Passive-aggressive behavior is a common technique people use to get their way instead of actual assertiveness. It happens when people sugarcoat their hostility. Instead of being honest with people, a passive-aggressive person will send a message that says the opposite of how they feel. They hide their anger (and aggression) beneath a compliant exterior that is designed to create action. Oh, not a problem that you’re late; I just had to reschedule my appointment, which was super hard to obtain, to next year! But don’t worry, let’s focus on you.g else (Long, Long & Whitson,:
When people deal with others passive-aggressively, they rarely end up getting what they want. Avoiding passive-aggressive behavior means dealing with honest feelings instead of letting them leak out bit by bit. When you’re angry, be angry and deal with it. Get rid of jabs and barbs while being clear, honest, and communicative; make your intentions and your message clear. Do not assume your partner is choosing to ignore your needs and make you angry; instead deal with the anger and set the stage for progress. Taking a passive-aggressive stance and hoping your partner catches the hint is a recipe for disaster.
Back to Nick and Michelle and their garbage. Both Nick and Michelle could behave in a passive-aggressive way. Nick could deliberately “forget” to take out the trash because he feels like Michelle nags and disrespects him. The trash is a way to get back at her by giving her a dose of her own medicine. Michelle could choose to give Nick the silent treatment and refuse to discuss her feelings when Nick tries to get her to talk about what is wrong.
Or consider Sean and Tamara. Sean enjoys going to a coffee shop to catch up on some blogs he follows. Tamara says he disappears every time she needs him to help get their twins ready for dance class. Sean has placed symbolic value on his time alone, and Tamara has placed symbolic value on Sean helping with their kids. Sean agrees to skip his time at the coffee shop, but instead of helping prepare for dance class, he busies himself with other distractions.
Tamara starts making snide remarks every time she asks Sean for help. Words like, “Sean, can you do the dishes—if you’re not going to Starbucks?” or “After that fourth cup of coffee, would you mind reading a blog with the kids?” In their passive-aggression, both remain angry, frustrated, and unsatisfied.
Becoming Assertive the Right Way
All of the people mentioned in this chapter are examples of real people with real hurt feelings. Trying to modify another adult’s behavior is probably not going to work. Hoping they can suddenly peer into your mind is also likely a recipe for failure. Being passive-aggressive is going to make the problems these people face worse instead of better. Learning to ask for what you want is key.
There is an easy fix to these disruptions in relationships. It is as simple as opening your mouth and saying out loud what you want. Simple statements like, “I would like you to wash the dishes while I help the kids with their homework,” or “I would like to spend some time alone with you; let’s get a sitter and plan a night out,” actually work the vast majority of the time. Here are some guidelines to help you out with an ask in any situation.
(1) Ask and then stop talking. Don’t fill the silence after your assertive request that you perceive to be gaping and awkward—that’s where it’s too easy for us to hedge and say things like, “Only if you want!” or “But I could go either way; it’s up to you, really.” It’s in this moment of weakness that most of us fail, even when we have a strong start.
Although this is the first step, this is the biggest obstacle most of us have to overcome. This is where we imagine an ask might easily turn into a confrontation or threat. If it doesn’t rise to that extent, at the very least there will be an untold amount of tension and discomfort here. That’s true. But once you’re over this hurdle, you’ll find that the rest of assertiveness is just learning phrases to use.
Just three seconds of sweaty palms sit between you and what you want. In the course of those three seconds, all of the damaging and toxic beliefs we have rush toward us, including their BLUE-ified versions. Just try to picture it as a rollercoaster, with a definitive end, all within safe guidelines to prevent a fantastic crash.
(2) Create a win-win. In a Psychology Today piece, psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne suggests that, when asking for something, it is crucial to consider the person we are asking.
Are their needs being considered?
How can this request benefit them?
Is this a good time to make such a request?
If the tables were turned, how would I view this request?
Basically, how can you make your ask more of a win-win situation, at least in framing? Hey, if you’re going to assert yourself, you can at least make it seem like you’re barely making a request.
For example, someone in the middle of a stressful personal ordeal might not feel that she can take on another project at work. Hinting around that she should take on an intern is likely to be ignored. However, a direct conversation about how an intern could be utilized to reduce some of her daily tasks and allow her to focus on something more important to her might allow her to see an opportunity to focus on work she loves while allowing someone else to manage some of her day-to-day grunt work.
Assertiveness can be made much more palatable if you just take into account what the other person wants to feel and think. Are you really making a request if the other person stands to benefit as well? It sure feels better. Plus, it’s easier to approach and engage someone when you feel that you are offering something as well, versus making an imposition on them.
(3) Make it easy. Likewise, assertiveness can flow when you make your requests convenient and easy. If you need to meet face to face, do it at their office, on their break, or at their favorite lunch spot. Do not expect people to go out of their way in order for you to request a favor. Instead of your natural inclination to hedge with “Can we meet? Only if you have time,” you can substitute it with “Can we meet? Lunch is on me at your favorite sandwich place.” The key here is to make your ask smaller than it needs to be so it will be better received, and easier to squeeze out.
(4) Offer clear-cut options. If you are asking someone to help with a charity fundraiser, have options they can choose from. For instance, if you are asking for someone to watch your dog, offer to take him to their place or let them stay at your place and use your building’s gym facilities while you are out of town. Also, make sure they have a way to say no without feeling guilty in case they cannot or do not want to do what you have asked.
It may be a great charity, but they might have other causes they support. They might love your dog but do not want the responsibility of caring for a pet. In other words, give them an array of options and don’t force them into an awkward situation where they might want to deny you, but don’t feel that they can. This runs along the same theme from earlier points of letting your expectations be known. This has the added benefit of being psychologically easier for you to approach with.
When you assert yourself, you only hold yourself back by cloaking it in ambiguity or a vague request that “leaves it up to you, whatever you want.”
(5) Be direct. Whitbourne also notes the importance of asking for one thing when the real intention is something else. Having an ulterior motive is hard to hide. Being direct and honest about what you want and why you want it allows for effective communication.
It might be difficult to imagine why a person would express a desire without being honest about it, but it does happen. Anyone who owns a pickup truck knows what it’s like to be called upon to first catch up and then magically to help a friend move a couple of things. It starts with a sofa and then, next thing you know, it’s also a dozen boxes, a refrigerator, and a bike.
This is going to feel like a covert operation. It’s dishonest and is going to make the owner of the truck feel used or set up. It’s because there was a guise of friendship and wanting to catch up, which was quickly discarded as a front. Contrast this to be being direct and straightforward about your request. There is greater chance of being refused—this is what we innately want to prevent and avoid—but when it is accepted, it is accepted on its merits and without bitterness or resentment. A dishonest request will lead to far worse feelings in the long run than an honest request.
(6) Be specific. When people make general requests, imagine how that sounds to the recipient of the request. It’s basically open-ended, and they aren’t completely sure of what they will be agreeing and obligating themselves to. “Can you help out with the bake sale?” is a vague, scary request that you should rightfully not assert. “Can you bring cupcakes to the bake sale and man the table for one hour?” is something that is specific, easier to say yes to, and will get a more positive and thoughtful reaction as opposed to a blanket no. In making requests, you have to combine common sense and strategy. Understand that people are busy and don’t want to commit to more than they can handle.
(7) Oh, and if someone says no? You better not pout.
If you pout and get upset when someone turns down what you perceive to be a reasonable request, you go on people’s black lists. A small percentage of people might cave in once they see you’ve become upset, but pouting is actually a subtle form of emotional blackmail like we talked about earlier—the self-punisher’s threat: “If I don’t get what I want from you, I will make myself suffer.” It brings out a feeling that you are entitled.
For the rest of us, no one wants to be around someone who sulks around when things do not go as planned. People who act entitled do not win friends. In fact, people who feel and act resentful seem petty, immature, and whiny rather than mature and responsible.
Being assertive does not mean always getting your way. But when you take time to articulate reasonable requests, chances are good that they will be met. Sometimes the timing is off or other factors need to be considered, but that is not a reason to ruminate over a disappointing outcome. When things do not work out, it is easy to feel sorry for yourself; that can lower your self-esteem and lead to feelings of depression. In fact, some people would even start to question whether or not they should have asserted themselves in the first place.
In the end, one of the best ways to improve assertiveness is to consider what you want in a particular situation, decide the best time and place to make your request known, speak up for yourself, and then negotiate for a solution that meets the needs of all of those involved. In that way, you make assertiveness seem harmless and burdenless.