When I am teaching couples, individuals, or groups about communication, a common reservation they express is that “People don’t talk like that.” Some of the common constructions for teaching assertive communication follow below:
(1) “When you (behavior), I feel, (emotion), and I would like (new behavior).”
(2) Speaker/Listener technique – some variation on the theme of ensuring one is listening while the other is speaking, commonly monitored by passing a pen or some item (not too sharp or heavy) back and forth to signify who is the speaker.
(3) Active Listening or Reflection: “What I heard you say is ________. Did I get that right?”
Assertive communication is often unnatural at first, but we err in thinking that this new style of communication is going to remain unnatural and difficult forever. Many of the skills we seek to improve in therapy become ingrained and more natural over time. Part of these skills building exercises are meant to improve things we have never learned or learned to do ineffectively. As we learn this new way of speaking, it becomes more natural – especially as we see the benefits of better communication. Then, the old strategies and tactics for trying to get our needs met will feel as alien as assertive communication does now.
So how do we get there? First, take a step back and look at your communication. No, REALLY look at it. Watch closely for a week or two. Take daily notes, count words and phrases that repeat, watch time of day and environments to see how you communicate. What do you do right? What are the patterns that you want to change? Where do you do it better, and when does it go south on you? When don’t you get to express an emotion and why? As you take a close look at how you communicate, it will become clearer what your goals will be toward improved communication. Most of us have an easier time getting there if the path is clear before us.
Then, work very hard at it! This may involve setting time aside time to communicate with each other. Treat your aim to improve your communication like a class; it may take studying, reading, and writing to improve your “grade.” It may take several months of focused effort to see significant improvement. Recognize that it is a lifetime journey to improve your communication. Forgive yourself for not mastering it right now, and appreciate your improvements as you go. And know that people who communicate well do indeed “talk like that.” And good communication skills building is almost always made better with counseling.