Hot-air Baloon

Assertive Communication Skills
to Create Understanding and Intimacy

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
Send Feedback/Questions to: Tom.Stevens@csulb.edu
 
 
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Assertive Conflict-Resolution Communication Skills Overview

Tom G Stevens PhD

INDEX

ASSERTIVE CONFLICT RESOLUTION COMMUNICATION

SKILL 1: EXPLORING THE PROBLEM

SKILL 2: ASSERTIVE REQUEST (ERPG)--Diplomatically requesting change

SKILL 3: EMPATHETIC LISTENING

STEPS to SKILL 3: EMPATHETIC LISTENING PROCESS
MORE EXAMPLES of using the EMPATHETIC LISTENING

ADDITIONAL GUIDELINES FOR EMPATHETIC LISTENING COMMUNICATING

SKILL 4: PERSISTENCE IN EXPLORING THE PROBLEM

SKILL 5: ESCALATION AND DE-ESCALATION of CONFLICTS

SKILL 6: DEALING WITH AGGRESSION and MANIPULATION
What if your partner uses negative labels or attacks you?

IT IS OK THAT YOUR PARTNER AND YOU DISAGREE

 

Note:  This article is almost identical to Appendix E: in the book, You Can Choose To Be Happy


MORE DETAILED REFERENCES and HELP

==> For a more thorough description of Assertive Communication Skills, go to www.csulb.edu/~tstevens/assertion_training.htm

==> For a more thorough description of intimacy and relationship skills and issues, go to www.csulb.edu/~tstevens/developing_intimacy.htm

 

SHAQ RELATIONSHIP QUESTIONNAIRE SCALES TO ASSESS UNDERLYING FACTORS RELATED TO RELATIONSHIP SUCCESS

Stevens Relationship Questionnaire (SRQ). My wife, Sherry Bene Stevens M.S., MFT, and I developed a questionnaire and did a research study on the relationship between assertive communication skills and relationship happiness. We found very high correlations (more than 0.70) between our scales of "Assertive conflict resolution skills" and "Intimacy Skills"

I incorporated the SRQ as part of  SHAQ (the Success and Happiness Attributes Questionnaire) and added several other scales that measure factors related to relationship success.  We have a great deal of research evidence now (see Stevens, 2009)  linking these factors to relationship success. 

==> A great place to start understanding your own relationships strengths and needs is to complete SHAQ at www.csulb.edu/~tstevens/success

 


ASSERTIVE CONFLICT-RESOLUTION COMMUNICATION SKILLS

The process of resolving a conflict, disagreement, or mutual problem involves a number of specific interpersonal skills which both partners may be able to improve.

Following are the descriptions of key skills to assertively and intimately communicate and resolve differences to obtain "Win-Win" solutions:

 


SKILL 1: EXPLORING THE PROBLEM ALONE--

Before stating your position, use the following guidelines.

1. RECOGNIZE THAT IT IS A "MUTUAL PROBLEM. Since the issue is upsetting you, it is your problem (no matter what your partner did that you think caused the problem). If you ask or state what you can do to change/help the problem before asking your partner to change, you may induce a cooperative situation which is matched by your partner.

2. CLARIFY WHAT YOU WANT FROM THE INTERACTION BEFORE APPROACHING YOUR PARTNER. Suggested goals include the following:

  • "I win, you win" outcomes.
  • Caring, empathetic communication. Try to "role-play" in your head how you will handle possibly difficult situations before you talk with your partner.
  • What specifically do you want from your partner and your self?
  • >What changes can you make that will help
  • >What changes can your partner make that will help with the problem? Exactly what actions would satisfy you (ideally and minimally)?

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SKILL 2: ASSERTIVE REQUEST (ERPG)--
Stating how I feel and what I want

Click here to see a detailed self-help manual on the Assertive Request

Step 1--State EMPATHETIC understanding of partner's position. What are your partner's feelings and thoughts related to this issue? Possibly start by asking your partner to explain his/her feelings and thoughts about the issue. In any case state your most empathetic understanding of their thoughts and especially their feelings on the issue at hand.

Step 2--Explicitly state RESPECT and caring of partner and partner's feelings and acknowledge positive aspects of partner's position. Explicitly state positives about partner first. Express caring, "I care about your feelings." Express respect or appreciation for their past efforts--whatever they may have been. Express genuine respect for aspects of their position, feelings, and/or previous actions or attempts..

Step 3--State the PROBLEM:

  • Be specific
  • State exactly how their behavior affects you, your thoughts, and your feelings.
  • Use neutral, descriptive words--not labels of self or partner--avoid all 'zingers' and attacks!
  • Own the problem, state it as your problem. After all, you are the one who is upset about it right now and want a change. Use "I feel...," "I think...," "I want..." statements to take responsibility for your own feelings and thoughts.

Step 4-State the GOAL--what (ideal/minimal) actions do you want from your partner. How is that different from what your partner has been doing.

  • Give as much freedom and choice to your partner in how or what they do to help as possible.
  • Ask them for help and/or suggestions of how they can help and try to choose options that they are motivated to actually do--even if it means significant compromises.

Step 5-Follow up with listening, persistence, and other assertive skills.

==For more help, see the more detailed guide, How to Make an Assertive Request at www.csulb.edu/~tstevens/assert%20req.html

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SKILL 3: EMPATHETIC RESPONDING and ENCOURAGING EXPLORATION of the PROBLEM

This set of skills is appropriate for all listening situations. These include your partner's response to your statement of the problem, situations where your partner is upset with you or "criticizing" you, or situations where your partner is coming to you for help with a problem. These skills will be discussed below.

EMPATHETIC RESPONDING PROCESS--Maximizing In-depth Exploration

  • The empathetic responding process is a very general method for responding to your partner's statements and feelings.
  • You can even use empathy statements to respond to "nonverbal," "body language" statements or to actions that you interpret as having a "message" for me.
  • The empathetic response is also an assertive response to criticism.
  • It is a way to help someone explore a problem that may not even directly involve you. It is a process that almost every well-trained counselor learns and must utilize in almost every session in order to get clients to successfully explore their problems.
  • Before any long-term or complex disagreements can be resolved at "deeper levels," then it often takes both partners working to encourage the other to fully explore their feelings and related thoughts, assumptions, and underlying beliefs to get a basic understanding of the problem.
  • If this exploration process is stopped prematurely, then the underlying issues may never get explored and resolved. Premature agreeing, disagreeing, offering solutions, or presenting another point-of-view can abruptly stop this necessary exploration.

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STEPS to SKILL 3: EMPATHETIC LISTENING PROCESS

(From Drs. Robert Carkhuff and Robert Cash training models)

Step 1--Identify your partner's emotions. Use your partner's "body language," statements, and your own feelings as ways of identifying your partner's feelings. Following are steps to identifying emotions and making an empathetic labeling of the emotion.

a. Is the emotion positive or negative?

b. What is the general type of emotion? You can use the following simple classification of emotions: Negative emotions: anxiety/confusion, guilt, anger, or depression. Positive emotions: love, joy, relaxed, happy, or excited

c. Intensity of the feeling? (0 to 100) Which of the following is it?Extremely strong, strong, moderate, mild, extremely mild

d. Find an appropriate word or phrase to describe the feeling.

  • As a general rule it is better to choose a feeling expression that is too mild rather than too strong. Example: moderate anger = NOT, "you're really angry" INSTEAD "you're feeling resentful..." Mild anger = "You're feeling a little annoyed with..."
  • If conflicting feelings have been expressed, state both: Example: "On the one hand you feel (feeling) because (content), on the other hand you feel..."
  • If you are confused about what your partner said, interrupt them and tell them you are am confused. State an empathetic summary of your best understanding and ask them to clarify. "I'm a little confused, are you saying that you feel .... about ...."
  • If they are talking "nonstop," frequently break in to state your empathetic summary. Say something like, "Let me see if I'm following you so far..."

Step 2--Mentally summarize content (your partner's main points)

State your summary in words they would use or agree with. If you state your summary in words that come from your frame of reference (or position) instead of your partner's frame of reference, then your partner may not accept that you understand their point of view. Consequently, your partner may begin to argue or stop constructive exploration of the problem. You must normally get their approval that you understand their position.

Example: NOT: "You're saying that you were really selfish about how you spent our money." INSTEAD: "You're saying that you spent the money on purchases that you thought were important."

Step 3-State your empathetic response to your partner

Formula: "You feel (feeling), because (summary of content/causes)."

Example: "You feel hurt because you think I was inconsiderate."

Step 4--Use their feedback to correct your response if necessary.

Positive feedback-your partner keeps exploring the problem: If your partner says that you understood and/or continues to explore the problem in a constructive manner, then you can be assured that your empathetic response was "on target." Your partner believes that you understand her/his feelings and content so far.

Negative feedback-your partner STOPS exploring the problem: If your partner corrects you, but continues, that is OK too. However, if your partner argues with you about your interpretation of their position or stops exploring the problem constructively, then it is crucial that you assume that you did not state your partner's point-of-view adequately. Your partner is always right about what his/her feelings and thoughts are. If you believe your partner is being dishonest, you can still say, "I hear you saying that you feel..." (If you think your partner is not being open or truthful, tell them what you think later when it is your turn to state your position.)

MORE EXAMPLES of using the EMPATHETIC LISTENING TECHNIQUE

Examples: Feeling words are in bold, the content summary is underlined.

  • "You seem very upset with me about my being late."
  • "Are you saying that you are often confused because you didn't think that I told you clearly what I want."
  • "On the one hand you feel very sad about her leaving, but on the other you also feel very relieved."
  • "You seem to be saying that you feel guilty about what you just said to me."

Step 5--Continue making empathetic responses throughout the entire discussion--especially if someone gets upset, confused or needs time to think.

Even more useful is the general rule that if you don't know what else to say, make an empathetic response to your partner. I do this if I feel hurt, angry, or confused as a way to "buy time" to deal with my own feelings before saying something that will upset my partner more.

Return to INDEX

 


MORE EXAMPLES of using the EMPATHETIC LISTENING TECHNIQUE

Examples: Feeling words are in bold, the content summary is underlined.

* "You seem very upset with me about my being late."

* "Are you saying that you are often confused because you didn't think that I told you clearly what I want."

* "On the one hand you feel very sad about her leaving, but on the other you also feel very relieved."

* "You seem to be saying that you feel guilty about what you just said to me."
Return to INDEX

 


ADDITIONAL GUIDELINES FOR EMPATHETIC LISTENING and RESPONDING TO CRITICISM


Tell your partner that you care about her/him and her/his feelings
. Tell your partner even in the midst of the most heated part of a disagreement. Even though I might feel hurt or angry, inside I know that I still care about my partner and her feelings. Telling my partner that I care helps us both de-escalate the emotions, become more cooperative, and focus more on the central issues.

Encourage your partner to be specific. Do not assume you understand what your partner means--especially about key points. Try to get your partner to be especially clear about what she/he wants from you.

Example: "I want you to be happier about this. I care about how you feel. Please give me some examples of how you would like to say (or do) this. I don't understand exactly what you mean."

Identifying central underlying issues. How do we tell if we are exploring the real underlying issues that are causing most of the problems? That is not an easy question to answer. Here are some questions to ask yourself.

  • Is it a more general issue that seems related to a number of more specific situations or issues?
  • Does something similar come up repeatedly or has it been consciously hidden repeatedly?
  • Does the issue seem connected to strong feelings of either you or your partner?
  • Is it an issue that one or both of us tend to avoid talking or thinking about?
  • When you two think or talk about it, do you get very confused and not seem to know how to deal well with the issue?

If the issue meets any of these criteria, it is probably an important underlying issue. If it meets many of them, then it is most certainly very important, and your relationship will probably suffer and have continued conflicts the issue until significant resolution occurs.

Return to INDEX

ADDITIONAL WAYS OF FINDING UNDERLYING ISSUES:

  • Ask your partner to describe other similar times or situations that might be related to how he/she is feeling.
  • Ask yourself what these similar problem situations have in common, begin to identify the underlying general issues/problems alone before the discussion.
  • Ask your partner (and yourself) when the feeling/problem started and/or when it gets worse and better. By looking at what conditions are associated with the timing of the increase and decrease in the feelings/problem, then you can begin to understand causal relationships underlying the feelings and problem.
  • Help each person take responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings, choices, and actions. Remember that no one "Makes me fee ... ." Say to yourself, "I am responsible for my own feelings and happiness--not my partner." That we are each responsible for controlling our own feelings is a central theme of this series. We can give gifts such as love, assistance, and attention to our partners, but we cannot control how they think or feel. How we believe and think about what happens to us control how we feel.
  • Internalize the issue and help your partner internalize the issue. If you or your partner is "externalizing the problem" by blaming the other, other people, or external circumstances for the problem, then it will be helpful to gradually move in the direction of each "internalizing" the problem. You can avoid directly disagreeing with your partner's "externalizations" by using the empathic summarization principles above. This technique will avoid arguments. However, eventually try to help your partner focus on two issues: (1) what does she/he want from you and (2) what can your partner do (or change) to help with the solution given the circumstances? It is better to let your partner suggest constructive actions from both you and from her/his self. If you want to make a suggestion, ask your partner if he/she wants your suggestions or point-of-view before giving them.
  • Encourage each to stay on one main issue at a time. Nevertheless, sometimes the issue being discussed is not one of the underlying issues and discussing it may even be avoiding the central underlying issues. Example: "It sounds as if what is bothering you the most is ... Would you like to talk more about that."
  • Suspend agreement or disagreement with your partner's position as long as possible. This is essential so that you will not let your premature opinions and feelings block your own open listening. Otherwise, you may say something that will stop continued exploration of your partner's position (and close the door to progress).
  • Avoid giving advice that is premature or not explicitly asked for. If your partner wants your "help" in solving a problem, do not assume that they want you to give him/her a "solution" or an "answer." Your partner may just want to you listen empathetically and show confidence in their ability to deal with the problem. If in doubt as about whether your partner wants your opinion or advice now, ASK.

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SKILL 4: PERSISTENCE 

IN EXPLORING THE PROBLEM TO RESOLVE IT OR GET IT UNDER CONTROL

Try saying this to yourself: "I care about my partner and myself and recognize that this problem and resultant hard feelings will be a thorn in our flesh until we get it under control. I will persist in working on the problem as long as I believe it is productive. I will also recognize and respect my own and my partner's limits about how long to discuss the issue at any one time (or about how often we discuss it)." Then do it!

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SKILL 5: ESCALATION AND DE-ESCALATION OF CONFLICTS--
the goal is de-escalation

"Escalation" means "raising the stakes" which may also increase the emotional intensity for both partners. Raising the stakes may occur when one partner makes accusations or threats toward their partner or tries to "manipulate" the other. "De-escalation" is when the partners begin to get more emotional control and deal more constructively with the issues again. Almost all of the techniques discussed in this session will generally help "de-escalate" the level of the conflict.  Moving from "I win"--"You lose" positions to "win-win" positions can be of fundamental importance for de-escalating.  So can avoiding use of negative labels, blaming, exaggerating, attacking, bringing up past or irrelevant mistakes, etc.  Agreeing to change yourself, making empathetic, kind, loving, and cooperative statements to your partner can be powerful de-escalators.  The following section has additional suggestions. 

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SKILL 6: DEALING WITH AGGRESSION and MANIPULATION

IF YOUR PARTNER BEGINS USING NEGATIVE LABELS, ATTACKING YOU, MANIPULATING YOU OR USING AGGRESSION, YOU CAN:

! Suspend judgment and try to get into a neutral observer mode�not a defensive or attack mode. Suspend judgment for your own benefit. Say to yourself, "I want a successful solution for my own happiness. So "attacking back" will just cause unproductive escalation and fighting. It will undermine my taking good care of myself." Instead of getting defensive or attacking back, try the following:

! Keep using the empathetic responding principles. "I can see that you are very angry with me about ... I am sorry to see that you are so unhappy about this situation. Please continue to tell me more about why you are so angry..."

! Get your partner to be more specific and elaborate his/her criticism more. Getting your partner to criticize you more may be the opposite of what you normally do, but it can work wonders. Ask your partner questions like the following: NOT: "I don�t do that, you must be nuts." INSTEAD: "I really care about how you feel, but I don�t understand exactly what you mean. Can you give me some examples?" OR "Are there other situations where you think that I am being inconsiderate?" OR "If you don�t like X, what would you prefer I do instead?"

(These questions get your partner thinking more responsibly and fairly. He/she may even change his/her opinion when looking at the situation in more depth.)

!Use the "time out" technique�Tell your partner you need a few minutes alone and leave the situation until you can gather your composure and focus. 5 minutes, 1 hour, or even longer until both people calm down.

! Warn your partner that you will take a time out if they do not calm down or quit using negative labels about you. Example: Say, "Please do not talk so loud and use negative labels to describe me. I will be much more willing to continue to listen if you will just describe exactly what I did and how you feel about it instead."

! Use the "broken record" technique�Keep very briefly repeating your position over and over until they understand or tire. You will sound like a broken record. Use this technique carefully, because it can be aggressive if not appropriate.

! Use negotiating with "incentives and/or consequences" or "contracting" with or without consequences" techniques. In this case I could offer positive or negative consequences that I would do if the person keeps manipulating me.

! Leave the relationship or reduce its level of intimacy--only if I am sure that this is what I want more permanently. I will never use this as a threat.

!Physical attacks are handled in an analogous way. Protect yourself and get away from your partner--creating as much space or distance from your partner as you need to feel that your safety is secure. Recognize that there is nothing that you can do which can justify a physical attack from your partner (except perhaps that the initiator of the physical attack was your partner).    ==>For more help go to the manual, Overcome Anger and Aggression

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OTHER GUIDELINES FOR ASSERTIVE, INTIMATE 
RESOLUTION OF CONFLICTS

Avoid assuming that you understand what your partner feels, thinks, or wants. Instead, ask.. If you assume that you know what your partner means and do not ask, your partner may think you are trying to change how they feel. Your partner may feel "controlled," "manipulated," "dominated," "insensitive," and assume that I do not care enough to ask Have you been accused of this and wondered why? Assuming you know what they want or what is best for them could be a major reason.

To the extent that your partner's underlying motives are unclear, assume the best. Assume that her/his underlying motives are that (1) your partner loves her/his self and (2) your partner loves (cares for) you. If you assume your partner does not really care about you, then (1) it will make them feel hurt, not understood, and angry and (2) it can greatly increase your own unhappiness and make it much more difficult for you to be constructive in how you deal with the conflict. Recognize that ultimately your partner can never "prove" to you what is inside of her/him.

When I have doubts about your partner's caring, you can make a choice of what you will believe and which assumption you will act under. One way that you can help keep the emotional tone of the discussion positive is to keep looking inside yourself to focus upon your feelings of love and caring for your partner. You can also focus upon situations where you felt sure your partner cared about you (to get more in touch with the knowledge that your partner truly does care). [The above statement is not the same as saying that you will "trust" a partner who has repeatedly violated your trust.]

Avoid negative or unsupportive tactics or approaches to your partner. Many persons (especially men) tend to play a "devils' advocate" type of role to "help" their partners clarify their position. They may think that arguments help clarify issues. However, most of their partners--especially many women--feel unsupported and attacked when their partners use these conflictual methods designed to get better "logical clarification." The issue is not so much "logic" as exploring feelings and related issues. Good exploration of emotions is not a strictly logical process--nor should it be!

Use neutral, descriptive statements--no negative labels. Recognize that putting yourself or your partner down by using negative labels only causes you and/or your partner to feel more negative and tends to lead to tangents and unproductive "fighting" over terminology. INSTEAD: Use more neutral and descriptive words. For example instead of calling your partner "selfish," say something like, "There are several times when I felt hurt and angry that I would like to discuss with you. . ." Then just describe what they did and your resultant feelings. You don't need to use any labels.

Avoid exaggerated statements, evaluative statements, and other "zingers" toward your partner. Avoid extreme statements. Expressions like "always," "never," and "every time" will usually just lead to irrelevant discussions related to use of those words. Avoid dogmatic or authoritarian statements. Dogmatic or authoritarian statements are those you may feel very sure or confident about and state it with extreme confidence leaving little room for doubt. These statements can be "red flags." Your partner may get angry and get a permanent impression that you are "arrogant," "egotistical," a "know it all," and are very controlling.

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IT IS OK THAT YOU AND YOUR PARTNER PERMANENTLY DISAGREE--
EVEN ABOUT IMPORTANT ISSUES

When my partner and I cannot reach agreement, our "resolution" of the conflict may be to agree to disagree, to understand and respect each other's position, and to avoid unnecessary discussion or "zinging" each other.

Separating consequences in areas of disagreement may help. For example if two people don't agree how to spend money, then separating their budgets as much as is practical can help reduce conflict and resentment.

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The BOOK (free download): Go to Contents of Dr. Stevens'  book,  You Can Choose To Be Happy: "Rise Above" Anxiety, Anger, and Depression.

SELF-HELP INFORMATION: 
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ORDERING the BOOK:
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California State University, Long Beach Counseling and Psychological Services.
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