Nowadays, good communication is an essential skill. First of all, it is transversal and touches absolutely all areas of our lives. But above all, the contemporary means of communication mean that we tend to be in constant contact with others (via social networks in particular). Consequently, our ability to exchange and express our emotions and ideas in a way that is healthy for ourselves and for others is crucial to our well-being. This is what assertive communication is all about.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- What is assertive communication?
- Anticipation of conflict at the centre of communication
- Dialogue objective!
- How to communicate assertively?
- How to work on assertive communication?
- Virtual reality and assertive communication
1.What is assertive communication?
Assertive communication is a social skill that is expressed in conversation with one or more other people and aims to give voice to one’s emotions, thoughts and ideas in an authentic and direct manner while respecting and taking into account those of others. This last point is central because assertive communication involves fully verbalizing one’s needs and opinions but never at the expense of those of others. It is a point of balance to be found which constitutes the basis of any healthy relationship and must allow each of the interlocutors to feel listened to, treated in a respectable and equitable manner, under no circumstances attacked and, if this should ever be the case (often due to misunderstandings which can arise even when using assertive communication), in a position to express any uneasiness as well as to be able to express one’s refusal in relation to a request.
Assertive communication is part of the broader perspective of assertiveness, which is a behavioural mode of relating to others, that is, a set of behaviours (including assertive communication) whose goal is to develop healthy, balanced and fulfilling relationships with the people we interact with. Assertiveness is best represented by the image of the relationship scale. Assertiveness is characterised by the establishment of a relationship in which we and the other person are given equal consideration, in which the needs of each person are taken into account and placed on the same level, treated with equal importance. In other words, the other person carries the same weight in the relationship as we do without either of us feeling aggrieved or neglected.
Beware, however, that contrary to some received ideas, assertiveness and assertive communication are neither innate nor spontaneous. It is not a personality type or an intrinsic quality that one may or may not have. It is an individual choice, a particular approach to interpersonal relations which gives rise to the development of specific social skills and which still have to be implemented in the final interaction situations. We are not talking about an “assertive person” but about “assertive behaviours” which are learned and may or may not be mobilised in the different interaction situations. The same person may well communicate assertively in one setting and not in others.
The individual’s will therefore remains central. The latter depends, on the one hand, on the personality, aptitudes and representations of human relationships which tend to favour one type of communication over another. It is also necessary to take into account the emotional state in which the individual finds himself before, during and even after the interaction. Indeed, emotions are at the heart of the communication process. The presence of the other person is the source of various positive and negative emotions and this is why it can sometimes be difficult to communicate calmly.
2. Anticipation of conflict at the centre of communication
Making a request, giving an opinion, mentioning a situation you don’t like in order to change things, expressing refusal or opposition to a decision, receiving compliments as well as giving them are examples of everyday interactions that can nevertheless be quite unpleasant. The reason for this phenomenon? It comes from the anticipation of a conflict or at least the contradiction of the opinion expressed and the associated emotional reactions. Communicating means having one or more other people in front of you who can then act as real obstacles to getting what you want. Conversely, one may perceive oneself as the obstacle to the desires of others. To a certain extent, to communicate is to expose oneself and the other to frustration, misunderstanding, violence, etc. In short, communication situations can be perceived as a form of arena or confrontation.
The anticipation of this conflict and the negative outcomes that tend to be pictured often lead people to adopt dysfunctional communication attitudes.
It is a mode of communication that is characterised by great passivity in human relationships. It is the incapacity, in an interaction, to express one’s emotions and give one’s opinion from the moment there is a possibility, even a tiny one, of entering into contradiction with the interlocutor. In this case, the individual prefers to censor himself for fear of conflict and the disastrous consequences, often disproportionate, that he imagines. It is therefore a real excess of anxiety which prevents finding the right words, alters the tone of voice, the posture as well as everything that we generally associate with non-verbal language. This functioning is dysfunctional in essence because it generates great suffering in the individual. The individual’s needs are not respected, they systematically take second place to those of others and the repetition of this type of situation has a negative impact on self-esteem.
This is the diametrically opposed behaviour to inhibition. While inhibited communication is generally about preventing oneself from expressing oneself, aggressive communication is about imposing what one wants on the other person by force or deception. In this mode of communication, the individual does not care about the consequences for the other person and expresses his or her emotions in a violent or concealed way for the purpose of manipulation. They do not take into account the feelings of others or their needs as long as their own are satisfied. Again, this is dysfunctional because communicating aggressively generates strong resentment in the other person, thus degrading relationships deeply and quickly. While aggressive communication may occasionally achieve its purpose, in the long run it leads to social isolation and thus harms well-being and quality of life.
3. Dialogue objective!
Conflict is often considered and feared for its possible negative relational consequences, but it is a necessary part of almost any long-term social relationship. After all, it only refers to the more or less marked opposition between two points of view, which is a fairly frequent occurrence between two people.
Moreover, although at first sight opinions may seem incompatible or even irreconcilable, the benefits of resolving a conflict far outweigh its possible momentary negative effects. Indeed, it is an opportunity to understand each other better and to improve the dynamics of the relationship for the future. But to achieve this, it is necessary to succeed in setting up an authentic dialogue capable of bringing out solutions that one could not have imagined alone. A real dialogue is not just a succession of interventions that invariably continue in the same direction. On the contrary, it is an exchange that must allow for decentration, i.e. a certain amount of distance from one’s own opinion in order to be able to consider things from another angle – often the interlocutor’s point of view, but not only that – without betraying one’s feelings.
In this process, our initial viewpoint is enriched by the discourse of others – and vice versa – which greatly maximises the chances of a truly satisfactory outcome for both. The effective, sincere and direct expression of what one thinks, wants and feels is the best way to achieve such results.
4. How to communicate assertively?
First of all, assertive communication is a skill that is acquired by practising in real interaction situations. There is no ready-made formula to use systematically. You have to mobilise your empathy to hear and understand the other person’s emotions, and listen to your own feelings so that you can put them into words in a way that respects both the other person and yourself. It is not instinctive but a few central principles can help anyone who wants to improve their communication.
The idea here is not to suppress all spontaneity in what you say, but rather to be aware that depending on the circumstances, a message may be perceived differently. In the same way that you may be more or less willing to hear certain things depending on the time of day and your level of activity, for example, the person you are speaking to may be more or less receptive to what you are trying to say. It is therefore important to take this aspect into account, especially if you are about to make a request that could prove costly in their eyes. In this case, you can ask him/her to tell you what would be the best time for him/her to talk about this important subject.
Describe and explain the problematic situation
Again, you are not asked to make a rigorous analysis of what you are experiencing. However, in order for the person you are talking to to understand you, it is important to proceed in stages, to progress gradually in your story. For example, you can start by talking about the facts, the objective elements, in the most neutral way possible. Above all, you must succeed in distinguishing them from any interpretation or judgement, even if this can be very complex. Then, you can explain what you have understood about his or her position or actions, always making it clear that this is your perspective and not a general truth. The last step is to talk about the consequences of the situation you have a problem with. This is really the time to express your emotions, your difficulties without taking an accusatory stance. On the contrary, it is necessary to bear in mind that you may not be the only one suffering from the situation and that the perception of the person you are talking to may be quite different. Showing empathy, balancing the negative with positive messages, thanking the other person for listening can really facilitate the exchange and increase the chances of a resolution.
Explicitly formulate your need
Finally, to complete the process, your speech must lead to a specific request or proposal. Assertiveness means that you should express your emotions, needs and ideas in an authentic, direct and respectful way. Uncertainties about your position should be clarified by making a clear request, allowing the other person to respond positively or negatively.
5. How to work on assertive communication?
Knowing how to communicate is an essential skill for everyone because of the very important impact that communication can have on the quality of relationships with others, in all areas of life. Good communication has a strong influence, for example, on the closeness we can have with those around us or on our relationships at work and therefore on our professional fulfilment. But not everyone is comfortable with communication, far from it! The widespread misconception that some people are naturally good at communicating and others are not generally leads to the adoption of coping strategies that correspond to more or less severe forms of avoidance. The anxieties associated with interaction situations are then reinforced, which can lead to the eventual development of anxiety disorders such as social phobia or school phobia in younger people, or even mood disorders. More broadly, people suffering from anxiety or addiction disorders often have a lack of self-assertion which contributes to the maintenance of the disorder. For this reason, cognitive behavioural therapies (CBT) are today an extremely well-tried therapeutic method for working effectively on self-assertion.
Emotions and particularly certain anxieties are at the centre of communication. CBT allows us to work on this aspect by focusing on these catastrophic thoughts within the framework of cognitive restructuring, which consists of taking back the individual’s maladjusted thought patterns. On the other hand, the therapist teaches him tools to help him manage his anxiety such as relaxation via breathing exercises or the ACARA system. The aim is to help the individual regain a form of serenity in interaction situations and to stop the emotions from overwhelming him.
Behavioural role play
The other main focus of CBT assertiveness training is exposure. However, this is a special kind of exposure because it is a behavioural role-play. Most often carried out in a group, these are the most realistic scenarios possible, which take up problematic everyday situations because they involve one or more interactions that are harmful to the subject. The aim is therefore, initially, to guide the subject in the application of the principles of assertive communication. Then, the difficulty of the scenarios is gradually increased to ensure the acquisition of communication skills in all situations.
The themes of the workshops can thus be very varied. They mainly concern :
- Make a request (defend yourself; claim something);
- Refusing ;
- Criticizing or expressing negative emotion ;
- Receive criticism (justified, unjustified, vague);
- Managing aggression and anger (one’s own and that of others);
- Managing conflict ;
- Public speaking.
6. Virtual reality and assertive communication
Virtual reality and more specifically VRT (Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy) are a direct descendant of CBT. The same therapeutic work can therefore be carried out with the notable difference that the use of virtual reality allows the patient to be fully immersed in a totally computer-generated environment, which will provoke the same anxious reactions in the individual as in life. Therefore, VRTs are particularly effective in the development of emotion management techniques. They also have the practical advantage of not having to involve other people in the dramatisation. They also facilitate repetition and therefore habituation to the interaction situations, which also contributes to a lasting reduction in the emotional discomfort felt. Nevertheless, interactions in virtual reality are less natural than in behavioural role-playing. The group also offers more possibilities for different interactions. Therefore, combining VRT and behavioural role-playing could be a particularly interesting and relevant modality for therapeutic support.