This is part one of a three-part series in communication. Every day each of us communicates both verbally and non-verbally. How we communicate can have a big impact on how others respond to and behave toward us. And many messages are communicated non-verbally, i.e. tone of voice, body posture and eye contact. My hope is to help raise awareness of how our values, beliefs and thoughts impact what we say and do in relating to others. Remember, if you learned a dysfunctional communication style, it can be unlearned and a more productive way can be learned. The exciting part is, the more you know yourself the less you take things personally and can be more compassionate and empathic to others.

If you can imagine the communication styles on a continuum, it would be passive on one end, assertive in the middle and aggressive on the other end. The goal is to use assertive communication in relationships.

Passive Communication

This style of communication doesn’t express feelings and wants clearly. The person may say nothing or makes excuses or apologies. The person’s voice is hesitant; eyes are downcast or not looking at the other person and posture is stooped. And there is excessive head nodding and hands are fidgety or clammy. An example is, “Sorry but I am not sure if you could possibly do something but I am hoping maybe you could……”

Assertive Communication

In this style of communication feelings and needs are expressed clearly. The person’s voice is firm, warm, and relaxed, eyes are looking at the person, but not staring, posture is relaxed and balanced, and hands are relaxed. Assertive communication has three components to it which are facts, feelings, and fair requests.

  1. Facts only please: An example of factual observation is, “I notice the kitchen sink is full of dirty dishes from last night’s dinner.” (I will discuss observing vs. evaluations in part two of the communication series.)
  2. Feelings: What you feel vs. shaming or blaming the other person. An example of stating your feelings is, “When I came home from work and found dirty dishes in the sink, I felt frustrated.”
  3. Fair request: This part needs to be clear, positive and in concrete action language. This is the famous “I” statement. An example of this all put together is, “When I came home today I noticed the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink from last night’s dinner. (Fact) I felt frustrated and hurt. (Feelings) When you said you were going to do the dishes this morning, I would like you to follow through, so I can count on you.” (Fair request)

Aggressive Communication

In this style the communication expresses feelings and wants, but puts the other person down, can be physically aggressive and makes “you” statements. “You” statements typically puts a person on the defensive. The person’s voice is loud and demanding, eyes are cold, staring and narrowed, posture is stiff, hands are on hips or maybe clenched or finger pointing. An example is, “You are so lazy! You never do anything I ask! If you don’t turn off the TV now I will break it!” (This is also considered verbally abusive, which will be explained more in part three of the communication series).

If you recognized a specific style you use, and it is not helping you in relating to others, you can begin to change it by practicing assertive communication.  Below are some resources that give more examples and other details within communication.

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D.

How to Communicate: The Ultimate Guide to Improving Your Person and Professional Relationships by Matthew McKay, Ph.D., Martha Davis, Ph.D., and Patrick Fanning

In the next part of the series I will explain how to improve your skills on observing vs. evaluating another person’s behaviors. For now, keep being the best person you can be.  Or as Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.

Nicole Burgess is a licensed marriage and family therapist located in Indianapolis, IN. She works with tween and teen girls and women in overcoming anxiety through self-compassion and empathic connection. She is located close to Carmel, Fishers, Lawrence and Greenfield.