How to Get What You Want Without Being Mean

Everyone has valid needs and desires, but for some, sharing these can be difficult. Last week I wrote about people pleasers and how they will put their own needs, feelings and desires on the back burner to avoid displeasing others. Often we do not ask for what we want or need because we don’t want to be pushy or bossy. Or we think its mean or wrong to even ask. I have clients in my office, brimming with anxiety because they know someone is going to ask them to do something they don’t want to do. They have a list of reason why the CAN’T say no: that’s not being a good friend, its mean, then the person won’t like them, and so on. These people don’t say no, they say, “Let me check my schedule” or “I’d love to” but then drag their feet when it comes to actually doing it.

This is called passive communication. It is incredibly ineffective. Perhaps the biggest problem with passive communication is that while you seem laid back and easy going on the outside, you start to build resentments and anger on the inside. Often when people are passive for awhile they eventually explode in anger, the exact thing they were trying to avoid! When people explode and use aggressive communication they may get people off their back but they also damage their relationships. The people on the receiving end of their aggression are shocked and confused, wondering, “What the hell just happened?!” If you don’t communicate your needs and feelings, there is no way for the people around you to know you’re frustrated. So this burst of aggression comes out of nowhere, from their perspective, and makes it difficult to be comfortable around you.

Have I convinced you that passive communication is not our friend yet?

If we are passive and we manage to not lash out in anger, we go to passive-aggressiveness which, I think, is even worse. Have you ever gotten a vibe from someone that something was wrong but you didn’t know what? And then when you ask if everything is okay they say, “Oh I’m fine” but their body language says the opposite? How does that make you feel? Incredibly uncomfortable and unsure of how to respond? Yes, me too!

Passive-aggressiveness is a BIG bummer because you still don’t get what you want AND other people feel weird around you now! When we are passive aggressive, we hope that the other person will somehow read our minds and figure out what is upsetting us. First off, this is unfair to expect of anyone and second, the person on the receiving end of your passive aggressiveness is going to be more inclined to avoid you than come closer to understand what’s bothering you. Passive aggressiveness is a danger zone, you know there are land mines close by but you don’t know exactly where.

Sometimes we are passive aggressive because we are so angry that we can’t hide it. But since we don’t know how to appropriately express that anger or think our anger is wrong, we continue to try and stuff it down. Anger does not comply very well and  it leaks out in the form of passive aggression.

On the other hand we don’t want to swing to the opposite end of the spectrum and be jerks. If you have ever worked in customer service, like me, you have probably experienced being the punching bag for a disgruntled customer. We’ve all seen grown adults throw a fit or treat the person helping them poorly to get what they want. We DO NOT want to be these people. Thankfully, we have other options besides passivity and aggressiveness.

Below is a (very fancy) diagram I use with my clients to explain why passive, aggressive and passive aggressive communication styles are ineffective:


You’ll see that the only communication style that takes both parties’ feelings into account is assertive communication. Sure you might get what you want by being aggressive but you will also alienate people and end up being pretty lonely. Being passive means you don’t have to deal with conflict, that is, until you reach the end of your rope and are so frustrated you don’t want to be around people anymore or you blow up on them. To speak up for yourself well, you need to realize that your needs and the needs of everyone else hold equal weight. You are allowed to ask for things to the same degree as everyone else. In the same way you are allowed to say yes or no just like everyone else.

Speaking up for what you want or need is not pushy or mean. In the end it allows you and your relationships to flourish. When you speak up for yourself, everyone wins! While assertive communication is a wonderful thing, it can feel aggressive if you are used to being passive. This is where some support and coaching from a therapist can come in handy. As you consider making an appointment to grow in standing up for what you need, here are 4 steps for using assertive communication to get what you want:

Step 1) Be Aware of Your Feelings

Before we unload our feelings on others, we need to understand our feelings. If you feel angry, that’s okay, but you want to understand what is causing the anger first and if you are directing it at the right target. Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and existential psychologist once wrote,

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

If something upsets us we may jump to conclusions and respond in ways we regret later, either being passive-aggressive or aggressive. Assertiveness requires that we take a step back and consider the bigger picture. We often assume that because we are upset, someone has done something wrong. But as I said in my previous blog post, everyone is responsible for his or her own feelings. Your feelings are valid but they are not always fully based on reality. We can assume things about a person or situation that increases our frustration or hurt. So if you can step back and think through the facts, first you will probably calm down a bit and second you will be much more able to address the issue assertively without attacking or tearing someone down.

And example in my life is when I was on a trip with a group of friends for one of their birthdays. I was exhausted and went to bed at midnight while many of them stayed up talking in the hot tub. When I went to my room, I could still hear them easily. As the night went on their music and voices got louder. I didn’t want to be the party pooper so I just hoped they would go to sleep soon. After 3 hours of trying to sleep I finally went downstairs to ask them to be quieter. Before that I felt pretty pissed. I had thoughts like, “They are so inconsiderate!” But I stopped myself and considered that maybe they had no idea how loud they were being, that I could hear them and that I had been awake this whole time. When I thought about this, I was still frustrated by the situation but I did not feel mad at them. The second I went outside a friend said, “Are we being too loud?” and they were very apologetic. I realized it wasn’t their fault because they can’t read my mind. Had I gone out and been assertive hours before, I could have gotten to sleep earlier but I chose not to. I was passive instead. Being aware of my feelings and understanding them before asserting myself kept me from wrongfully taking my anger out on my friends.   

Step 2) Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes (this is called empathy)

As in my example above, it can really help to think about a situation from someone else’s perspective. You may not agree with them but you will have more compassion and understanding which can protect you from getting into unhelpful arguments or being harsh towards them.

Another way to think about this is believing the best about others. Rather than assuming they are deliberately trying to make your life more difficult, assume they are unaware of how they are affecting you. If a family member keeps showing up to your house unannounced, for example, rather than assume she is just rude and overbearing maybe consider that you have never discussed your guidelines for visitors with her. Since you put on a happy face every time she comes, how is she to know that her showing up without warning really stresses you out? When I worked in residential treatment and a new resident broke a rule in front of me I would say something like, “Just so you know, we don’t _______ here. But there was no way for you to know that yet since no one told you, so now you know for the future!” I was still being clear and assertive but gave them the benefit of the doubt and treated them with kindness.

Step 3) Stick to the facts (not your interpretation of them)

When discussing an event or situation, it is important to stick to the facts of what happened rather than interpreting them. Facts are what you can state in court. The facts are what every eye witness could agree on. We so quickly go to interpretation, we may not even realize we are doing it. Facts stand alone, interpretation gives value judgments (ie: this is good or bad). Sticking to the facts protects you from getting into a blame game and makes you easier to hear because the person hearing does not need to get defensive.  

An interpretation would be, “You were so inconsiderate at the party last night. You abandoned me for 30 minutes!” The facts, instead, might be, “Last night at the party, you left to get me a drink and then I couldn’t find you for 30 minutes. I didn’t know anyone there so I felt really awkward and uncomfortable.” Pay attention to your own emotional and visceral reactions as you read those two different statements. The first is almost guaranteed to get you reaching for your armor to prepare for battle. The latter produces empathy and helps us see things from this person’s perspective. The latter also is not pointing any fingers, just stating what happened and how it made them feel.  

Step 4) Share how YOU FEEL (not what you think)

People often confuse thoughts with feelings. An example is “I feel like you don’t care about me.” If you look on a feeling chart, “you don’t care about me” is not on there. “You don’t care about me” is not a feeling, it is a belief. So a more accurate statement is, “I think you don’t care about me and that makes me feel sad and hurt.”

When we communicate assertively we need to communicate our feelings, thoughts and needs. Keeping them in the right categories will make communication much more clear. As you think through how you feel, ask yourself is this an emotion or a belief. One tell tale sign its a belief is if its a longer statement. Feelings are usually one word like happy, sad, disappointed. Often what we feel is based on what we believe and our beliefs can be distorted. When we say “I feel..” before stating a belief we make it difficult for ourselves or anyone else to challenge our inaccurate thoughts. You can’t argue with someone’s feelings but you can with their thoughts. When you truly share your feelings, it gives the listener a chance to feel empathy for you. If most people knew something they did felt hurtful to you, they would be sad about it and be apologetic. Not everyone, but most people. And when you share your experience and feelings and get validated, you feel closer to that person. You also are more likely to keep sharing and speaking up in the future. You will also feel more peace because the negative thoughts and feelings aren’t just swirling inside of you, continuing to grow and take over your mind.  

Now What?

If you start putting these steps into practice, I am very confident that you will notice a change in how you feel, think and communicate. You will most likely feel more peace and self-esteem as you speak up for what you want and need.  You’ll be taking control of your life and nurturing your relationships by communicating kindly and honestly. When people speak up for themselves like this, they notice a significant decrease in their anger, resentment and stress levels.

If you sense you would benefit from taking these steps but feel intimidated, you do not have to try it alone! I am here to support and cheer you on as you make challenging yet life-giving changes in how you communicate. Call or fill out the contact form below to learn further about how to get more of what you want and need in a loving way.

Categories communication, emotion, relationships, Therapy, UncategorizedTags , , ,

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