The kind of separateness we are discussing here does not mean indifference or isolation from others, and it does not mean avoiding intimate relationships either. The power of separateness comes in the form of a human connectedness that values the treasured spaces that exist between us and others. When we are not striving for this identity, we are allowing for that “space” to be compromised, and we begin to lose ourselves. In other words, the power in the separateness lies in our ability to stay intellectually differentiated from others regarding ideas, thoughts and feelings and in our ability to stand alone amidst the chaos that surrounds us. And, when things get a little heated and there is conflict that puts that “space” in jeopardy, to learn how to hold that centeredness and stick to our guns without having to fire them.
However, for most people, it feels like a daunting task to alter their way of relating and begin defining personal boundaries, especially with family members for fear of disapproval and/or fear of abandonment.
To assist in harnessing this power of separateness, we must learn how to communicate this respectfully to others. The boundary or the line of distinction being drawn that we are ushering in can appear to many as being uncaring or cold. So, we must introduce this way of being human discretely. One of the best ways to deliver this separateness is through “Assertive Communication.”
But let’s first examine the different ways humans speak to each other. For the most part, styles of communication differ in the many different schools of thought that exist, and each category varies in degree as well. To simplify things, we will take the extreme ways of communicating in order to better emphasize the more appropriate and balanced “gray” areas of assertive communication.
When we speak with aggressive communication we may feel like we are indeed standing up for ourselves, our feelings and our beliefs and drawing that important demarcating line of individuality, but we may not necessarily be delivering it politely and respectfully. If we are not, then the message or the intended human boundary we are trying to relate may not be heard or even understood. Aggressive communication tends to put the listener or the receiver in a defensive position, which may result in retaliatory behavior or may lead to tuning us out and not hearing a word we say. Aggressive communication tends to directly violate the rights of others in a sense, by steamrolling them with intimidating intentions, such as a loud voice, screaming, domination, manipulation, humiliation, blaming and control. Scare tactics such as hostile body postures and even facial expressions can also contribute to an “aggressive” type of communication. And this type of communication does not always guarantee we will get what we want.
Aggressive communication does not foster profound and trusting relationships; on the contrary, it creates oppositional and adversarial dynamics that leave others feeling scared and manipulated. It also places the burden of the problem on others and does not let us take responsibility. This is not a healthy way to love and respect someone.
In contrast, passive communication is the withholding of thoughts, feelings and beliefs that may seem like we are playing it cool and not “rocking the boat,” but it does not foster healthy interpersonal relationships either. When we communicate passively, we tend to relate to others dishonestly or apologetically and in a sense we are violating our own rights in doing so. In addition, we are not only depriving ourselves the right to our individuality within the relationship but we are also depriving others of what we have to say and what we feel. This stance leaves relationships lacking in trust, honesty and authenticity because others do not know what we are truly thinking and feeling.
In this stance, the chances of getting what we want are even smaller than when we relate aggressively. It also tends to place the burden of a problem or conflict entirely on ourselves by naively letting others off the hook.
Assertive communication is a more suitable way to express our thoughts, feelings and beliefs in an honest, authentic and non-violating manner. Like aggressive and passive communication, it also does not guarantee we will get what we want, but it’s the best shot we have. It’s the foundation of I am me, and you are you. We are not one, we are instead very dissimilar.
Assertive communication is more about raising our self-esteem by establishing ourselves regardless of any situation. It’s the appropriate way to draw the above mentioned line of demarcation that does not involve withholding thoughts and feelings or expressing them inappropriately. Assertive communication is not about domination, manipulation or control, nor is it about raising the volume of your voice or using intimidating body postures.
How Does Assertive Communication Work?
Assertive communication is based on “I” statements that we use as a way to take full responsibility for our feelings, thoughts and actions. The “I” statement is a neutral stance that does not blame or point fingers at others. “I” statements are specific and do not use “absolute” language, such as always, never, should, etc. These words assume impractical expectations of others and undertake an unrealistic view of the world which most of the time is not true.
Assertive Communication Has Three Parts:
What I feel — Identifying a feeling in this situation helps to humanize the exchange and allow our partner to see that what they are saying is negatively affecting us. It helps to soften the conflict by introducing our subjective experience and communicating it with courtesy. Stating how we are feeling to others is also important because it helps us begin actualizing the importance of who we are.
What I see — This is simply identifying the behavior non-judgmentally. This helps us take responsibility by not saying “you,” the person, are the cause of my pain, but instead is saying that your behavior causes me to feel this way. So it does not come across as a character assassination but purely an observation of a behavior.
What I would like — This is what we are asking for in the spirit of our separateness and in the service of our personal differentiation as a person. However, as mentioned it does not mean that we will get what we want.
Now let us take a common interpersonal relationship issue and frame it under all three styles of communication. For example, at a holiday dinner with many of your friends and relatives present, your father reminds you that he is still upset with you because you didn’t follow in the family business and instead chose your own career path without checking with him.
Aggressive Communication: “You are so selfish, Dad! All you ever do is think of yourself. Why do you always have to ruin dinner with your petty grievances about what I choose to do with my career? You never cared about me anyway, so why pretend like you do now?”
Passive Communication: No verbal response. You are angry inside but too afraid to express it. You shut down and quietly churn in your contempt. Or you may offer an apologetic reply, which is probably dishonest. You then cower to him, bow your head and remain silent for the rest of the dinner and feel responsible for your father’s pain.
Assertive Communication: “I am very angry (what I feel) that you have again brought this up. I am sorry that you are upset with me (what I see) for following my own dreams and not following yours. I would prefer (what I want) if in the future, you would remember that there is a time and place for these types of discussions and this is not one of them.
Remember, assertive communication within our interpersonal relationships is not necessarily intended to change others and it is not necessarily intended to inspire projected outcomes in the future. If any of these things do occur as a result of communicating assertively then we are lucky. But the truth is that assertive communication is intended to help us evolve as humans and to promote our dignity as individuals.