Learning assertive communication
April 5, 2008 7:35 PM   Subscribe

Can you guys recommend any resources for learning assertive communication? In my family I learned to avoid conflict at all costs. Therefore, I don't know how to approach "difficult conversations" directly.

For instance, if a friend flakes on me at the last minute, or says they will call me to make weekend plans and then don't, I simply don't know how to broach the topic and tell them I don't like it without sounding like a b*tch. On the flip side, when I don't say anything or am too nice about it, I'm at risk for being a doormat.

I really want to learn the way to address these issues assertively. What works for you? I feel that the issue would be pretty easy for me to resolve except that I don't always have the verbal facility--the actual words--that will let me get my point across in the right way. Whenever I do address something it always sounds "mean" to me.

I will consider books but am hoping there might be resources I'm not aware of (online videos or tapes, etc.) that others can recommend.
posted by mintchip to Human Relations (16 answers total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
Here is a nice "virtual pamphlet" collection from U Chicago.

I have also heard good things about The Assertiveness Workbook.

There are also assertiveness training sessions available, but they are generally targeted at upper management and are priced accordingly. I really recommend that workbook, but if you are on a tight budget, those pamphlets and some more googling will get you going in the right direction.
posted by rachelpapers at 7:44 PM on April 5, 2008

Here's an online assertiveness training course (free and self-directed) from the University of California at Long Beach.
posted by amyms at 7:57 PM on April 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

It's been a while since I've paged through them, but I recall thinking highly of both The Coward's Guide to Conflict and Messages: The Communication Skills Book.
posted by metabrilliant at 8:17 PM on April 5, 2008

I simply don't know how to broach the topic and tell them I don't like it without sounding like a b*tch

Don't worry about the bolded part. That's really the heart of your problem. Dispel this fear, call it confidence instead of bitchiness. Know what you want. Take it. Tell yourself you deserve it, again if you're still balky. You'll be dead and gone in sixty year's time.
posted by spatula at 8:19 PM on April 5, 2008

I have a similar problem, and my friend told me something that has helped me tremendously: "You're always so nice, that what sounds like bitchiness to you is still nice to everyone else." And it's likely true. When you first start speaking up, some of your friends are going to react negatively - but that's largely due to the fact that they are used to you being a pushover. Try it out in a small way - voice your opinion on a restaurant, or call someone when they are late and remind them that you are waiting. If you start small, it won't be such a shock to you and them. Also - stop listening so hard to yourself - you're the only one who is paying that much attention.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 8:23 PM on April 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm just learning to get a handle on this. Being assertive is actually very simple, though not easy. It's just a matter of stating what you want. So the challenge is not learning what to say, but unlearning all of the emotional stuff that prevents you from saying it. This is closely related to self-esteem.

It's kind of like when "low-talkers" try to speak at a "normal" volume. To the low-talker, it might sound like they're yelling, even though to everyone else they'll sound normal. You're used to being so sensitive about everyone else's feelings, so being direct might seem mean or bitchy to you, but I assure you that (as I'm learning), being assertive is the most normal thing in the world.

Check out How To Be An Adult. Good luck!
posted by mpls2 at 8:25 PM on April 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

This book is written from a Christian perspective, but there is a LOT of good, practical stuff in there about exactly the issues you are having.
posted by clh at 8:32 PM on April 5, 2008

The book of NO by Susan Newman (link is to a book review of it) might be helpful. She gives example scenarios where you might be inclined to just put up with someone treating you as a doormat, and then she walks you through a little script for how you can say "no" firmly but not in a mean way.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:03 PM on April 5, 2008

Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations.
posted by mendel at 9:13 PM on April 5, 2008

As a young child, I was taught to use "I statements" to communicate my feelings. We didn't like conflict in our family either, but we tried to avoid it not by suppressing our feelings or thoughts, but by expressing them in ways that were honest expressions of what was going on with us, not as attacks on the other person (this was the theory; it didn't always work; apparently normal parents and kids with ADD sometimes don't communicate with each other in helpful ways).

Anyway, googling "I statements" will bring up a lot of great sites on how to use them.

In the example you gave, saying something like this might work: "I was really looking forward to doing something with you this past weekend. When you didn't get in touch with me, I felt disappointed. It made me feel ...[however you felt]. I want to feel like I can rely on you."

Avoid at all costs: "You always...You never...You're..." Focus on specific and individual behavior, and communicate that this is about you having negative responses to that behavior, not that they are somehow abstractly "bad."

If they don't seem to take your feelings seriously, then you can always go ahead and let them know that there are consequences: "If you don't get in touch with me to make weekend plans, then I will have to make plans that don't involve you. I want to spend time with you, but it's important for me to know what is going on ahead of time, and if I can't then I will have to make other plans."
posted by Deathalicious at 12:00 AM on April 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

There is a lot of good advice here. But for the examples you have given being a bit pro-active would actually stop the problem from arising in the first plance.

Now I am one of those people who will agree to do x and look at it as confirmed plan - by the sound of it you are two. But for a lot of people it doesn't work that way. People change their plans all the time and not to spite you but because things crop up or because your 'plans' were mere suggestions or ideas they are still considering.

- So if you are waiting for somebody there is nothing wrong with giving them a quick ring to find out if they are delayed or have forgotten or whatever. That way you minimise your time 'wasted' by waiting when you could have done other things and thus minimise resentment.

- If on Tuesday you agree to do x at the weekend you could ring them up on Friday morning to find out if you're still on for x...That gives them the option to back out/suggest an alternative and you the option to make alternative plans.

I have a feeling you may see this as being pushy but it isn't. But be sure to phrase these communications openly so that people don't feel guilty if they have changed their plans - e.g. are you still ok to do x? as opposed to when are we meeting to do x? the former gives them permission to say - actually...
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:14 AM on April 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't know how to approach "difficult conversations" directly.

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most

I've read this book and it helped me very much with exactly the same sorts of situations you describe.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:55 AM on April 6, 2008

Seconding Difficult Conversations. Yes, it's a book, but it's short! So you can read it in an hour or two. It's very smart.
posted by wyzewoman at 9:06 AM on April 6, 2008

More about Difficult Conversations: it's not so much about the assertiveness angle of things. It's more about viewing conversations as exchanges of information, and gets you thinking carefully about the benefits to each party of having that information. Then the question is how you can facilitate that information exchange without falling into the likely pitfalls; understanding how a statement might make somebody defensive, for instance, can help you phrase things better.

If you take to heart the book's message, you won't be approaching a difficult conversation as an attack. You won't have to worry about being mean. And you'll have some tools for making the conversation work for both participants. This may make things less scary, even for somebody who isn't particularly assertive.
posted by wyzewoman at 9:14 AM on April 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am still figuring this out for myself. Deathalicious' comments sound like "non-violent communication." There is a book by Marshall Rosenberg, an organization and it seems like many cities have workshops and groups. (which might be especially helpful if you need/want/like to learn by putting things in practice). It is often used in organizations, schools, businesses, etc. But, the fundamentals are great for individuals.

Here are the 4 parts of NVC (from the center's website):
1. Observation:We observe what is actually happening in a situation: what are we observing others saying or doing that is either enriching or not enriching our life? The trick is to be able to articulate this observation without introducing any judgment or evaluation—to simply say what people are doing that we either like or don’t like.
2. Feeling:Next, we state how we feel when we observe this action: are we hurt, scared, joyful, amused, irritated, etc.?
3. Needs:And thirdly, we say what needs of ours are connected to the feelings we have identified. An awareness of these three components is present when we use NVC to clearly and honestly express how we are.
4. Request This fourth component addresses what we are wanting from the other person that would enrich our lives or make life more wonderful for us.
posted by hazel at 11:09 AM on April 6, 2008

Ditto Crucial Conversations. Best of the bunch. Fierce Conversations is also pretty good. Also, check out this short list of popular pages about assertiveness.
posted by salvia at 11:14 AM on April 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

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