The healthiest style of communication is called assertive communication. Assertive communicators bring high levels of respect and responsibility to their interactions with others, because they hold this core belief: “You matter and so do I. My thoughts, feelings, and needs matter, and so do yours.”
Assertive communicators are not afraid to show another person what is happening inside them. Because they value their thoughts, feelings, and needs, they take the time to understand them and express them clearly and honestly. They also create a safe place for the other person to share their thoughts, feelings, and needs by listening well and working to understand them. But they also do something else:
Assertive communicators know how to respond when someone is not communicating assertively.
There are three basic styles of unhealthy, non-assertive communication. Each of them is disrespectful and irresponsible, because it is motivated by fear and a lack of value for the thoughts, feelings, and needs of self and others. Here are a few pointers on how to recognize these styles and respond to them assertively.
1. PASSIVE COMMUNICATION
Passive communicators attempt to convince the world that everyone else is more important than they are. Their core belief is, “You matter and I don’t.” When faced with a joint decision in a relationship, the passive person insists that the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and needs matter more. If they believe that their feelings, thoughts, and needs are being disrespected, they will simply try to absorb it and move on.
As an assertive communicator, you get to require a passive person to have a voice in the relationship–to be involved in decision-making and honest about what they need. Here are some tips for inviting a passive person to become more assertive:
Find a time to start a conversation when the passive communicator is most relaxed, not in the middle of conflict or when a decision needs to be made.
- Clearly send the message, “I care about what is happening inside you, and I want to know more about it.”.
- Find out if the person is an internal processor. If so, give them time to think about what they’re thinking, feeling, and needing, and set a time when you can discuss it again.
- Let them know that you won’t make any decisions that involve them without their input. Consistently ask them, “What do you need?”
2. AGGRESSIVE COMMUNICATION
The aggressive communicator has a core belief: “I matter. You don’t.” Aggressive communicators know how to get what they want. They are large and in charge because they are the biggest, loudest, and scariest one in the room. Sometimes, they are also the most fun and charismatic person in the room–but in a way that lets everyone know that their thoughts, feelings, and needs are the only ones that matter.
It can be difficult to enter a conversation with someone with this unhealthy style of communication for obvious reasons–it’s no fun to be the target of their anger or aggression, or shut down by their huge ego. But aggressive people need to learn to let the people around them be powerful–and in so doing, to open themselves up to the possibility of having a real relationship. Here are a few tips for dealing with an aggressive communicator:
- Set a firm limit by saying something like, “I can only talk with you when you decide to be respectful.”
- After setting this limit, be prepared to walk away immediately from the conversation unless it returns to a respectful place.
- Remember it is your job to say what you are going to do. It is not your job to control their behavior, force them to stop, or convince them how damaging their behavior is to your connection.
- Be prepared to set this limit on more than one occasion.
- If aggressive communication ever becomes harmful or dangerous, make sure to get immediate assistance. It is never ok to allow yourself or others to be hurt or abused by someone unwilling to change destructive behaviors.
3. PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE COMMUNICATION
The passive-aggressive communicator’s core belief is: “You matter…No, not really!” To your face they passively say, “Oh, whatever you need, absolutely.” Afterwards, they take out their unmet needs and hurt feelings on you through insinuations, criticisms, accusations, and controlling behaviors. In other words, they refuse to show you the truth about what’s going on inside them and then punish you for not knowing or responding to it, with the goal of manipulating you into running around trying to guess what they need. It is often hard for people on the outside to understand why someone has such a difficult time being in relationship with a passive-aggressive person, because they can’t perceive all the hostility and manipulation coming at them.
Passive-aggressive communication might be the hardest one to tackle. Here are some tips to let a passive-aggressive person know that you won’t play their game:
- Let them know you recognize the manipulation and won’t respond to it. For example, “I’m never going to be able to read your mind, because I’m not you. So we can talk later when you choose to be responsible and tell me what is really going on.”
- Refuse to play along with their tactics involving others. Passive-aggressive communicators are masters at telling someone one thing while giving other people another story. You do not have to answer to anyone else, or defend yourself against the lies they have told. When this happens, talk directly with the passive-aggressive person to ask what is really going on.
Often our greatest challenge in becoming assertive communicators is learning to practice new tools in our most intimate relationships, where old habits of non-assertive communication usually have the most traction. Be patient with yourself and with others as you move toward establishing assertive communication as the new standard, but also be prepared to set a clear boundary of “I only participate in respectful conversations.” Sticking to a tough boundary with a loved one might be one of the hardest parts of successful communication, but it will be well worth it for the levels of peace, trust, and connection you will gain as a result.
Remember: you are powerful and you have powerful tools to create the world you desire around you.