Wendy Warner is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in private practice at Trinity Family Counseling Center. In addition to working with couples, children, and individuals, Wendy also enjoys teaching the premarital classes for all couples planning to marry at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Macomb.
The holidays can be a welcome break creating memories with family and friends. They can also be stressful as we anticipate friction between family members. What is at the heart of this friction? Many of us try to meet everyone else’s holiday expectations, and we get frustrated when our own needs are not being met. Sometimes conflicts arise when a couple is pulled in different directions by their own family’s traditions. It could be the anticipation of rude behavior from a family member without a comfortable way to respond.
Each of these scenarios can lead to holiday aggravation for an individual or between spouses. Let me ask you a question… How often do we get upset because someone does not have the ability to read our mind? Is it surprising someone would ignore our wishes for their wishes, if we do not express our wishes out loud? When we do not express our needs, it is difficult for others to honor them.
Assertive communication is the style of communication that expresses what you think, want and feel in an honest and respectful way. When we state our needs in an assertive way, we can reduce our resentment of others who are not meeting our needs. If you want to communicate assertively, you will need to learn the skill of speaking with ‘I’ statements. ‘I’ statements give us a way to share what we are feeling in a non-attacking, non-blaming way. When we begin a conversation with “I feel”, there is a lower possibility of the other person becoming defensive as compared to beginning with, ”You never…..” or “You always….” People on the defense are less interested in hearing what we are trying to say, and communication breaks down. ‘I’ statements help us own our feelings which makes it more likely the other person will respond with care and empathy.
How to make an ‘I’ statement:
Say ‘l’ (instead of ‘you’)
Say what you feel (frustrated, hurt, ignored, stressed out, etc.)
State the event / situation that provoked your feelings
Say what you would have preferred to happen – what you would like to happen as an alternative to what did happen
Now, you have two sentences: “I feel ___________ because ___________. I would like ___________.”
Instead of:“That’s ok, you don’t need to bring anything for Thanksgiving. I’ve got it all under control.” Try:“I am feeling a little overloaded with all the preparations. Could you bring a side dish or a dessert?”
Instead of:“You always go to the Lions game on Thanksgiving Day and leave me to do all the work.” Try:“I feel abandoned when you leave for the game all day. I would like some help on Wednesday night, so I can enjoy Thanksgiving Day too.”
Part of assertive communication is setting appropriate boundaries. Boundaries are the limits we put in place to increase the likelihood of healthy relationships. They are in essence the line we establish in our relationships that says, “This is how much time I have to give.” Or “This is how much of your rudeness I will endure.” When someone crosses our boundary line in the relationship, we can use assertive communication and ‘I’ statements to let them know how we are feeling; empowering ourselves to get our needs met. We are setting a boundary line when we say, “I feel stressed thinking about your dogs coming to my house for the holiday. I would like there to be another solution than bringing them to our house for Thanksgiving.” Instead of stewing all week about the rudeness of your niece for bringing her dogs, you set a boundary on what you can comfortably manage when you host Thanksgiving.
Give it a try this holiday. When you feel your temperature rising, step back and ask yourself, “What is going on to make my blood boil?” What needs of yours are not being met? What boundary line is being trespassed? Have you let the other person know how you feel; what your needs are in the situation? If not, then write down an ‘I’ statement, practice it on the dog, and give it a try. Be sure to listen closely to their response, because listening is an important part of assertive, respectful and successful communication.