4 Steps to Assertive Communication

“Dr. Fiore,” my 42 year old married patient (Mary) began, “once again
my family expects me to host Christmas dinner and I am simply too
exhausted; what should I do?”

4 Steps to Assertive Communication“Why not tell them how you feel?” I asked.

“Because I don’t want to hurt their feelings – I always feel guilty if
I don’t do what is expected of me.”

Lack of communication such as this among family members is the root of
much conflict, hurt and misunderstandings any time of the year, but
especially during the often stressful holiday season.

Mary’s dilemma is common: she wants to be a nice person and avoid
conflict with family members. But, in doing so, she feels resentment
and other negative emotions when she is overwhelmed or feels others are
taking advantage of her.

Unfortunately, a failure to be direct and emotionally honest with
people we love or care about can have long-reaching negative
consequences. Failure to communicate often sends the wrong message
about you, what you need and how others should respond to you.

The Elephant In The Room

When you have unexpressed feelings towards another, it’s like you are
sitting on a couch with an elephant between you.

Neither wants to acknowledge the elephant, but its existence acts as a
barrier to real communication. Ultimately, the elephant gets in the way
of positive feelings between you and the other person.

Assertive Communication

Assertive communication is the art of speaking in a reasonable tone
with good eye contact. It’s based on using “I” messages (as opposed to
“you” or blaming messages) while clearly stating your needs, feelings
and requests.

Assertive communications invite listeners to work toward mutually
satisfactory resolution of problems or conflicts, without assigning
blame or offense.

Assertive versus Offensive

Remember: you won’t offend people if you stick to communicating your
feelings, as opposed to telling others what they should – or should not
– do!

Four Steps to Success

There are four parts to effective assertive communication - Here is the

I feel ___________ when __________ because ________. I need

Step 1: “I feel” Start by expressing how you feel about the behavior.
Stick to one of the five or six basic emotions: “I feel… overwhelmed,
angry, hurt,” etc.

Step 2: “When” What specifically bothers you about the behavior or
situation? Examples: “When the family expects me to do this every
year,” “When it is assumed I will do it,” etc.

Step 3: “Because” How does the behavior affect you? Examples: “I feel
pressured to do something I really can’t do this year,” and “It makes
me feel taken advantage of.”

Step 4: “I need” This is the tough part for people like Mary who feel
guilty simply letting others (especially family members) know what
their needs are. “I need” has nothing to do with being selfish.

Instead, it means giving listeners a clear signal of what you want them
to do differently, so they have an opportunity to change. Examples: “I
need for the dinner to be rotated among the family.” “If everyone will
bring a dish, I’ll cook the ham,” and “I need my sisters to come early
and help with the setup.”

Applying the Formula

Does the formula always work? Of course not, but it works a high
percentage of the time and it gives you a better tool to deal with
situations than anger – which rarely achieves the desired results.

If it doesn’t work at first, try different variations using your own
words. And keep at it. People often don’t immediately respond
differently to your words because of previous established communication

Always make sure your tone conveys sincerity, clarity, genuineness and
respect toward the other and his or her opinions.

Dr. Tony Fiore

After graduating from Purdue University in 1972, he has been active in both community mental health, the private practice of psychology, and teaching, coaching and writing for over 30 years. He has completed numerous certificate programs including Human Sexuality at UCLA, Personal Coaching at the Life Coaching Institute, and Anger Management at the Anderson and Anderson program. To add to his experience and training in conflict resolution, he has also received advanced training in Marital Therapy at the Gottman Institute in Seattle, Washington and he is a certified group leader in the Keeping Love Alive Program by Michele Weiner-Davis.

Dr. Tony Fiore is a California licensed psychologist (Lic Number PSY6670), trained marriage therapist, coach, anger management expert, and author. He has worked with hundreds of couples and individuals in his clinical practice and has taught nearly 1000 anger management classes in southern California since 2002. With a partner, he had co-authored several widely-used books on anger management based on a model of anger management which is now taught to hundreds of other professionals across the country.

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