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How To Be Heard Without Being Harsh

Healthy communication is the key to long-lasting relationships. It can be bliss to have warm feelings toward our children, our friends, and our spouses, but what happens when a problem arises that necessitates communicating about difficult things? Some individuals may brush their feelings aside in the hopes of avoiding “stirring the pot,” while others may become so overwhelmed with frustration, anger, or sadness that they lose control and have an emotional outburst. The truth is that neither of these approaches are effective in addressing or solving concerns in relationships.In my new book, I offer my personal and professional insight on these ideas, with my main message being that developing and practicing assertiveness is how women can bridge that gap between being soft or too harsh. We can respect ourselves enough to make our differences known to those we care about it in a way that is strong and firm while also being kind and compassionate.

What Keeps Us from Asserting Ourselves (in families, jobs, etc.)?

The main barrier that women face in practicing assertiveness is a fear of disconnection in their relationships. Whether it’s with our families, in our careers, or in a variety of other settings, we’ve been socialized to sacrifice our own needs to keep the peace, to avoid confrontation, or to stay away from topics that may be awkward or uncomfortable. The grand irony, though, is that being assertiveness truly is the only way to get your needs met as well as to maintain (and even strengthen) your connections with others!

When Practicing Assertiveness, Start Soft! 

Sometimes even when we want to be assertive and make ourselves known, we struggle to know how to approach the situation in a tactful manner. How can you express your negative or difficult emotion in a way that doesn’t “sugarcoat” how upset you are, but also not intimidate the other person? How can you make your differences known in a way that doesn’t alienate someone else?

Drs. Julie and John Gottman are considered the foremost researchers on marital relationships, and in their writings, they advocate for a principle that I think applies well here: when approaching a conversation that has the potential for conflict or criticism, use the softened startup technique. This is much what it sounds like- start a difficult conversation gradually, without blame or interrogation, and softly begin to approach the topic. This does not mean that you’re “beating around the bush;” it just means that you’re being wise in how you address a concern in a way that doesn’t put the other person on the defensive. Although it may make us nervous to hear someone close to us say, “hey, there’s something I’d like to talk to you about when you have a minute,” we can all agree that this kind of soft start statement is much better than getting yelled at about something we did or said wrong (read more about the Gottman’s research here). The softened startup is a great technique to practice assertiveness and better guarantee that you’ll be heard.

Assertiveness Helps Our Relationships

Assertiveness is obviously something I feel passionate about, but that doesn’t mean it comes easily for me. On the contrary, I’m still learning to how to apply it in my own life! And even though it can be difficult to walk toward the emotional discomfort, time and time again, it has blessed my life and my relationships. Here’s one example:

Last year, my father said something to me that really bothered me. It was an off-handed comment, a joke of sorts, and it had something to do with how I did certain things to justify my life choices. I knew he didn’t mean any harm, and I know that my dad is a good man who cares about me and is proud of me, but still it continued to nag at me. Differences in gendered expectations have been an integral theme of not only my career but also my personal life, and so the comment really hit a pain point for me.

Not everything in life that bothers us is worth addressing, but since my father’s words wouldn’t leave my mind for several days, and since they were from someone I love and care about, I realized that this was a chance for me to practice what I preach and let him know that his comment hurt me. I chose to email him so that I could clearly express myself without worrying about saying too much or getting tongue-tied. I tried my best to do the soft-start approach and said something like, “Hey, it was good to see you the other day, and I wanted to talk to you about something” to begin. I assured him that I knew he didn’t mean to insult me, but his words brought me pain, and that it was really important for him to hear me out on this subject. All in all, things went swimmingly well: my dad apologized, and afterwards I felt closer to him because of this experience. If I had stayed quiet and kept my feelings to myself, I imagine I would have felt a continued rift with my father, but if I had blown up and gotten angry, things probably would have gotten worse. By calmly expressing my feelings to my dad, we were able to grow in our love and respect for each other.

This post was adapted from an interview I did for the Love Rice podcast. Click on the link to listen to the whole thing, or click here to learn more about my book, “The Assertiveness Guide For Women: How to Communicate Your Needs, Set Healthy Boundaries, and Transform Your Relationships.” 

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About Dr. Julie Hanks, LCSW:
Dynamic self & relationship expert Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW loves to make a difference for women. She owns Wasatch Family Therapy and regularly contributes to KSL TV's Studio 5, and her advice has been featured nationally including Wall Street Journal, Parenting, Fox News, and others. Connect on Facebook & Twitter. Her book The Burnout Cure is available now and The Assertiveness Guide is available now.

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