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Assertive communication in work and relationships

When your vocation is to serve others, yet you are stymied by others' behaviors, well-meaning or otherwise, it can be downright frustrating. When we learn assertive communication skills, we can move away from frustration and into contentment and peace.

When we perceive our needs and our wants being blocked or negated, such as if a boss or coworker dismisses your requests for help, our brains react. Our biology senses this as a threat, and moves into stress response.

When we move into stress response, we are at risk of reacting instead of responding. This is often seen in four ways of reactivity:


When we are in fight mode, we react with aggression. If you perceive someone dismiss you, for instance, aggression is confronting them with "you" language, with a raised tone and increased energy, and often without care for harm or hurting the relationship. Aggression is self-serving. It is a way to manage and discharge our heightened stress response.


When we are in flight mode, we react by ignoring, dismissing and dissociating from our needs. This can look like avoiding the conflict entirely, and "letting it slide". It can be harmful as it negates our own voice in the relationship and does not provide an equal balance in our ability give and take in relationship.


When we are in freeze mode, we react by containing our tension physically. We stop our tasks and instead become internal--our inner monologue goes on a frenzy and while we look like we have stopped, we have "internalized" the conflict as our own. This can create a pattern of anxiety and worry, of fear and stress that is toxic to us--mind body and spirit.


When we are in fawn mode, we try to satiate the situation. We actively diffuse by over-giving, by over-offering of ourselves and our energy. This can look like placating. It is dismissive of our voices and needs and gives the power to the other person. Instead of valuing equitability, fawning values passivity.

What does Assertive communication look like?

If it surprises you that you see yourself in one or more of the above communication styles, don't worry. We all do these to some extent. Yet, when we know better, we do better (as Maya Angelou says).

In the above example of feeling dismissed, there is a choice you can make to become more assertive. You can ask yourself these things:

What is my need?

This is not a want. We want lots of things--but needs are different. In the above example, a want could be "I want my boss to treat me differently." A need is "I need to feel listened to."

Define fully what that need does for you. "Feel listened to" could mean lots of different things. Perhaps it means eye contact, or empathetic feedback. Perhaps it means returning an email in a certain amount of time.

Decide to share this need.

Reflect on a time and place that is free of relative distraction to request your need to be met. Assertiveness means respecting the other person too, so perhaps this could mean giving a heads up before talking, as in asking for a time when they're available to talk.

Use "I" language

Assertive communication is not blaming or cajoling. It comes from power and equity. Assertive communication assumes and yearns for connection. Choose your words wisely--"you don't do this" is blaming, yet "I feel ... when..." is connecting.

What to do when our needs aren't met

Sometimes when we assert ourselves, other people won't meet our needs, and this can be frustrating. The trick then is to continue to be self aware enough to calm our stress response so that we are not reactive in the moment. Positive affirmations help: "They may not have met my need here, but perhaps there is another way to meet it." And move to plan B--get support. Resilient, assertive people are people who are interdependent and know the important of healthy relationship.

Who are your allies?

Allies are those people who understand your needs and support you in expressing yourself. They understand healthy communication and desire healthy relationships too. Who is in your circle? Friends, family? Coworkers?

We deserve to have healthy work environments and healthy relationships. If we want to thrive in the world and in our vocations to serve others, becoming assertive in our communication is essential.

In Wellness,


PS. Need some more resiliency tips in improving your life and relationships? Check out my video here.

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