The former approach entails a readiness to attack, confront, criticize, or cast aspersion, and quickly escalates a conflictual exchange that could be so much more easily resolved. The latter promotes a sense of powerlessness in the relationship, self-pity and self-victimization, sulking, withdrawal, internalized and growing resentment, and does little to move a situation or dynamic in new directions.
Somewhere between the extremes of aggression and avoidance is a powerful and empowering tool: Assertion — a confident statement of one’s own experience or observation, and when relevant, a request for change.
Here are five simple steps for focusing on getting what you want (at best), or (at least) helping your partner understand what you want, without shutting him/her down.
1. Describe the behavior rather than attacking your partner’s personality or characteristics.
Aggressive: It’s very inconsiderate of you to leave the kitchen this way.
Assertive: The sink is piled with a lot of dishes.
2. Be careful how you interpret that behavior (don’t mind-read).
Aggressive: It’s just another example of how much you never think about what is important to me.
Assertive: I’m wondering if because you are so busy, it’s something you don’t notice or pay attention to.
3. Express how your feel about another person’s behavior (without switching to “you” statements):
Aggressive: You make me so mad… that sometimes I don’t even want to come home; even work looks more appealing.
Assertive: It’s frustrating/distressing for me to come home to a messy kitchen at the end of a long work day.
4. Clearly state the consequences of how the behavior in question affects you, so that your partner can better understand your request without moving into defensiveness.
Aggressive: If you expect me to spend a pleasant evening with you, you might want to think about getting off your butt instead of lazying around… Maybe you can start thinking about me and my feelings for a change.
Assertive: When I come home to a messy kitchen, I feel distressed; it brings up resentful feelings in me that I don’t want to have. I would like to come home and spend a nice evening with you.
5. Request a behavior change.
Aggressive: So please get off your butt right now and clean up that sink.
Assertive: So I’d appreciate if you would set aside a few minutes each day before I come home to put the kitchen in order.
These five steps needn’t be delivered in any linear order, nor adhered to religiously in their entirety. Using your own speaking style and personality, find a way to convey your request in a way that is assertive and that helps your partner be more receptive to your message. Although your partner is not off the hook for working on his/her defensive reactions, there is much you can do at your end to ensure the exchange will go well.
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And one more thought: keep it short and sweet, with an emphasis on the “short” . . . and the “sweet”!
Pull it all together clearly, briefly, and assertively:
Describe behaviour: I am noticing the sink is full of dishes.
Interpret cautiously: I know you are busy and possibly aren’t thinking about the state of the kitchen.
Express your feelings: It agitates me when I come home to a messy kitchen.
State the consequences: It starts out our evening with feelings of resentment, and I don’t want that.
Make your request: Please pay attention to doing this before I come home. I’d really be appreciative.
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There is no guarantee your partner will jump to attention and respond exactly as you might have wished. But you will have handled yourself maturely and elegantly, avoided attacking the partner you care about, and done your part in reducing conflict and strife in your household.