Assertive Communication – Dealing with a Difficult Person

assertive communicationOften when a friend or a loved one can be disagreeable, as most unreasonable people are, it feels easier to “go along to get along.” Rather than disagree, you choose to say nothing. Rather than stick to your request for change, you give in. The result is (possibly) peace in the home that is temporary but internal conflict that is ongoing. I suggest this 4-step approach to using assertive communication to speak with difficult people.

Step 1 – Be Prepared

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey identifies one of the first steps as Begin with the end in mind. I like to apply this step before every difficult conversation, whether you discuss a serious topic of disagreement with your partner, discipline your child, discuss politics with Uncle Harry, or reprimand and employee. The first question to ask is, “What do I want the results to be?” Hopefully, whatever your answer, your intentions include both parties feeling heard and respected. Hopefully, you want an understanding between each other if not agreement, and maybe a solution that both can live with. With that in mind, think about the message you want to convey.

Step 2 – Be Ready

In writing this article, I was looking for a word to mean “battle ready” and could find only hostile, fighting words. I mean just the opposite. I teach many of my clients relaxation techniques to calm themselves to feel relaxed but alert, to be caring but determined. With your end in mind, practice some deep breathing, visualize the conversation going well, and become well-versed in the Assertive Communication techniques that follow.

Step 3 – Use Assertive Communication to Speak to Your Partner

In relationships where it is difficult to speak up, I find these steps can help. There are volumes written on speaking assertively. These are some abbreviated steps:

  • Use I Statements. Dont say, “You don’t make sense.” Say, “I don’t understand.”
  • Focus on the current issue or situation. If at all possible, avoid bringing up old history.
  • Keep the focus on the actions and behaviors that are the problem, not the person. For example, avoid saying, “You are so inconsiderate.” Instead try, “When you were late and didn’t call, I was worried.”

You can find further information about effective communication here. There are scads of books on the subject on Amazon and this is a favorite.

Step 4 – Listen and Respond with Assertiveness and Kindness

This is perhaps the most challenging part of speaking with a difficult person. Often they pull out all the stops to win the argument. By changing the subject, turning it on you, playing the victim or bullying. They may become physically aggressive.

  • First, make sure you are safe. If you feel threatened, leave. If you think the conversation could escalate to violence, make sure you have an escape plan ready – your car is not blocked, your keys are nearby, even be in a public location.
  • Second, listen to your partner and repeat what you have heard from him or her. Let them know you get their message. Studies show that when people feel heard and understood, they relax.
  • Third, keep the end in mind and keep the real subject in mind. If your partner tries to derail the conversation, keep returning to the real topic: “Yes, I was late to dinner at your mother’s house, and I regret that. I did not like when you called me a dingbat in front of your family.”

There is no guarantee that these steps will change anything about your relationship or change the behavior of your difficult loved one. There is a good chance it will help you feel better as you speak up for yourself. For further information on working with difficult relationships, contact Marietta West Cobb Counseling Center or, if you are outside the metro area, its sister organization Pathways Online Therapy. We have excellent, well-trained therapists who can help you navigate difficult relationships.