A friend recently asked for my advice about how to talk with his manager about some concerns he was having at work. He explained that these concerns were growing in intensity over the last few weeks, and he had yet to mention them because he did not want to “cause waves,” didn’t want to offend anyone, and didn’t actually know what to say or how to say it.
I think it is safe to say that we have all been in this situation at some point, whether with a boss, a parent, friend, or partner. We might feel misunderstood or slighted in some way and do not say anything for any number of reasons, and the issue may continue to fester and grow. This might lead to being reactive or “blowing up” because of the pressure cooker that we have created by not expressing our concerns, needs, or wants (which we all have!). In the latter case, the other person might be caught by surprise, having had no idea there were any concerns in the first place. For many of us, brushing up on our communication skills might help us address these difficult situations more effectively, with fewer longer-term consequences.
There are three general forms of communication: passive, aggressive, and assertive. Passivity has an underlying message of “Your needs and wants are important, mine are not.” This mode of communication frequently leads to holding back, not discussing our feelings or opinions, and becoming resentful (as in example above). An aggressive style of communication implies, “My needs and wants are important, yours are not,” which can lead to others feeling victimized and relationship distress. Alternatively, an assertive style communicates, “Both of our needs and wants are important.” This allows both parties to feel heard and respected.
Marsha Linehan, PhD has developed an assertiveness recipe, which is outlined in the mnemonic,
DEAR MAN, as part of the Interpersonal Effectiveness module in Dialectical Behavior Therapy.
DEAR MAN includes the following skills:
D: Describe// Describe the situation you are addressing. Stick to just the facts.
E: Express// Express your feelings and opinions about the situation. (This can be a tough one for many of us and takes practice!)
A: Assert// Assert your needs and wants, clearly. As much as we wish people could read our minds, they can’t!
R: Reinforce// Explain the positive outcomes that would come from the person complying with the request.
M: Stay Mindful// As best you can, don’t get caught up in any criticisms or tangents from the other person. Remain present, discussing the issue at hand. Keep to your points.
A: Appear Confident// Maintain a confident, dignified posture. Make eye contact. Speak clearly and slowly.
N: Negotiate// As necessary, discuss what you are willing to give, to get. This might also be making an agreement to take a break and resume the discussion later.
As in learning any new skill, this takes practice! It might be helpful to help yourself prepare by writing out each step prior to having the discussion. It is also helpful to remember that how effective we are in being assertive is not necessarily measured by the outcome (i.e., getting what we want). We may do really well with each step and still the person may not agree with our request. And with all skills, we aim for progress not perfection!