This is part 5.1 of twelve articles for Assertive Communication Series.
Assertiveness is a life attitude, a philosophy, and a skill that enables us to esteem others and ourselves more. If we communicate with the use of assertive techniques, we are much closer to the ideal of being completely direct and respectful towards each other, and cease with different games we so easily fall into – emotional blackmail, indirect and hidden messages, irony, manipulation… As a reward for the effort we need to put into mastering the skill of assertive conversation, we can expect a more fulfilling relationship with ourselves and people that surround us.
The Basic Techniques
In the article General Guidelines for Assertive Communication we presented some basic principles of fruitful communication, such as using “I-statements” instead of “You-statements” whenever possible, or being careful with when to speak freely about emotions and when they’re inappropriate. We will now describe some of the basic techniques of assertive communication you can begin exercising right away, and see how your relationships move from status quo and grow.
This is a crucial technique when two equal and emotionally bonded individuals communicate. The recipe is to: disclose our emotions (“I feel frustrated…”), explain the reason for the emotion (“…when you repeatedly come late to our dates.”), clearly express our wish or request (“I would like you to respect our agreement the next time…”), offer a realistic and plausible suggestion about how to resolve the situation (“…and if you see that you won’t be able to get there in time after all, to call me at least half an hour ahead so that I can reorganize my time.”), and finish with a question about the other person’s opinion on the suggestion (“What do you think about that, would that be ok?”).
Fogging is a technique in which we accept a part that is true in a manipulative critique we receive, but retain the right to be the judge of our own actions. For example:
Your partner: “I can’t believe you were flirting with that girl right in front of me! You spent entire evening talking with her, you’re such a coquette!!!”
You: “Yes, I agree with you that we spoke a bit longer, but we weren’t flirting. She’s thinking about applying for a position at my old firm, and asked for an advice.”
- Negative Inquiry
This is another technique that will aid us to cope with a manipulative criticism (which is always generalized and vague) by calmly asking for clarification. The manipulative criticism normally has just one possible consequence – a conflict in which the criticized person responds either by aggressive contra-attack or endless defense. By using negative inquiry, we both fight our irrational fear of being criticized, and also force the person who is presenting the criticism to specify where the problem, in fact, lies.
Your partner: “You are cold as ice when we make love, what’s wrong with you, what are you thinking about?!”
You: “I respect that you may feel that way. (fogging) But would you please tell me exactly how is that coldness manifested? Which of my actions or inactions caused you to feel that I’m cold towards you?”
Sometimes we speak to a person who is tireless in Machiavellian attempts to reach their goals, trying to manipulate us into succumbing to their will, who keeps falling into logical fallacies, projects their inner conflicts onto us, etc. And this description may sound like we’re describing our worst enemy, but it’s not so – it may just as well be someone close to us, even a child who is relentlessly asking for an ice-cream when they have a sore throat! If you have ever fallen into a never-ending argument with someone (and the chances are you know at least one person with whom you’ve had those 7-hour-long fights), you should first try to reach a solution by implementing the above-mentioned techniques. However, when nothing helps, the healthiest thing to do is to stop the game. Take a time-out, and let your temperaments cool down. You may say: “I am sorry but I’m tired. Perhaps we should stop this discussion and rest for the day.” You both may then reevaluate your positions in privacy of your minds, and approach the issue again later, calmly. Or you may even realize there is no need for any further discussion if the other person recognized they were being manipulative or wrong, and move on with your everyday life without permitting the habits of unproductive communication get in the way of your relationship. How would that look like? Picture a child relentlessly screaming for an ice-cream in the middle of the street. If the parents implement time-out technique and continue walking, the child will eventually cease with the tantrum. Once the child also begins to participate in the family activities without being unbearable, the parents need not to remind their offspring how wrong he or she was acting-out on the street, but reward him/her with warmth and acceptance. The child realized what’s unacceptable during the time-out, no condemnation is needed anymore. Well, the same applies to adults.
Applying assertive techniques to your everyday life may prove to be a bit difficult at beginning, especially with your loved ones, as you already have an established pattern of communication with them. However, if you think about all those arguments that leave you all feeling frustrated, angry or hurt, you may admit it’s worth the trouble to try and change that habit.