Communication is key to being human. We do it daily, at the store, at work, and with our loved ones. Sometimes, we try to get our point across and we’re unsuccessful. We all have our own “filters”. They come from our experiences, beliefs, and insecurities. We view the world through these filters, including what people say to us. Messages may be misinterpreted, leading to misunderstanding and frustration. We may also communicate in a way that’s unclear or aggressive, or not at all.
Not to worry! There are strategies all of us can use to become better communicators.
We are assertive when we express ourselves directly and clearly. It requires us to be straightforward while staying calm. This can feel difficult at first. We may worry that we’ll hurt others, or that they’ll think we’re mean. But assertiveness gets easier with practice and helps us understand each other.
The acronym HARD is a good way to remember how to communicate assertively:
“I Feel” Statements
“I feel” statements are a tool that strengthens assertive communication. We can think of them as a formula that helps us express our emotions and needs:
“I feel _____ when you _____ during ______. I would like _____.”
For example, imagine a co-worker constantly speaks over us during meetings. We may feel annoyed because our voice isn’t being heard. A good response would be, “I feel disrespected when you interrupt me during meetings. I would like you to wait until I’m done speaking.”
The message is clear without being hostile. It communicates our feelings without harsh criticism. This helps the other person be more receptive and less defensive. Ex., Instead, suppose we say, “Why are you so rude and terrible? Be quiet!” This is likely to cause an angry response. Thus, more tension is created, and the issue goes unresolved.
Also, to be assertive we must believe our needs matter. When we do, we are more willing to stand up for them. This includes learning how to say “No”. If we don’t want to do something (within reason), we can say no. Others might get upset, but that’s okay. We can’t please everyone or control how people feel.
Being a good communicator also means listening to others with the desire to truly understand them. This is called active listening (steps outlined below).
Communicate willingness to listen. Use both verbal and non-verbal cues. If someone wants to speak with us, we can say “I’m here to listen”. We should also be aware of our non-verbal behavior (appropriate eye contact and body language, not looking at our phone, etc.).
Know When to Be Silent
Silence can feel awkward. However, it’s important for communication. When someone is speaking, natural pauses in conversation happen (approx. 10-15 seconds). We can use this time to reflect on what the speaker said. This allows us to respond thoughtfully. Silence also helps us avoid interrupting people. If we respond too quickly, they may not have been done speaking.
Repeat what the speaker said in our own words. This is called paraphrasing; it lets others know we’re listening. It also allows the speaker to correct misunderstandings. Ex. If a friend describes feeling scared about being alone after a breakup, we can say, “So, you feel nervous about the unknown?”
Asking questions helps us deeply understand our loved ones. It encourages them to tell their story. Do this in a caring way that doesn’t shame them for their emotions. It can be helpful to limit the use of “why” questions. Sometimes, people can’t explain why they feel a certain way. Being asked “why” can feel like an interrogation. Try asking “what” questions instead. This takes away the pressure of needing to defend their emotions.
“Why are you scared to be alone?”
“What scares you about being alone?”
Empathy is the ability to understand the emotions of others and communicate it. This helps people feel safe and heard. Empathy means being caring and supportive, even if we disagree with someone’s outlook. Try to acknowledge and normalize the feelings of others. To our friend going through a breakup we can say, “It’s completely normal to feel scared after a breakup.”
Also, we should avoid giving unwanted advice or judgment. People can figure out what they need. It can be frustrating to receive advice when seeking support. However, it is okay to ask if they’d like advice. This gives them choice.
Communication can be difficult. But, when we assert ourselves, we advocate for our needs. When we actively listen to others, we create a trusting environment for our loved ones.