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1. Learn to Say No

Assertive communicators stand by their beliefs and feelings, even when they’re challenged. Though compromise is a vital element of healthy relationships, assertive communicators are clear on their reasoning and don’t give in to the pressure to please others.

This can be challenging if your go-to style is passive communication. “I’m fine with anything” feels like the right thing to say — and saying no might seem unpleasant.

To become comfortable saying no, ground yourself in your body during a conflict. Notice your physical response, whether it’s a rapid heartbeat, quick breathing, or sweaty palms, says Femi Akinnagbe, MD, MSc, a Los Angeles–based family-medicine resident and meditation instructor. The more you practice tuning in to your body during nonstressful times — with a meditation and mindfulness practice, for example — the easier it will be to say no when you’re under pressure.

“Being able to use awareness of the body is a huge tool in our process of communication and forming harmony with ourselves and others,” says Akinnagbe. “It’s hard for the mind to place its finger on where the problem is, but the body always knows.”

Akinnagbe begins with his toes, feeling them on the floor and traveling up in a full-body scan. He asks what’s triggering him in the situation and seeks to move from fight-or-flight to a calmer, wiser response.

Once you’re physically comfortable, set a boundary. Use the word: “No.” You can smile, if that helps. Or extend the phrase: “No, that won’t work for me,” “No, I’m afraid I don’t have time,” or simply, “No, thanks.” (For more on learning how to artfully decline, go to “The Freedom of No”.)

2. Say What You Mean

Expressing your desires and opinions clearly, without hedging or apology, is an important part of practicing assertiveness in conversation. Learning to do so will build your confidence — so the more you communicate this way, the easier it becomes. It will also increase people’s trust in you, because you’re creating an environment in which both parties can communicate openly and respectfully.

People who rely on passive-aggressive communication may not realize they’re doing it. This could be you if you feel more comfortable using sarcasm or a backhanded compliment than directly expressing frustration or disappointment. For example, you may say, “I’m glad you finally finished that report, before the client noticed we were past the deadline.”

You need a redirect that’s more assertive. First, identify what you’re really feeling. It’s not gratitude, so don’t say thanks. Are you frustrated that your colleague was late with the work? Are you scared that your team will lose a client? Or are you making assumptions about someone else rather than trying to understand?

Seek compassion before you com­municate. Maybe your colleague is buried in another project or simply lacks time-management skills. “The litmus test as to whether your communication is promoting your well-being and the well-being of people around you is whether you are trying to connect rather than control,” says Zen Buddhist priest Ben Connelly, author of Mindfulness and Intimacy.

Once you identify your own feelings, you can use an “I” statement to communicate them. For example: “I feel anxious when we’re running late on a project because I worry the client will be angry.” That honesty can open the door to the two of you solving the problem together.

3. Listen Actively

Aggressive communicators need to listen more than talk. Practice active listening by paying attention to the other person’s words and restating them to be sure you understand. Rather than pushing your own perspective, get curious about theirs.

“When you’re listening, just listen,” Connelly advises. “Set aside your own internal narrative in order to deeply hear the other person.”

Body language is important, too. Maintaining eye contact demonstrates that you aren’t shying away from conflict, and that you’re focused on the other party and considering their words. Lean toward them and relax your posture.

“Listen with your whole body and to your whole body,” Connelly adds. “It’s about paying attention.”

You may be surprised by how quickly a conflict can dissolve when you listen to someone and accurately repeat what they’re saying. For example, if you’re planning a family vacation that means a lot to you, your aggressive tendency might be to insist, “We should stay together in a larger house so we can save money and share cooking duties.”

When you listen to other family members, you may learn that they need space away from the group to enjoy the vacation. As you hear their concerns, you may discover that you’re open to other options that would allow everyone to retreat when they need a break.

As you learn to be assertive, you’ll find that it’s contagious. Before long, says psychologist Randy Paterson, PhD, author of The Assertiveness Workbook, your family, coworkers, and friends may be more comfortable saying what they mean and respecting other people’s boundaries.

“You can create an atmosphere where assertiveness becomes the norm.”

This was excerpted from “Good Talk” which was published in Experience Life magazine.

Learn More

Enhancing your communication skills is essential for building robust, enduring, and closer relationships with others. You can elevate your ability to connect with others by delving into our vast collection of resources on interpersonal communication.

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