Using Assertive Communication to Build More Fulfilling Relationships


It starts with you

Just like in the first two posts of this series, I want to show you ways to communicate your needs and desires to others in your life in a way that will help you:

  1. Feel heard
  2. Feel understood
  3. Establish control
  4. Get your needs met

However, before we address that, you have to dig a little deeper inside yourself: the process begins with you.  

In previous posts we explored how assertiveness isn't only about being in charge of your own behavior; it's also about allowing others to be in charge of their behavior. When I say it starts with you, I mean the following:

A) You have the power inside yourself to get what you want

B) Introspection can be helpful when you find yourself feeling anger, hurt, or disappointed about not getting what you need from someone else.

C) You can choose not to be bothered by others’ behaviors’.  Other people are NOT in charge of making you feel anything so try not to give away this power to them. In fact, others do not have control over you; only you control how you feel. If you feel hurt by another person’s careless or inconsiderate actions, understand that is has very little to do with you, and everything to do with person that has acted badly.

Successful people are focused on the things that are within their control, and do not put much energy and attention into the things that they cannot control. 

Successful people are focused on the things that are within their control, and do not put much energy and attention into the things that they cannot control. 

When you find yourself involved in a conflict, you may desire to change or control the other person, threaten to leave, or even cry. None of these options will help you resolve the conflict.  What may be more helpful is to carefully consider your role in helping identify a resolution. You do have the ability to control the outcome of the situation, but you must identify the options and act accordingly.

It’s your perspective

Let’s use the example of Josephine and John, who just began dating a couple months ago. Typically in the early months of a relationship there can be insecurities on both sides.

Josephine is upset with John. She begins by identifying the situation, colored by her perspective: “I sent him a very sweet email outlining a detailed invite for him to spend Thanksgiving with my family in Long Island. He is away on a work trip to California, and did not respond to my email. However, I saw on Instagram that he was posting pictures of himself having a blast with his colleagues at the Giants game.  Meanwhile, he is ignoring my very sweet email, and just leaving me there in the dark.” Next she identifies what she is feeling, mixed with negative assumptions“I’m fed up.  John never responds to my texts and emails in a timely manner when he is traveling for work.  It seems like he doesn’t care enough about me to take it to the next level and meet my family.

Josephine is identifying what John is doing or not doing.  Why doesn’t he get that I need to hear from him more frequently than once every other day? Is he not capable of communicating with me?  Doe he care about me? Finally, she considers what happened: “ I decided I had enough and I j exploded on John. I told him he is a terrible boyfriend and he better shape up or ship out. We are now ‘taking a break” from the relationship.”

Applying communication skills

Let’s explore a more helpful way Josephine could have responded, utilizing the DESO script  (Describe the situation, Express your feelings, Specify your needs, and the desired Outcome). Click here for the downloadable script.

Josephine feels hurt by John’s lack of response to her email. In the example, she builds up a story in her head based on some negative assumptions about John and her “evidence” of what his feelings must be about her. This type of thinking is called “cognitive distortions” or to be nicer to yourself, "thinking issues", and we all have them. It often involves personalizing a situation, jumping to conclusions, and filtering out anything positive to focus on what is negative. Click here for a downloadable cheat sheet.

 Josephine, starting with herself, knows she is feeling hurt, and decides to process her feelings with a close friend. She considers alternative explanations for John’s behavior, choosing not to confirm her worst suspicions about John and how he feels about her.  She also tells herself “don’t make assumptions as your emotions aren’t going to help you effectively communicate what you need.”

 When Josephine does get the chance to speak to John, she summarizes the facts of the situation as objectively as she can, and tells John how she feels.

Josephine: “I sent you an email about Thanksgiving. Did you receive it?”

John “Yes I saw it and haven’t had time to respond with all of these work commitments! Can you remind me now that we’re on the phone? “

Josephine: “Oh, well I was wondering if you would want to spend Thanksgiving with me and my family in Long Island (Describe).”

John: “Oh that sounds great, let me get back to you about it to confirm tomorrow.” Josephine:  “Ok, sounds good. While we are on the subject, I feel it’s important to share with you that I often feel hurt when you don’t respond to me in a timelier manner when you are traveling for work.  I find being in a relationship with someone who travels all the time can be a challenge, and a little more communication from you would make dealing with your absence a lot easier.” (Explain). Can you respond to when you have a free minute, especially when it’s a text or email? (Specify).  This way I feel re-assured and that even though you are far away, we are still on the same page (Outcome).”

Change is Hard

When you start to use more assertive communication, you might face resistance or barriers, because change is hard.  Becoming assertive with people who are the closest to you can often be the hardest. People expect you to be one way or another, and may look for double meaning behind your changed behavior.  A helpful way to deal with this problem is to be up front and honest. Say something like “I am working on being more open and honest in my communication so I don’t wind up feeling resentful and lashing out at you later.”

Consider the people are in your life that you need to become more assertive around. Decide in advance how you may handle it if they aren’t supportive of your assertive communication. Also, consider that things may get worse before they get better, so be prepared to stick to your boundaries and to openly communicate your intentions. Remember to give reasons, use your “I feel” statements, and acknowledge the other person’s feelings, desires, and perspective without necessarily honoring them. Using assertive communication may not be an easy change to make, but beginning this work can have a tremendous and positive impact on the quality of your life and those around you.

Kerrie Thompson, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in NYC. To work with her, contact her here.