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6 Keys of Assertive Communication

Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT

Communication is so important that it can make or break a relationship and is critical to success, and instantly reflects your self-esteem to listeners - for better or for worse. Assertive communication commands respect, projects confidence, and inspires influence. It is respectful, direct, honest, open, non-threatening and non-defensive. It is not demanding, aggressive, or manipulative.

communication bubblesCommunication is learned. With practice you can learn to communicate assertively, which will raise your self-esteem and self-assurance and improve your relationships and professional performance. Even fetuses can learn to communicate with their mothers. To learn the keys to assertiveness discussed below, remember the 6 C's:

1. Congruency
2. Courtesy
3. Conciseness
4. Clarity
5. Cognizance
6. Claim yourself

Communication has many elements. You communicate with more than your words. You relay information with your entire body, through:

1. Gesture
2. Eye contact, movement, moisture, expression, and focus
3. Posture
4. Physical appearance
5. Voluntary and involuntary bodily movement, including muscular tension
6. Facial expression
7. Skin color (e.g. blushing) and perspiration
8. Body smell

Additionally, your voice communicates through:

1. Volume
2. Pitch
3. Cadence
4. Tone and emphasis
5. Fluidity
6. Enunciation

Congruence

What you don't say, your body reveals. Customs' agents are expert at reading body language to spot liars. Key to effective communication is authenticity, meaning honesty and congruence. Truthfulness is about facts. Honesty has more to do with intent and feelings. Say what you think or feel, and mean what you say. You probably assume you already do this, yet dishonesty is more common than you might guess. I'm not referring to overt lies, but about times you outwardly agree, but inwardly don't. Some reasons are:

1. You want to spare someone's feelings.
2. You want to avert conflict
3. You want to be liked and avoid judgment or criticism
4. You're afraid of making a mistake
5. You don't want to impose or burden someone
6. You don't want to jeopardize a relationship, or
7. You don't want to spend the time

The last one is tricky. Imagine you're at a party and someone asks you a personal question that you don't want to get into then and there. You might avoid the question in many ways, including ignoring it and changing the subject, or walking away to get a drink refill. You might think the reason is no. 7, but ask yourself why you wouldn't directly say, "I prefer not to talk about that now (or here)," or "I don't know you well enough to discuss that." If you think the real answer is no. 1, think again. The foregoing assertive answers are less hurtful than impolite behavior.

When your words don't match your insides, you're sending a mixed message. A common example is when you say you're fine, but your body language reveals the truth that you're unhappy. Or, the opposite - you smile while imparting a sad story. In either case, your listener is confused and doesn't know how to respond, and/or may not feel that he or she can trust you.

Courtesy

The purpose of communication is to impart information and feelings, not to vent, avenge, or scold. If you're discourteous to listeners, you'll lose them. To be effective, you want to engage your listener. To do so, treat him or her with respect. Criticism that is constructive and delivered assertively is more likely to be heeded.

Conciseness

The impact of your speech is inversely related to its duration. Your impact wanes with words. Your listener will want you to cut to the chase and get to the point. When you beat around the bush, it belies insecurity and/or lack of knowledge. When you're afraid for any of the reasons mentioned above regarding incongruence, you might be tempted to have a long introduction or disclaimer. Don't. If you're fearful, sort out the reasons why, practice what you'll say out loud, and weigh the long term repercussions of saying nothing or what you want.

Clarity

Be direct. Don't ask questions, give hints, or speak in the abstract. Instead of "Do you want to go to a movie?" which is ambiguous as to whether you want to go, state, "I'd like to see a movie tonight." Make a clear statement of what you think, feel, need, or want. Most communication comes down to those four essentials. You can also explain why.

Cognizance

Cognizance of your audience is essential. You must hear in order to be heard. To be an effective communicator, listen with attention and respect to what others have to say. Genuine listening engages them and helps you attune your message so that they will be receptive. This is attentive, active listening. Paraphrasing and repeating what was said to you shows that you care and are interested. In turn they'll be more receptive when they believe their feelings and opinions matter to you. Even when you hear all that is said, your listener doesn't know it, which is why reassurance is necessary. Also, their meaning may be different than you understood, and repeating provides an opportunity for clarification.

Timing is critical. Don't start an important conversation in the car, or when someone is watching TV, is on the computer, or otherwise occupied without his or her permission. You're being discourteous and interrupting their attention. You'll be disappointed and are setting yourself up for an argument.

Claim Yourself

This is the hardest element. You must take responsibility for your opinions, thoughts, feelings, and needs. That means you don't blame or talk about the other person. Don't tell them what they should do, or what some expert said. Use "I" messages and claim what you think and feel. That doesn't mean to say, "I think you're inconsiderate," which labels and judges their behavior, without revealing how you feel or how it affects you. Applying all these rules, you might say "I feel disregarded (or "unimportant" or "angry") when you didn't return my calls," or "I don't like it when you…" When you state your feelings or take a position, others don't feel as great a need to defend and justify themselves, because you are only talking about yourself. This is particularly difficult to do when you're emotional. It's better to wait and think about what you feel and what outcome or behavioral changes your want before having the conversation. Consider your bottom line.

Learning assertiveness so that it comes naturally can take years of practice, but it is empowering.