“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?”
“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 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 formula:
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 patterns.
Always make sure your tone conveys sincerity, clarity, genuineness and respect toward the other and his or her opinions.