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Resilience: Making Assertive Requests

Harry Mills, Ph.D. & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

3D figures with chat bubblesBeing assertive is easy in theory, but sometimes difficult in real life. Our upset and hurt emotions can override our better judgment or we may ourselves have misinterpreted what has been communicated. We may find it difficult to find the calm, rational place from which it is easy to make assertive requests. The following are some practical tips that may prove helpful to you as you work to communicate assertively.

When you make a request of someone else:

  • Actually make an explicit request. In order to communicate assertively, it is necessary that you let people know not only how you are feeling, but also what they can do to help you to feel better. People tend to be reasonably good at the first part of this formula (the expression of emotions part), but sometimes not so good at the second part (the request part). They may be feeling very emotional and simply in the mood to accuse. Alternatively, they may make demands instead of requests which are off-putting and which alienate the listener. They may be afraid to ask for what they want out of fear of rejection. There may be an assumption that there should be no need to make requests because what is being requested should be obvious. In any event, it is a good practice to assume that the person you're speaking with has no idea what it is you want from him or her. People are not mind readers. Ask for what you want explicitly, and do so in an non-demanding, respectful tone of voice.
  • Clarify and specifically state what you want. It's not enough that you make a request of someone. Your request has to be made in a clear and easy to understand manner. Do what you can to phrase your request in simple language that the person you're speaking with will understand. Break your request down into simple component requests if this will serve as an aid to comprehension. Think about how another person might interpret your requests, and try to give as much information as possible to avoid confusion. Instead of saying, "Would you please buy some bread and some milk while you are out?" try saying, "Please buy a loaf of whole-wheat bread and a gallon of skim milk while you are out." If brand names are important to you, make sure you specify exactly which brand you want. And if you still think there is room for mistake, have the other person call you to make sure they’ve found what you asked for. This way you can ensure clear communication and avoid conflict. Do not assume that you have been understood simply because you have made a request.
  • Be aware of your entitlements and assumptions. Every person sees the world somewhat differently than the next. Because of this, there is great diversity of opinion as to the right way to do things. One person's assumption of entitlement to be treated in a particular way may not be shared by another person. This mismatch of assumptions can lead people to get upset when other people don’t do things that they feel should be done. In reality, you have no right to be upset with people who don’t fulfill your expectations unless you have first let them know what it is that you expect. 
  • Be aware of your emotions. Your emotional state influences your communication. If you are angry while speaking, you will likely convey that anger to the person to whom you are speaking. For this reason, work to be conscious of your moods and emotions when you communicate, and use this information to try to tone down the impact of negative emotions. Ask yourself how others would describe your words and behaviors. Some people’s requests sound like demands, while other people’s requests come across like begging. It can take some practice to make requests that sound like respectful but firm requests. Also, ask yourself whether you would be comfortable being spoken to as you are currently speaking. Saying what you have to say in a respectful way increases your chances of being heard and understood.
  • Be aware of how your audience reacts. Watch how the people you are speaking to react to what you have to say. Do they listen respectfully, become anxious or withdrawn, or express anger? Negative reactions to what you have to say may be an indication that you are making demands rather than requests. Listener feedback is not perfect – some people will interpret any request you make as a demand even when it is not – but by and large, if you've succeeded in asking assertively, you will find that people respond positively to you. Watch your listener’s body language and try to make requests assertively but not in a commanding or demanding manner. When people feel resentful or guilty they are less likely to do what you’ve asked. Do what you can to acknowledge the point of view of people you disagree with, even when you disagree with them.

When someone makes requests of you:

  • Listen carefully to what is said. Do what you can to listen attentively and carefully to what is being said to you. Attempt to understand what is being requested of you. Be aware that it is difficult for many people to formulate a clear request, and that you may need to read between the lines in order to understand what is being asked of you. Sometimes legitimate requests may be accompanied by obnoxious or otherwise difficult behavior. Do what you can to hear and respond to those legitimate requests despite the fact that the manner in which they have been delivered may turn you off. Do what you can to stay present in the conversation despite the presence of these behaviors. 
  • Clarify your understanding. Ask for clarification when you aren't absolutely sure you understand what has been requested of you. Don’t promise to fulfill a request that you do not fully understand. Be sure to ask questions and nail down the specific behaviors that are being asked of you.
  • Retain the power to say 'No'. Remember that you have a choice as to whether to agree to meet a request. It is okay to say 'No' to a request that you believe is unjustified or unreasonable. It is also okay for you to negotiate when you think that the specific requests asked of you are unreasonable, but the general complaint they are addressing is valid. You can still be a good person without agreeing to every request.
  • Follow through. Follow through with your promises when you agree to meet a request. Be very careful when you break promises. Breaking promises undermines the trust others have in you. If you must break a promise, contact the other person quickly, explain the situation, and try to offer an alternative so the other person’s requests will still be met.

It takes practice to become a skillfully assertive communicator. Your early efforts may get derailed, veer off into aggression and result in people becoming defensive with you. There are also many people out there who cannot conceive of a communication that doesn't result in aggression and submission, and who will interpret even skillfully assertive communications as a form of aggression. When the person you're speaking with becomes defensive or aggressive, it can be hard to tell whether your attempts at being assertive were unsuccessful, or whether you're just faced with someone who just is attack-prone. Particularly as you are learning to be assertive, it may be helpful to talk over interactions you've had that got out of control with a reasonably objective other person so that you can learn from the experience.