By: Jeremy Nunnelley, LPC, NCC
On the continuum of communication styles, there are passivity, aggression, and assertiveness. While passivity leads to issues not being known and a lack of support, aggression leads to conflict and the degradation of relationships. In both of these cases, the person who is trying to communicate is left feeling misunderstood and alone. Assertiveness is often referred to as the middle ground between these two maladaptive ways of communicating. Through learning to communicate in a way that is clear, responsible, and respectful to others, a person can have the experience of being heard and understood while nurturing close relationships.
The popular culture understanding of assertiveness involves standing up for oneself and refusing to be a “doormat.” In other cases, those who have tended to communicate aggressively learn to communicate more respectfully. There is truth in both of these ways of understanding assertiveness, but there is the potential for assertiveness to be so much more. When we practice communicating our thoughts and emotions in way that is respectful to ourselves and others, assertiveness can become a way of being in the world – a way of valuing ourselves and the people around us – a way of being unafraid to share who we really are. The basic skills can expand into a path to living openly, honestly, and courageously. Shame can be dispelled and anxiety lessened as we feel increasingly understood and relationships strengthen.
At Pacific Quest, we begin teaching assertiveness very early in the therapeutic process as students use “I feel” statements to describe their emotional states at the end of each day. As social interaction increases throughout the program, students meet new challenges in being open and vulnerable, and therapists help students examine the role they may have played in isolating themselves. Students experience the development of confidence and courage while surrounded by peers who are honing the same communication skills. It is common for students to excitedly remark after a group session that they feel heard and understood.
Simultaneously, parents develop their abilities to be assertive as they engage in family calls and communicate with their child through letter writing. Therapists guide parents through examining their roles in their family and expressing their thoughts and emotions assertively to the therapist, each other, and their child. Siblings are also invited into this process when appropriate. When the whole family system has developed these communication skills and an understanding of their value, the individuals in that family may all have the experience of being heard, understood, and supported. The end result is greater self-confidence, closer relationships, and sense both caring and being cared for. While the basics of assertiveness are well-known, the potential for healing is often underestimated.