How to Be Assertive without Being Aggressive

by Alisa on March 29, 2011

In my mind, a happy marriage is often found at the intersection between assertiveness and acceptance. You find a way to accept – and perhaps even love — what will never change. About everything else, you find a way to be assertive without being aggressive.

When you aren’t assertive enough, your spouse doesn’t ever figure out what you want. Therefore, he or she keeps doing that thing that irritates you and keeps not doing that thing that you really want.

When you go overboard and become aggressive, your spouse digs in, shuts down, lashes out, ignores you, or something else equally as irritating.

When you are artfully assertive, however, you have a nice, calm conversation with your spouse. You are heard. Your spouse responds. End of story.

Here are 7 ways to be artfully assertive with your spouse and all of the other human beings in your life.

1. Find some compassion. If possible, I try to meditate before I confront anyone, including my husband. This gives me a chance to remind myself that most people are not annoying on purpose. Usually when people act rudely, they do it because they are deluded and tortured. They don’t do it because they are happy and content. I remind myself that all people basically want the same thing out of life—to be happy. Then I wish happiness onto the person I am about to confront. I mentally hear myself say, “Your happiness matters.” This helps me start off the conversation with compassion. This is important because, I’ve found, my message is a lot more likely to be heard and understood if I deliver it with a warm tone of voice.

2. Eat the blame. It’s my knee jerk reaction to tell people about their faults. It might be yours, too. Yet blaming problems on someone else rarely gets a problem solved. Instead it just creates a bigger problem because the person hearing the blame gets defensive and blames you right back. This is why I eat the blame, even when the other person really is at fault.

Yes blaming someone who is at fault does allow you to feel better and it satisfies your sense of fairness. It rarely, however, gets you to your goal. If you want someone to do something, blaming them for not doing something is going to cause them to give you a good reason why they didn’t do it in the first place.

What does work? Blaming yourself. I know. It’s counter intuitive, and it’s also hard to do – in the beginning. The more you do it, the better you will get at it. Eventually self-blame will feel like a powerful mind trick that you use to get people to do what you want.

For instance, let’s say you want your spouse to do the dishes. You might say, “I’m so sorry I’m this bothered by the dishes in the sink. I wish I wasn’t such a neat freak, and I also wish I had more free time tonight. Would you help me out and wash the dishes while I give the kids a bath?”

3. Own the problem. Just because you have a problem doesn’t mean someone else has the same problem. I must remind myself of this often, especially when I am calling customer service to help me with my accounting software that never seems to work properly. I could yell at the customer service rep in an attempt to make him or her feel just as frustrated as I do about this perpetually broken software feature. But that’s not going to get the software fixed, is it? What will get it fixed is me stating that I have a problem and politely asking for help in solving it.

4. Seek to understand. To solve a problem, it helps to understand it. Rather than tell someone that his or her behavior is unacceptable, I have learned to take a step back and ask questions like, “Why do you think this keeps happening? Why did you do this? What caused this? What led to this?” By understanding what is causing the problem, I’m better able to come up with ways to overcome it.

5. Use the three-sentence rule. People have short attention spans. They also tend to stop listening and become defensive if you go on and on about how put out you are. That’s why I try to stick to the three-sentence rule when I make a request. A three-sentence request sounds like this, “My flight was just cancelled, but I really need to get to my destination because people are counting on me. Would you help me get rebooked? It would really make my day.”

6. Release your attachment to the outcome. Assertiveness moves into aggressiveness when you get married to just one solution. For instance, you might tell your spouse, “That’s it. The house is a mess and you are cleaning the kitchen while I clean the bathroom, and you are doing it right now.” If your main goal is to get the house cleaned, however, you’ll probably accomplish it with less heartache if you state your problem and work with your spouse to come up with a solution that works for both of you. That sounds like this, “The house is a mess and my family is visiting tomorrow. How do you think we should tackle getting this place presentable?”

7. Say thank you. Someone just helped you solve a problem. It was your problem. This person did not have to help you. A “thank you” will go a long way to ensuring that this person helps you again in the future.

A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Eve March 29, 2011 at 1:47 pm

When I first read this, my first reaction to #2 was, but then I will always be in the wrong and they will always be in the right. (Feels like that a lot already.) But then after thinking about it I realized that, if you eat the blame, whether you really are or not, then it gives the other person a chance to say “No, it was my fault” or “I’m partly to blame”. Presuming they are prone to normal amounts of guilt of course.

Just a side note too, not entirely sure if it really ties in but, here it is anyway. Often times when my husband does or says something that offends or pisses me off, if I gently bring it to his attention, I learn that he really wasn’t aware how much it offends me.

Great post Alisa.

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Angela P. March 29, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Eve I totally agree with what you said about your husband offending you. Sometimes husbands do not realize that they are saying something offensive until it is pointed out.

I am totally going to have to work on number 2. I am so type A that I don’t want to admit I am wrong.

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Sarah Liz March 29, 2011 at 3:58 pm

It’s funny how what you find on a marriage blog still applies to rest of your life, even if/when you’re not married anymore.

Thank you for this post today, Alisa, I really need it!

There is such wisdom and insights here, many of which I have not thought of lately, so thanks for the much needed reminder! You’re the best!

Many Blessings,
-Sarah Liz :)

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Ali March 29, 2011 at 4:54 pm

I hope you realize how many people you inspire with your posts.

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Sarah Liz March 29, 2011 at 11:00 pm

Ditto to what Ali said, I agree!

Many Blessings,
-Sarah Liz :)

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Drummer Guy March 30, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Great stuff. The good news is I have never had aggressive traits. The bad news is I REALLY struggle with being assertive..lol It sometimes drives my wife bonkers :-)

I guess I am one of those “laid back” types but probably go to far in that direction sometimes. I have been in sales for many years now & one critisim I get is not being aggressive enough. BUT after time my bosses have all seen that those I do sell send me MANY more referals than the more aggressive salesman & I end up outselling the more aggressive salesmen/women. So what I need to learn is more balance in being assertive. More in my personal life but it will be a struggle. Thanks Alisa this is something I can really put to good use.

You ROCK
Ron :-)

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Kristie March 30, 2011 at 6:40 pm

First, I want to say that I have been reading your site for almost two years and thank you for all your insightful topics. I also purchased your book in January but have yet to read it as I am in school full time, working part time, have two kids and a husband – not much free time right now but I am anxious to read it in a few weeks!

You have written some great posts in the past and I am choosing to comment on this one. About two months ago I hired a handy man to do some repairs around our house (which is one less thing my husband and I argue about now). He was a very nice older gentleman and spent about two weeks working on our house. In the process I got to know him a little better and he told me that he recently read a book on being more assertive – courtesy of his wife.

Your post reminded me of that conversation and that I added “read books on being assertive” to my “to do” list. I am curious if you have any book suggestions on the topic?

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sarah henry March 31, 2011 at 11:03 am

I should post this list somewhere handy. All good advice and sometimes easy to forget in the heat of the moment.

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Kerry April 1, 2011 at 6:49 am

I like that three sentence rule. do you think that idea is as useful in e-mails?

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