When disrespected or hurt by others, do you become angry with yourself instead? Have you ever been confronted about the chronic use of sarcasm? Do you remain silent for long periods of time, and then suddenly shout and scream? If one or more of the previous ring true, Congratulations! You're a human being experiencing what it's like to be seen and heard in an emotionally supercharged world. At any given time while engaged in a social setting, we can find ourselves operating out of 1 of 4 regions on the communication spectrum - passive, passive aggressive, aggressive, and assertive.
In order to safeguard ourselves from social anxiety and further hurt, we will often utilize the same communication style that was used against us. If your parents were passive communicators, you may have found yourself taking on this role in your adult relationships. Maybe you've been told that you're too bossy or aggressive. It's possible that you find it difficult to express what it is that you need, or feel like no one ever hears you when you do eventually find the words. If we're being honest, we've all been there. The good news is that with a little bit of effort, we can learn to communicate in a way that feels good, gets us what we want, and doesn't require us to sacrifice our self respect.
What is your communication style?
Passive communication is the style in which we do not openly express our thoughts, needs, or feelings. We might say "yes" when we really mean "no", or avoid conflict at all costs. Passive communicators often have difficulty setting boundaries, and may find themselves being taken advantage of. This style of communication can be traced back to early traumatic childhood experiences, when we learned that it was not safe to express our needs or wants. If our caregivers were unable or unwilling to meet our needs, we may have developed the belief that we are not worthy of being seen or heard.
Passive aggressive communication is a defense mechanism that we use when we have internalized the belief that our needs are not valid. This might look like making snarky comments, being late for appointments, or procrastinating on tasks that we don't want to do. We might do or say things intending to hurt others, even though we would never admit it. Passive aggressive communicators are often afraid of being rejected, and might not even be aware of their own needs. Despite being a potentially attractive trait in that sarcasm can come with a great sense of humor, this is still a defense mechanism that protects us from the pain of feeling unworthy or undeserving.
Aggressive communication is the style in which we openly express our thoughts, needs, and feelings in a way that is intended to hurt others. This might look like yelling, name calling, or making threats. We might do or say things intending to hurt others, and are usually unaware of the damage being done as it occurs. Like the passive aggressors, aggressive communicators are often afraid of being rejected, and are even more pathologically unaware of their own needs. Another key part of the difficulty with aggressive communication is the cyclical nature of being passive, bottling things up, exploding, and then returning to passivity out of shame. This can make relationships significantly more difficult to maintin.
Lastly, assertive communication is the style in which we openly express our thoughts, needs, and feelings in a way that is respectful of ourselves and others. We might say "no" when we really mean "no", or confront someone who has hurt us. We will certainly still do or say things that hurt others, but we are usually aware of it. Assertive communicators are often more aware of their own idiosyncrasies and take more time to plan their responses to be respectful of all things considered. One of the most common ideas that attempts to resist the power of assertiveness is that we may assert ourselves, and continue to not have our needs met. This is especially true if we've been newly setting boundaries in life with people who are conditioned to our passivity or aggression. And as frustrating as that can be, it's not evidence that assertiveness "doesn't work". Assertiveness always seeks the best possible outcome for everyone, even if it doesn't actually achieve that. And what is far more powerful in maintaining healthy relationships than always coincidentally agreeing with others, is the trust built within us and our peers to have made it a habit to keep our needs and wants in mind when making decisions or simply socializing.
A simple acronym, adopted from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy's "Interpersonal Effectiveness" module, can be used to practice assertiveness skills - D E A R M A N
D - Describe the situation using facts and tell them what it is that you are responding to.
E - Express your feelings and opinions about the situation. Don't assume the others know how you feel.
A - Assert yourself by asking for what you want or saying no clearly. Don't assume others know what you want or can read your mind.
R - Reinforce your position by explaining the positive outcomes of getting what you want, or by sharing negative consequences if your needs aren't met.
M - Mindful of the situation, be willing to compromise if necessary
*Ignore attacks from others, just keep making your point
*Validate their feelings and opinions as well!
A - Appear effective and competent by maintaining an assertive posture (good eye contact, sitting or standing upright, and confident tone of voice).
N - Negotiate a solution that is agreeable to all parties involved. Offer to contribute in another way that helps solve the problem.
The first time you try this, it will feel uncomfortable. Your nervous system will signal that expressing yourself in this manner = danger, and work tirelessly to bring you back to passivity or become aggressive to protect. However, sticking with it and breathing through the experience brings your body the habituation to safety, in that you just left the comfort zone and nothing catastrophic occurred. Assertiveness is a skill that can be learned, and like any skill, it gets better with practice.
The next time you find yourself in a situation where you have to communicate your needs, try using the DEAR MAN acronym. It might just help you get what you want while maintaining healthy relationships with those around you. Additionally, remember to start with something smaller on the emotional charge scale - perhaps while deciding where to eat dinner with a group, or while speaking to a customer service agent in a store. The more comfortable these situations get, the more confident you will be when the emotional demands become more complex.
Sean O'Connor is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling in Scarsdale, NY.
Sean specializes in sports psychology and trauma informed counseling to helps adults and athletes overcome anger, depression, anxiety, PTSD and stress.
Sean loves working with athletes and survivors of childhood trauma and helps them heal from the past, love the present, and have hope for the future.