to change, which only contributes to our feelings of lack of control and to casting blame on others. Even if you grew up in the same family, remember that each person in your family followed a different path and may have experienced the same situations very differently than you. It may help to be conscious of the need to respect each of your siblings and parents as unique individuals.

Growth and Change

There are always ways you can grow and help yourself.  I recommend incorporating mindfulness practice into your life, to establish a basis for self-discovery as well as stress-reduction.  You can lay a foundation for peace in your life, irrespective of what is happening around you, through mindfulness.  My favorite mindfulness principle, from Jon Kabbat-Zinn, founder of the evidence-based MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and the “Nine Attitudinal Foundations of Mindfulness Practice", is the objective observation of your thoughts about yourself, the world, and the people around you without evaluation or critique. View yourself and your life as if you were an “independent observer”.  Furthermore, If you feel you are ready for self-discovery and to work to explore the root of conflict, I recommend individual therapy and/or couples counseling with a licensed therapist (LCSW, LP, LMHC or a Licensed Psychologist). 

For a look at the rest of our four-part series on Assertive Communication please check out:

Kerrie Thompson, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist and consultant with a practice located in the Financial District of Manhattan. To work with her, please contact her here