By Ms. Paige Abbott, M.Sc., R.Psych.
“Why is our credit card bill so high this month? I thought we agreed that we would stick to a limit,” says Shelley to her partner, Dan, as she stands in the doorway to the kitchen while he reclines in a chair in the living room.
“What are you talking about? We did not. What’s wrong with the amount? We can afford it. You’re making a big deal out of nothing, as usual. You worry too much. You should get professional help, Shelley. Don’t worry about it, which probably isn’t even possible for you,” replies Dan, not looking up from the newspaper he is reading
Shelley sighs loudly, puts the credit card statement near Dan’s place at the dinner table and begins making supper, slamming a cupboard door here and there.
Can you identify what communication styles Shelley and Dan are embodying?
Shelley is personifying the Passive-Aggressive communication style. This style is the indirect expression of hostility or non-verbal aggression, such as through procrastination, sarcasm, hostile jokes, stubbornness, resentment, or sullenness. Shelley is trying to get Dan’s attention through words or subtle actions (like leaving the credit card statement where she knows he will see it) to manipulate or push for a certain outcome.
Dan is personifying the Aggressive communication style as he is being verbally dismissive and abusive towards Shelley. While him encouraging her to get professional support may be seen as a sign of support and care, the time and way in which it was said is derogatory and dismissive. If Dan truly cared he would engage in the conversation, made evident by putting down the newspaper, and clearly expressing his concern and care to Shelley. This may also be saved until the heat of the moment has passed and he can talk in a calmer way with Shelley.
You may have, at times, acted similar to Shelley, Dan, or both in communicating with others. While these forms of communication may feel natural and comfortable, they may not result in conversations where we feel heard and understood by others as our message becomes lost in the passiveness or aggressiveness of our style.
Rather, it is encouraged that people consider embodying an Assertive communication style which means clearly and calmly articulating feelings from an ‘I’ perspective rather than judging, shoulding, blaming, justifying, rationalizing, fighting, or trying to steer a certain outcome.
Assertive people tend to:
- Feel free to express their feelings, thoughts, needs, and desires to others
- Initiate and maintain comfortable relationships with others
- Know their rights and when internal boundaries have been crossed
- Be comfortable dealing with anger. They recognize the anger, take a break to calm down, and come back to address the situation in a calm way using clear, expressive language
- Be willing to compromise with others and not be stubborn around a certain outcome
- Have strong self-worth and esteem
- Enter friendships/relationships from an ‘I count my needs. I count your needs’ position”
- Be congruent between their non-verbal body language and words, sending a clear and consistent message that speaks from their own truth
In the example above, an assertive conversation might have looked as follows:
“Dan, is now a good time to talk? I have something important that I need to discuss with you,” says Shelley.
“Um, sure, I was just reading the paper.” Dan puts down the paper and turns to face Shelley, who sits down across from him on the sofa. “What did you need to talk about?”
“Our credit card statement came today. I’m feeling really upset and frustrated with the total. Remember when we talked last month and agreed on setting spending limits for ourselves? I’m disappointed and deflated that it was still high.”
Dan takes the statement and looks at it for a few moments. “I understand that you’re feeling frustrated and let down. I’m feeling frustrated too, in myself. Even though we can afford it, that’s not the point. I wonder what is so hard for me about sticking to a limit?”
“I get so worried about this kind of stuff, it drives me crazy. I feel like all I do is worry, worry, worry!”
“Let’s talk some more about this credit card business for now. If you want to talk more about your worry later, we can. Is that okay with you?”
“Yes, of course. I would like to talk more about my anxiety, though. It’s getting out of control.”
And from there, the conversation continues. What the plan of action they come up with is not as important as the process that got them there. As you can see, the assertive conversation is much longer, more engaged, and really gets out the wants, needs, and concerns of each participant.
I encourage you to consider your own communication pattern and challenge yourself to start off your next conversation by stating how you feel rather than jumping right into the issue and see what difference it makes.