We can’t control someone else’s behavior. We can’t control whether they really hear us or not. But we can make the process easier. That is, we can help the other person better understand where we’re coming from by being clear and compassionate. Often we do the opposite: Often we expect others to know what we need. How could they not? Isn’t it obvious? (Usually, it’s not obvious at all.)
Or we stay silent because we fear that by speaking up, we’ll be seen as high-maintenance, unreasonable or rude. If we don’t have much practice asserting ourselves, we might assume that doing so involves being harsh or stern. Or maybe we unwittingly use criticism or blame, which naturally makes the other person anything but receptive to what we have to say.
For instance, do you find yourself saying these statements to your spouse, friend or family member: Why don’t you ever know what’s going on in my life? What would it take to get you to help around the house? If you really cared about me, you would be home in time for dinner! I wish you would know what I needed without me having to ask!
Such statements just make people defensive, according to therapist and author Julie de Azevedo Hanks, Ph.D, LCSW, in her latest book The Assertiveness Guide for Women: How to Communicate Your Needs, Set Healthy Boundaries, and Transform Your Relationships. In it she shares invaluable tips on how we can assert ourselves in a more constructive, effective way. Here’s what she suggests.
Identify the facts in the situation.
Avoid focusing on your beliefs or interpretations. Instead, only mention your objective observations. According to Hanks, an observation is: “She just told the boss, in front of me, that she put the presentation together all by herself. I helped with it last week.” In contrast, an interpretation is: “She’s such a backstabber! Always trying to kiss up to the boss and make herself look better than everyone else.”
Identify your thoughts and feelings.
Pause and reflect on how you’re feeling about the situation. Are you resentful? Are you upset about what the other person did or said? Do you feel angry? Do you feel like you’re being asked to do too much? What thoughts are running through your mind about the situation? What are you telling yourself?
Communicate with compassion.
Hanks suggests using this formula when asserting yourself with someone: “I feel ______ (emotion word) when you _______ (other person’s specific behavior) because I think ________ (your thought).”
For instance, you might say: “I feel sad when you come home after work and turn on the TV because I think I’m not very important to you” or “I feel scared when you don’t come home right after school, because I think something bad may have happened.”
According to Hanks, when using this approach, you’re owning your experience while holding space for the other person’s experience.
Invite the other person to share their experience with you by asking them questions. Hanks shares these examples of questions you might ask: “How do you see things?” “What’s going on for you right now?”
This allows “the other person to express his or her experience, even if it’s different, in the safe emotional space you’re holding open for him or her.”
When they respond, make sure that you listen intently, without interrupting or judging them.
Be direct and clear with your requests.
Once the other person feels heard and understood, Hanks suggests making your request. For instance, you might use these phrases: “It would mean a lot to me if…” “I would appreciate it if you would…” “I’d like it if you could…” or “I loved it when you did _________. Will you do that again?”
Hanks also stresses the importance of being specific with our requests. She shares this example: Sara feels uncomfortable that her parents regularly give her kids extravagant gifts. Instead of telling them, “We need you to cut back on the gift-giving,” she says: “We are so grateful for the gifts you give our kids; they are very thoughtful, and the kids love them! But we’re trying to teach them to enjoy material possessions in moderation, and the gifts are becoming a bit much. We feel it’s best if you limit the gifts to one per child every three months. How would you feel about that?”
Of course, sometimes, it doesn’t matter what you do. Some people will decline your clear, compassionate requests (after all, it’s a request, not a demand). Some people will outright ignore them. Others will try to bulldoze your boundaries. And in those cases, you might feel powerless. You might feel like there’s nothing you can do.
However, as therapist Sharon Martin, LCSW, writes in her excellent piece, “you have choices.” These choices might include limiting your contact with a person who continuously disrespects your boundaries or cutting ties altogether. (Be sure to check out Martin’s piece, which is packed with suggestions.)
Either way, whatever you choose to do, remember to consider your emotional well-being. Remember that your needs matter. Your voice matters. Use it.