Kym Marsden’s monthly mental health column aims to help anyone suffering from any mental health concerns. If this article raises any issues for you please contact the resources at the bottom of this article.
Let’s unpack and explore assertive communication together, as I find that often assertiveness is mistaken for aggression. Why? It’s likely due to the fact that when we are assertive, we are questioning and then articulating how someone’s behaviour, words or perhaps inaction has impacted us which is a source of discomfort to both parties.
But it really comes down to the delivery of our message to the receiver which determines whether our communication style is perceived as ‘assertive’ or ‘aggressive’.
I’d like to use an example I’ve dubbed ‘alleged queue jumper’, which happened last year in line at a service centre. It’s a great scenario to break down as it demonstrates how pear-shaped the situation could have gone had I responded aggressively as opposed to assertively.
I’d been waiting over 20 minutes with an ever-growing line, I answered my phone but whilst doing this noticed a woman who had walked back in and cut into the queue. She’s now in front of me, positioned with her back to me and leans in to converse with a young girl. They giggle but she was blatantly ignoring me.
My emotions began to surge and I was thinking, “Wow the gall of her!” Unbeknown to me at the time, my actions were critical in managing the situation which I’ve broken down into aggressive versus assertive responses below:
Aggressive response — Loudly, I could have audibly announced to the person on the phone so those around me could hear, that “I needed to go as someone had just pushed in front of me”.
Following this, my response would have been agitated and I likely would have enquired in an audible tone along the lines of, “Excuse me, what’s your issue? I’ve been waiting in line too you know, just like everyone else who’s doing the right thing! So, what makes you think you can just jump the queue?”
No doubt my body language would have reflected my irritation, demonstrating eye rolling, disdain in my face, closed body language, tapping my feet & waving my hands around!
The respondent would have likely replied in the same format, whereby the situation will escalate further or remain tense for the duration of waiting in line. No positives come from this, only negative emotions and responses, not to mention the likelihood it puts you in a mood for the rest of your day!
Assertive response — Instead, I chose this route. I excused myself from the phone, followed by enquiring in a low but respectful tone so it wasn’t audible to those around us, asserting, “Excuse Me, I couldn’t help but notice you jumped in ahead of me? I understand your frustrations, I’ve been waiting for 20 minutes too. Is there a reason you leaned in to speak to the person in front of me and not me, as you are jumping ahead of my position? I apologise if there is something I’m missing here.”
To my surprise, she turned around smiling and apologetically said, “Gosh, I’m sorry! You’re right it does look like I jumped in but it’s back to my spot. I took an urgent call outside; sorry this is my daughter who held my spot. You were on call so didn’t want to disrupt you, apologies that you thought I pushed in!” Needless to say, I was incredibly glad I chose responding in an assertive manner as it allowed us to navigate a misunderstanding and both of us laughed about how quickly this situation could have deteriorated had I chosen to respond aggressively.
Definitely a learning for myself to pause, reflect and then act, allowing a shift in my response. Below I’ve provided prompters I use during my pause and reflect period which may be useful:
Consider the other persons feelings — Be careful not to make assumptions when relaying your concerns as it ensures you are factual about what has frustrated you & allows you to remain solution-focused to work through the issue or concern at hand.
E.g. “I look forward to our fortnightly 11am lunch date but it’s now 11.20am. I start to feel anxious when you’re late, as I only have an hour break, would meeting closer help so we have more time together?” Notice the use of “I” statements such as I feel, I felt, I get, I need. This allows us to take accountability for what we are thinking or feeling as opposed to blaming through using “You” statements.
E.g. “You are so inconsiderate, ruining our lunch date! Its 11.20am and you know I have to be back at work at 12pm!”
Be mindful of body language — This includes facial expressions and posture to ensure it matches your communication style. Use a firm but agreeable tone, ensure your body language is open opposed to closed, guarded, or leaning in, and maintain an appropriate level of eye contact (not glaring, rolling eyes or raising eyebrows).
Practice makes perfect, be kind to yourself as you grow and refine because at the end of the day we are all human and are prone to making mistakes! It’s a matter of perspective, as a mistake is just another learning opportunity to refine your technique.
I’d like to leave you with a Sharon Anthony Bower quote which truly reflects the essence of assertiveness: “The basic difference between being assertive and being aggressive is how our words and behaviours affect the rights and wellbeing of others.”
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental ill-health, call or visit the online resources below:
- Lifeline – 13 11 14, lifeline.org.au
- Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636, beyondblue.org.au/forums
- MensLine – 1300 789 978
- Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
- Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
- Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet – healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au
By Kym Marsden
Kym Marsden is a Kamilaroi woman and Accredited Mental Health Social Worker with over 19 years’ experience in Mental Health and Community Services. Her qualifications include BA Health Ageing and Community Services, Masters Social Work, Dip Counselling, Dip Community Services (AOD and Mental Health), and Cert IV Training and Assessment.