Can you think of a time when miscommunication created a problem? Think about this misunderstanding:

A few years ago while traveling in France, I was trying to make my way around using the limited French I had learned in high school and college. I had to summon all of my courage every time I needed to talk to anyone, and miscommunication was always a possibility. One miscommunication happened in a pastry shop. After eyeing all of the beautiful and delicious pastries, I settled on a chocolate éclair. I talked to the shop owner and thought I said that I wanted one éclair. To my surprise, the owner started to put all of the éclairs he had in a box and then handed them to me. I was too surprised and embarrassed to say anything, so I paid for them and walked out—and ate éclairs for the rest of the day.

As this story illustrates, communicating can be hard. Moments of misunderstanding are just part of life. Someone’s going to think you want a box of éclairs when you only want one. As psychiatrist Mark Goulston points out, “because we filter reality through individual values and perceptions, misunderstandings are inevitable.”1 We usually have to work hard to be effective communicators. Developing good communication skills can help you on your healing journey because you will be able to establish and enforce healthy boundaries and relationships with other people.

Think of communication as a continuum with passive communication on one end and aggressive communication on the other end. Passive communicators often set weak boundaries. They hide hostility rather than express it and sometimes try to please people. They may let people step on them. Aggressive communicators, on the other hand, set up rigid boundaries. These people can explode and make threats and ultimatums. They often step on others.

In contrast to passive and aggressive communicators, assertive communicators set appropriate boundaries, can be firm when they need to be, and deliver messages clearly. At the same time, they are respectful, fair, and understand other people. At The Younique Foundation, we say that assertive communication is the ability to honestly express your views and desires without undue anxiety in a way that protects both you and the person you’re communicating with. Think back to the situation in the French pastry shop. An assertive communicator would figure out a way to walk out with one éclair instead of an entire box. Here are three strategies you can use to increase your assertive communication skills, especially in situations where you need to have a difficult conversation:

  • Develop Empathy

    Listen and work to understand the other person’s feelings. Express your concern for the other person: “I can tell that you’re upset, and I understand why.”

  • Use "I"

    Instead of accusing the other person of doing something wrong, describe your difficulty and dissatisfaction with a situation and explain why you need something to change. “I’m feeling upset and dissatisfied with… because…”

  • State What You Want

    Make a request for a specific change in the other person’s behavior, including where you’re willing to be flexible. “I’d like… and I’ll do…”

Assertive communication is especially important—and sometimes especially challenging—in intimate relationships. But remember that honestly expressing your feelings makes other people feel comfortable being honest, too, and will ultimately strengthen all of your relationships.

1. Goulston, Mark, & Goldberg, Philip. (1996). Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior. New York: Penguin Random House.

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