In this episode of Knowledge Nuggets from The Center for Men’s Excellence Dr. Dan Singley, licensed psychologist and founder of the Center for Men’s Excellence, discusses how to have assertive communication. A technique that is straightforward, but often difficult to implement, that can help anyone manage conflict more productively.
In this edition of Knowledge Nuggets from the Center for Men’s Excellence, we’ll look at a concrete technique for assertive communication, in particular how to have productive conflict and fight fair even when you’re disagreeing with someone you’re very close to.
I’m Dr. Dan Singley, a licensed psychologist, and mark my words, the info in this edition is very simple, but often very challenging to put into practice. So let’s get going.
Steps in Productive Conflict
So in the way of a quick overview of what we’re going to talk about, the essentials of assertive communication involve:
1) Stop talking.
2) Ask questions of the other person. In particular, ask three questions that are aimed at understanding what their perspective is.
3) Summarize back to the person what it is that they said.
ONLY after the previous steps, can you move on to #4…
4) Follow up by telling the person your perspective. (and your perspective can’t be, “here’s what we need to do.”) In this technique, you need to be able to articulate pretty clearly, “Here’s what about this that is important to me.“
Conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship. It can either be productive or destructive.
In order to communicate as effectively as possible, in particular during a conflict, it’s important to learn how to break old habits of escalating or checking out. Conflict is a necessary part of any relationship. So the key is to make conflict productive by keeping your emotions under control and working to create as much understanding as possible while staying engaged with the person.
Communication Styles (Passive <-> Assertive <-> Aggressive)
Communication styles exist on a continuum with passive on one end, and aggressive on the other. Assertive is right in the middle.
Now, the core of assertive communication is to first work to understand the other person’s point of view.
Assertive does not mean aggressive.
More Detail on the Four Steps
1. Stop talking.
The first step to this assertive communication approach is basically – shut up.
Seriously, to begin with, quit trying to win or get away and instead focus on working to understand the other person’s point of view in great detail from their perspective. Only then should you work to clarify your point to them. Avoid fixing or identifying next steps right off the bat.
Showing that you care enough to understand the other person’s perspective is doing something very important from a psychological perspective. And it’s one of the best ways to tee up your own perspective that the other person is likely to really hear and be able to understand you.
Now, down to the nuts and bolts, let’s say you find yourself disagreeing and feeling upset or uncomfortable with somebody important in your life, a partner, a family member, a child, or a close friend.
The first thing that you want to do is to lead with wanting to understand the other person.
2. Ask at least 3 open-ended questions.
So first three open questions.
Ask the person a series of questions to better understand their position in detail. They need to be open questions that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. And don’t ask sarcastic or leading ones that are contemptuous or suggest what the other person needs to do. Asking a question that starts with “Well, don’t you think that….?” is NOT a question.
It can be very helpful to ask questions about how the current situation relates to other people in the person’s life. Maybe in the past, when’s the first time they felt this way? What do they think the implications are for you or the relationship or the future? You’re trying to get at the person’s meaning, and you don’t need to agree with that. Bottom line is that you need to understand concretely specifically why this issue is so important to the other person. Take nothing for granted – no mind reading, and ask a minimum of three or four questions and hear the answers without minimizing or “Yeah, but…” ing.
Remember that while asking questions and listening, you may hear from the other person, things that you don’t agree with and which make you upset. You just need to hear it and don’t get distracted.
3. Summarize back to the person what you heard them say.
Now, once you’ve asked your three or four questions, now is when you do a restatement or a summary. You need to show and state back as clearly as possible, using the other person’s words, that you’ve heard their response.
So say something like, “Okay, so it sounds like you’re saying …“, doing so not only helps the other person to feel heard, but allows them to correct you as needed. So it’s not so important that you get it perfect right off the bat, it’s important that you can show “I’m listening, and I heard what you said.” And critically important is to remember the fact that by repeating back to the person what you heard, you are not necessarily agreeing with them.
This is one aspect of this tool that is very difficult for people who are used to trying to force our opinions and feel that if the other person is talking more or louder, or first or with data or something….. that “I’m losing.” Only once you’ve restated it back, then made sure you’ve understood clearly – that the other person feels understood.
4. Help the person undertsand you.
So now that you have stopped talking, collected yourself, asked three or four open questions and then restated it back, you have completed the “you-leading-with-wanting-to-understand-the-other” part.
Now, it’s time to follow up to help the other person to understand you. It’s your turn to explain your perspective. Do not argue for or try to persuade the other person of your point of view, just explain how you see things. You want to be understood, even if they don’t agree with you. You’re not trying to get them to agree with you. You’re trying to help them to understand and empathize with you.
So first, tell the other person all of your feelings, emotions – not thoughts or rationales. Then clarify your thoughts on the issue and work to express how this specific issue relates to other experiences you’ve had in the past your values, with other people, experiences as a child, etc.
Now, ideally, the other person is interested in is asking you open questions and making their own restatements. But they might not know to do so because they didn’t listen to this Knowledge Nugget. So it can be helpful to ask that the other person does ask you questions, and restate back to you what they heard you say.
So as I pointed out at the very beginning, this stuff isn’t complicated. It’s pretty straightforward. But it is also often very difficult to do in the heat of the moment.
One of the issues that derails using this assertive communication technique is a compulsive drive to come up with a fix or to resolve the issue. So remember, upfront, it may be too soon to solve it, you might first need to end the opposition, and become each other’s friend instead of foes.
So just be interested in trying to understand the meaning of the other person’s point of view. The goal is to move from gridlock to dialogue and to understand in depth the other person’s position.
You don’t want a relationship in which you always win, and are influential while crushing the other person, or conversely, where you always withdraw and never feel heard. You want a relationship in which you support each other. And by understanding each other more deeply, you’re very likely to find the common ground that didn’t seem evident to begin with.
So to summarize, the steps in this assertive communication tool include:
First, stop talking, so you can calm yourself down and collect your thoughts.
Second, ask the other person, three or four open questions aimed at understanding the other person’s meaning and perspective, not the other person’s goal, or plan.
Then, three, follow up with a summary of what you heard the person say and repeat it back to them.
Only then, fourth, do you follow up with wanting the other person to understand you. You go at the end and you need to be able to talk about what is meaningful to you about this issue. What it relates to in your life. Do not get sidetracked on just going for “here’s the fix and here’s what we have to do.”
Now with that being said, it is often important to get down to a concrete action or next step. Most of the research in this area points to a greater likelihood of coming to a middle ground when both people feel understood and can empathize with each other. That’s why to take these initial steps first before trying to force a fix.
This concludes this installment of knowledge nuggets by the Center for Men’s Excellence. I’m Dr. Dan Singley, and you can access more resources including the rest of our Knowledge Nuggets online at our website, wwwMenExcel.com, or on social media: @menexcel.
*Edited for readability