How to Get What You Want (Communication Skills)
Because communication is such a big part of relating to others successfully, and often causes such problems for people when they’re interacting with others, we’re going to look at this area next. In this article, we’ll look at four different ways of communicating. You’ll have an opportunity to assess your own communication style, and then we’ll look more closely at the healthiest, most balanced way of communicating. As we do this, though, remember that you need to continue practicing mindfulness and developing your self awareness regarding the way you interact with others.
The way you speak with people has a direct effect on what your relationship will be like with them, and this point is important whether you’re talking to a rep at your cell phone company or to your dad. Either way, you need to remember that the words you use, your tone of voice, your attitude, and so on will influence whether that person wants to give you what you’re asking for or help you get your needs met. For example, when Rebecca tries to talk to her mom about the fact that she’s feeling abandoned, her anger takes over and she ends up yelling and being verbally abusive toward her mom. I don’t know about you, but when someone yells at me and calls me names, I don’t usually feel very motivated to help that person; instead, I feel hurt and angry and I just want to get away from him.
Some people go in the opposite direction. Rather than becoming abusive, they stuff their emotions and don’t express them at all. The problem with this is that the person suppressing his emotions still doesn’t get his needs met, which can result in feelings of resentment that will also have negative consequences for the relationship; over time resentment continues to build, and it usually gets to a point where, like Carter, the person can’t continue suppressing emotion and instead explodes. This could result in his ending the relationship rather than trying to fix it, or even in the other person ending the friendship rather than continuing to be involved with someone who’s going to treat him this way.
These are just a couple of ways that poor communication skills can have negative consequences for your relationships with others. Next, let’s take a look at the four different ways of communicating —the first three being not so healthy, and the fourth being the one to aim for.
Someone who is passive in the way he communicates doesn’t often express feelings, opinions, or beliefs, usually out of a fear that he’ll rock the boat or cause problems in the relationship. For the passive person, the goal is to avoid conflict. The person who won’t give an opinion as to which movie he’d like to see, or where he’d like to have dinner, is a passive communicator.
The problem for the passive person is that not speaking up about what he wants often means he doesn’t get his needs met. Over time, not speaking up also leads others to expect that he will go along with what they want to do, or that he’ll do as they ask, because he always has in the past. As the relationship progresses in this way and the passive person continues to not get his needs met, he’ll likely begin to feel resentful, even though he’s made the choice to not express his wants and needs.
The person who uses sarcasm and eye-rolling instead of expressing himself directly, who slams doors, and who gives others the silent treatment is a passive-aggressive communicator. He’s trying to communicate his wants or emotions, but instead of doing this in a clear manner, he does so in an aggressive but underhanded way. Like passive communicators, people who are passive-aggressive are usually trying to avoid conflict, but the behaviors they engage in can often be even more damaging than just saying outright what they’d really like. For example, you’re going out with a couple of friends to see a movie; you’d really like to see a horror movie but your other two friends want to see an action film. You tell them you don’t mind (passive), but inside you’re feeling angry and as if they ganged up on you, preventing you from seeing the movie you really wanted to see. So you get up multiple times during the movie, purposely being disruptive (aggressive). After all, if you don’t get to enjoy yourself, why should they?
As you can hopefully see, passive-aggressive communication is unhealthy. It can be very damaging to your friendships, as the people in your life will likely not appreciate the underhanded behavior. And you still face the same problem of not getting your needs met, and feeling your resentment build. Sooner or later, either you or your friends are going to blow up in this kind of relationship.
You may have heard the saying “It’s my way or the highway.” Someone who says such things or behaves in this way is aggressive he wants to get his own way, and he may bully others in order to get it. An aggressive communicator is controlling, threatening, and sometimes even verbally or otherwise abusive. The bottom line is that he’ll do pretty much whatever he has to in order to get his needs met, and he doesn’t care so much whether you get what you want.
The obvious problem with being an aggressive communicator is that most people won’t put up with that kind of treatment for very long. At some point, they’ll decide that they don’t deserve or want to be treated so disrespectfully, and they’ll end the relationship. An additional problem that can arise for the aggressive communicator is that his aggression can sometimes trigger in him feelings of guilt and shame, as he might recognize that he’s treating people in abusive or unfair ways—remember Michael, for example, the bully you met in the last article.
The last communication style, which is healthy and balanced, is assertive. Someone who is assertive communicates clearly and concisely—he states his opinion or talks about his feelings in a way that is respectful of himself and the other person. While his goal is often to get his own needs met, the assertive person is also concerned about other people getting their needs met, and so he’s the person who will try to negotiate or compromise. For example, maybe one of your friends wants to go see an action film, but he’s willing to come back to the movies with you on Tuesday night to see the horror movie you had your heart set on.
We’ll be talking a lot more about assertiveness and how to be assertive shortly, so we’ll leave it at that for now. The next thing for you to do is consider what communication style you yourself tend to use most often.
What’s Your Communication Style?
Whenever we communicate, the style we use is going to depend on many things, like who we’re communicating with, what the situation is, and what our state of mind is at that time. But most of us tend to use one or two styles in most interactions. That said, the following quiz isn’t about labeling you; it’s intended to help you get an idea of what style you tend to use most often.
Communication Styles Quiz
Read each of these statements, and check the ones that you feel apply to you more often than not. Add up the check marks in each section to get an idea of what communication style you tend to use most often.
- I try to push my feelings away rather than express them to others.
- I worry that expressing myself will cause others to be angry with me or to not like me.
- I say “I don’t care” or “It doesn’t matter to me” when I do care and it actually does matter.
- I keep quiet because I don’t want to upset others.
- I go along with others’ opinions because I don’t want to be different.
- I have a tendency to be sarcastic when having conversations with others.
- I tend to give people the silent treatment when I’m angry with them.
- I find myself saying one thing, but really thinking another thing (for example, going along with someone else’s idea because she’s the most popular person in the group, but really wishing I was doing something else).
- I’m reluctant to express my emotions in words, and so I find that how I feel gets expressed in other ways (like slamming doors, or other aggressive behaviors).
- I worry that expressing myself will cause others to be angry with me, or to stop liking me, so I try to get my message across in more subtle ways.
- I’m concerned with getting my own way, regardless of how it affects others.
- I yell, curse, or use other aggressive means of asserting myself.
- I find myself not really caring whether others get what they need as long as my needs are met. This sometimes makes me disrespectful toward others when communicating with them.
- I have an “It’s my way or the highway” attitude.
- I believe that I have a right to express my own opinions and emotions.
- When I’m having a disagreement with someone, I express my opinions and emotions clearly and honestly.
- When I’m communicating with others, I treat them with respect, while also respecting myself.
- I listen closely to what the other person is saying, sending the message that I’m trying to understand that person’s perspective.
- I try to negotiate with the other person if we both have different goals, rather than being focused on getting my own needs met.
In which category did you score the highest? Was this what you expected?
Communication Styles Are Learned
We all learn how to communicate from somewhere. The biggest influence usually comes from our families as we grow up. Think about the communication styles of your family members: do they tend to be more passive, passive-aggressive, aggressive, or assertive? If you’ve grown up seeing one family member give the others the silent treatment whenever he becomes angry with them, you might have learned that that’s how to behave when you feel angry. Or you might dislike that experience enough that you’ve learned to behave in other ways when you become angry—perhaps you become aggressive and shout it out, or you become assertive and are able to calmly discuss your feelings of anger.
When you’re looking at your patterns and where you learned them from, the goal is not to blame your family for your problems. But if you recognize that certain patterns have developed because you’ve learned them from someone, it can help you change those patterns and start to develop healthier ones, which leads us to the idea of how to change your current communication style so that you’re communicating more assertively on a regular basis.
Assertiveness is a gigantic topic, but I’ll do my best to cover the basics for you here. If you decide that you really have difficulty being assertive, you may want to look into taking a class on assertiveness, or joining a support group. Have patience with yourself, though, because it usually takes lots of time and practice to change the patterns you’ve been stuck in for most of your life.
Remembering that you have to increase your awareness of something before you can change it, start by using your mindfulness skills to help you notice when you’re not being assertive. For example, you might notice that you’re starting to feel an uncomfortable emotion; tuning in to this, you may find you’re starting to feel resentful because you’re not speaking up about your preference in a situation.
Assertiveness is also connected to self-esteem. If you don’t feel good about who you are as a person, it’s more difficult to be assertive because you may not feel like you deserve what you’re asking for. However, it also works the other way: the more you assert yourself, the more you’ll increase your self-esteem, so don’t give up on assertiveness just because you think it’s doomed from the start!
Asserting yourself is a healthy way of living your life. You have the right to express your emotions, opinions, and beliefs—and of course, others have the right to disagree with your opinions and beliefs!
For the purposes of this article, we’ll be looking at assertiveness only as it applies in two types of situations. The first is when you’re asking someone for something. For example, you ask your parents if you can go to a friend’s cottage this weekend, or you ask your sister to give you extra time on the family computer tonight because you’ve got an assignment due tomorrow. In these situations, someone has something you want, and assertiveness will increase your chances of getting it.
The second type of situation is when someone asks you for something, and you want to say no to that request. Saying no can be difficult—again, if you have low self-esteem you may not feel that you deserve to say no, or you may feel obligated to say yes because of who is making the request. You may not feel you’re able to say no to a teacher, for example, because he has a degree of power over you. Sometimes you might worry that if you say no to a friend he’ll be angry with you or decide not to be your friend anymore (a concern also related to low self-esteem). Tied into this, you might be a person who avoids conflict at all costs, and so you feel you can’t say no because that might lead to an argument. Sometimes people just feel guilty for saying no, and so they say yes to avoid feeling an uncomfortable emotion.
Whether you’re making a request of someone or saying no to someone else’s request, being assertive means communicating your emotions, thoughts, and beliefs in a way that’s clear, but also respectful to both you and the other person. It involves caring about the other person and his needs, which means that negotiation and compromise often come into play as you try to get your own needs met, as well as to meet the needs of the other person. Here are some guidelines to help you increase your assertive communication.
Be Clear About Your Goals
Often what gets in the way of people getting what they want is their own indecisiveness—they’re not entirely clear on what their goals are. If you’re not clear on what you want in a situation, how on earth can you expect the other person to be clear about it? In an interpersonal situation, our primary goals might relate to three areas: the outcome, the relationship, or our own self-respect.
When your priority in a situation is to get something from someone (for example, to borrow money from your parents), or to say no to another person’s request (for example, to skip a concert your boyfriend wants you to go to), your goal relates to the outcome. In other words, your main concern is getting what you want, or saying no to what someone else wants.
So what you want in the situation is to borrow some money from your parents, or maybe to tell your boyfriend you don’t want to go to the concert he’s asked you to—you have an outcome you’d like to achieve. But maybe in this situation, you’re less concerned with whether you get what you want, and more concerned with maintaining your connection with the others involved. If so, your goal here relates to the relationship.
Maybe you’d like to get your needs met, but what’s even more important to you in the situations you find yourself in is that you feel good about yourself for the way you interacted when all is said and done. Even if you don’t actually get your needs met (your parents won’t lend you money, or your boyfriend isn’t taking no for an answer because he’s already bought the concert tickets), as long as you come out of the situation feeling good about yourself for the way you behaved, you’ve met your goal—even if a relationship has to change or end as a result.
One final note here about self-respect, since it’s obviously a pretty important goal that we want to work on as often as possible. In an ideal world, you’d feel good about yourself every time you engage with others, but unfortunately it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes you might choose to sacrifice self-respect a bit for the sake of the outcome or the relationship.
Let’s take a look at an example: We know that Rebecca and her mother have really been struggling to get along with each other, and that Rebecca, at least, is now trying really hard to change this. Early one Saturday morning, Rebecca’s mother comes to her bedroom door and asks Rebecca to go grocery shopping with her. This is certainly not something Rebecca feels like getting up early for on a Saturday morning! But knowing how rocky things have been with her mom lately, Rebecca doesn’t feel like she can say no to this request. Her goal here is to continue to improve her relationship with her mother, and that means, in this instance, sacrificing a bit of her self-respect, as she does what her mother asks instead of sleeping in as she herself wants to.
Obviously Rebecca isn’t behaving toward her mother in a way that she’ll later regret, but there is a part of her that likely is wishing she didn’t have to give in to this request, and that she could be more assertive; in this way, her self-respect will suffer a little. If Rebecca made these kinds of choices on a regular basis, this would become a problem and her self-respect would begin to decrease. But there’s likely also a part of Rebecca that feels good about making the choice to help her mother on this occasion, which helps us see that this issue is not cut-and-dried! The bottom line is, the more you can behave in ways that don’t reduce your self-respect, the better; but sometimes you may find you have to sacrifice self-respect hopefully just in small ways, as in Rebecca’s example—in order to achieve the outcome you want or to improve your connection with another person.
Keeping these three possible goal areas in mind, it’s important to figure out which one is most important to you in any given situation. Sometimes, we run into an ideal situation where it is possible to reach our goals in all three areas—we get what we want (or say no), we maintain a good relationship with the other person, and we feel good about ourselves for our behavior. But unfortunately, you might more often find yourself in situations where it’s not possible to come out meeting all three of these goals. When this happens, you need to be clear in your own mind about what’s most important for you in that situation: to get what you’re asking for or to stick to your no, to preserve the relationship, or to respect yourself after the interaction. Keeping this in the front of your mind as you proceed with the interaction, try to act in ways that will make it more likely that you’ll achieve this result.
How to Be Assertive
Now that you’ve decided what goal area you’ll be focusing on in the situation, you can use the method I’ll outline in this section to help you communicate assertively. Unfortunately, these steps don’t come with guarantees—when you’re dealing with another person, you might not get what you want no matter how skillfully you act. Using these steps, though, will make it more likely you’ll reach your goals.
I’ll run through the steps first, and then we’ll look at some examples to help you understand more fully how to apply them.
Describe the situation.
When you’re being assertive, it’s very helpful to describe, factually, the situation you’re referring to so that everyone’s clear on what’s being discussed. It’s also important to pay close attention to the language you’re using. We’ll talk more about this in another article; for now, as best as you can, stick to factual, descriptive language rather than using judgments.
State your opinion and emotions.
Without blaming or judging, tell the other person your thoughts, and, if applicable, your emotions about the situation you’ve just described.
Clearly state what you want.
This is where you get very specific about what you’re asking for (or, in the case of someone else’s request, that you’re saying no). Don’t be shy—come out and say it! And make sure your request is clear people often make an observation and then expect the other person to read their minds about what they would like. For example, your mom might mention, “There are a lot of dishes to be done tonight and it’s late.” From this statement, you might surmise that she’s asking you to help with the dishes, but she hasn’t actually made the request. It’s much better to have a request out in the open so it can be discussed, rather than getting stuck in old patterns like giving each other the silent treatment. Talking about it will help you know where you stand.
It’s often helpful if you provide incentive for others to give you what you’re asking for; for example, if your parents lend you the car, you’ll fill it back up with gas and you’ll even wash it this weekend. This way, they will be more likely to want to help, not necessarily because they’re getting something out of it, but because they see your willingness to compromise and negotiate. Since I’ve thrown a lot at you here, let’s put all of these steps together with some examples.
CARTER ASSERTS HIMSELF WITH HIS GIRLFRIEND
Carter’s already lost some good friends in his band, and he certainly doesn’t want to lose his girlfriend as well. Merrin has already made it clear that he has to change his ways or she’s done, so he’s trying to be more assertive rather than letting his anger control him. He wants to talk to Merrin about her threat to leave so she knows he’s taking it seriously. Here’s an example of how Carter might speak with Merrin:
(Describing the situation) You’ve told me that you’re ready to end our relationship if I can’t get my anger under control. (Stating opinions and emotions) I don’t like the thought of losing you; it terrifies me, and it also hurts me to know I’ve hurt you so much. (Clearly stating what he wants) I’d like it if you could help me manage my anger by pointing out to me when you see it start to rise; I’m working on doing this myself, but it’s hard. (Reinforcing) I’d really appreciate it if you could help me with this, and it just might save our relationship.
Here you can see Carter incorporating all four steps in what he’s saying to Merrin. He’s not judging her or blaming her for the situation. By describing the situation, he makes sure they both know what’s being discussed, and Merrin has an opportunity to correct any errors in Carter’s perceptions. He’s very clear about what he’s asking Merrin to help him with, and the reinforcer is both his appreciation and the fact that it might help their relationship. This is assertive communication!
Additional Skills for Assertiveness
Here are some additional skills to help you get what you want, as well as to make it more likely that you’ll maintain a good connection with the other person and feel good about yourself after the conversation.
LISTEN, BE INTERESTED, AND VALIDATE
It will go a long way if others feel that you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say. Start by eliminating potential distractions turn off the TV, take your earbuds out, close your laptop, put down your phone. Make good eye contact and really focus on what the other person is saying to you. Ask questions to make sure you understand and to further show your interest. Pay attention to how often you use the word “I” in a sentence, and if it’s coming up a lot, see if you can reduce it—it’s not all about you!
Empathy also goes a long way toward improving your relationships with other people. Empathy is about putting yourself in another’s shoes and trying to understand that person’s perspective. It also has the effect of increasing your own warmth and genuineness as a human being, and it helps you feel more connected to others—and them feel more connected to you—because you understand and care about them and their feelings. People tend to be drawn to others who have the quality of empathy.
Try this: Ask someone you care about how his day was today. (You can even tell him ahead of time that you’re trying something new, in case asking feels strange or uncomfortable for you.) As he’s telling you about his day, try to visualize or imagine in some way what he’s describing to you. Practice your mindfulness here—really pay attention to what you’re hearing! Once you’ve heard the story, see if you can imagine what you might be feeling if this experience had\ been your own, and ask the person whether he’s feeling this way: “I’d imagine you’d be feeling quite tired after a day like that” or “Did that leave you feeling frustrated?” If you think you’re lacking in the empathy department, this is something you’ll really want to work on.
BE GENTLE AND USE HUMOR
Just because you’re asserting yourself doesn’t mean you have to go all serious! Laughter, smiling, and appropriate use of humor can lighten the mood and be very helpful with this type of communication. Even if the conversation is a serious one, as in our examples of Carter and Rebecca earlier, being gentle and using an easy manner will help defuse tension and increase the likelihood of a positive outcome for the interaction and the overall relationship.
Another issue I run into a lot is that people tend to go into situations like these already thinking of them as problems or conflicts. Remember, it’s just a discussion right now! It’s just you making a request (or saying no). Come back to the present moment (practice mindfulness), and don’t anticipate that it will be anything but a conversation.
KNOW YOUR VALUES AND STICK TO THEM
In order for you to feel good about yourself after the interaction, it’s important that you stick to your morals and values, which means, first of all, knowing what these are. Remember to think about how you would like to be treated if roles were reversed. You probably wouldn’t want to be yelled at or called names or blamed; if so, these are some of your values. So don’t yell at the other person, call him names, or blame him.
Hopefully, getting stuck in arguments and power struggles also goes against your morals and values. Often, there is no winning an argument; both parties are caught up in emotions and feelings of self-righteousness, and in that moment, neither is likely to give way—unless, of course, one of them is becoming more mindful and suddenly realizes the futility of the argument! If you can use assertiveness skills to help you understand the situation better, you can shut many arguments down (or not let them start in the first place), and open the door to discussion and compromise.
Still, it is just part of human nature that arguments are going to happen; there’s no avoiding them altogether. The idea here is that you want to limit them as much as possible since they really don’t get you anywhere other than stuck. Above all, though, you can’t avoid the problem. Letting the problem turn into an argument will usually increase frustration on both sides, but you can certainly discuss a problem without this happening.
This takes us back to that good old self-esteem conversation. People who have low self-esteem often have a tendency to overapologize, which means they apologize for things that aren’t actually their fault, that are in fact often completely beyond their control. If something isn’t your fault, you shouldn’t be taking responsibility for it. Of course, if it is your fault, take responsibility and say you’re sorry.
It’s important to recognize, however, that if someone experiences an emotion because of the conversation you’re having, you’re not responsible for his emotions. All you’re responsible for is your own behavior, so you need to focus on being assertive (which, remember, includes being respectful), and let the other person be responsible for his own reactions. To go back to our example with Carter, if Merrin becomes angry with him for what he said to her, that’s Merrin’s responsibility to deal with. Carter has nothing to apologize for, because he didn’t say anything that was hurtful, blaming, or judgmental, nor could he have anticipated that Merrin might interpret what he said in that way. Bottom line: take responsibility for yourself, and let others do the same. If you experience feelings of guilt, hold on to those
Here are some general questions you can ask yourself in order to help you be more assertive:
- If I were the other person, how would I want to be treated? Alternatively, how would I want the other person to treat me?
- How can I make this person want to help me? (Remember, be willing to give in order to get; try to negotiate and compromise so that others see you’re concerned with their needs as well as your own.)
- If I yell (argue, call names, and so on), how am I going to feel about myself later?
- If I yell (argue, call names, and so on), how will the other person feel about me?
- If people I respect and care about were watching me right now, would I feel comfortable continuing to behave this way, or would I be embarrassed about my behavior?
Your Next Steps
Hopefully you’ve continued to use the mindfulness skills you’ve learned so far. Now, of course, you’ve got lots of information about how to communicate in healthier ways. First off, you need to continue increasing your awareness of what your typical communication style is; remember, you can’t change something until you’ve become aware of it.
As you continue to observe the way you communicate with others, you’ll also want to do your best to change it when it’s not assertive. If you notice you’re getting stuck in a power struggle with your parents or a teacher, do your best to remove yourself from the situation so you can take some time to think about how you’d like to respond, rather than just reacting emotionally.
You can also practice the following technique, as a mindfulness exercise. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) was developed to help us relax, and while relaxation’s not the goal with mindfulness, it can certainly be helpful, especially when there’s a tendency to get anxious in certain situations. (Hmmm, like in social interactions?) So to help reduce your anxiety and allow you to communicate more effectively over the next week, try this.
Exercise: Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Sitting in a comfortable position, focus on each group of muscles one by one. Beginning with your toes, tense each group of muscles, concentrating only on that feeling of tension. Hold the tension for a count of five, and then release it. How do your muscles feel in that area before you tense them? How do they feel while you’re holding the tension? And how do they feel afterward?
Slowly, in this same way, work your way up through the front (shins) and back (calves) of your lower legs and then your upper legs (quadriceps and hamstrings); your buttocks and thighs; your back (you can tense your back by arching it, but don’t hurt yourself); your arms and wrists (flex your biceps, make your hands into fists, and bend your fists toward your face); your stomach; your shoulders (scrunch them up to your ears) and neck (slowly rotate your head, noticing the tension shift as you move your head); and finally your face, including your jaw (hold your mouth open as wide as you can) and your brow and eyes (squeeze your eyes shut and wrinkle your nose and forehead). Take your time between muscle groups, noticing the difference in the feelings you’re generating. Focus all your attention on the action of tensing and releasing these muscles. Remember you’re doing this mindfully—if you notice your mind has gone to other things, don’t judge yourself, but bring your attention back to the sensations.
Practicing PMR will help you learn to relax your body more, and practicing it mindfully will also help you become more familiar with the feelings in your body, which can be excellent clues to your emotions and thoughts. In the next article we’ll begin looking at emotions: how these can get in the way of interactions and therefore have long-term consequences for your relationships, and what you can do about this.