Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Assertive Communication: Honest-Appropriate-Respectful-Direct

Assertive communication is really about hitting that sweet spot between passive communication and aggressive communication, but it can be a very difficult spot to hit. It’s essential, however, to become proficient at directly and appropriately communicating your needs in order to help reduce your overall stress and to avoid resentment and irritation in the relationships in your life.

Communication styles are typically categorized as passive, assertive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive, but I find that the majority of people miss the assertiveness sweet spot by communicating too passively, so I’m going to address that and then discuss strategies for assertive communication. In passive communication, often people don’t express their needs or desires at all to others, or if they do try to express their wishes, they do so in a round about, beating around the bush, hinting sort of manner that isn’t effective at all.

I talk to many people who would like more help from their spouse/partner or children at home, or who feel that things get unduly dumped on them at work, or who feel they are treated poorly by someone with whom they have a relationship. It would obviously make things easier if these family members, bosses/coworkers, or friends would just pick up on the hints the person drops, or if it were the case, as I often hear, that the other person “should just know what I want and just do it without me having to ask”. But the reality is, people often don’t understand the indirect, hinting messages and don’t just “know” what you want.

Or sometimes, people might know what you’d like but don’t respond to the hints or lack of a clearly stated directive. Either way, the passive communicating person doesn’t get their needs met and frequently ends up feeling resentful and hurt. They often end up feeling overly stressed as well, because they haven’t received help they needed or because they didn’t clearly communicate that they didn‘t want to do something or have time to do something, and ended up taking on too much.

So why would people not express their desires and needs when failing to do so results in a significant build up of stress, resentment, and hurt feelings?! The number one reason I hear for not being assertive is that people want to avoid conflict, not create waves, and not risk having the other person get mad or upset with them.

Well, sure, most people want to avoid an argument and not have somebody get mad at them, but where is the evidence that being assertive causes conflicts or typically results in negative emotion from the other person? It often goes quite well! And most healthy functioning people are perfectly able to tolerate someone being direct and honest in communicating with them……most people even appreciate this because they don’t have to waste energy figuring out hints, reading between the lines, and trying to read the other person’s mind!

Even on the occasion that the respectful and direct communication isn’t received well, that is diagnostic of something going on with the other person that they chose to get upset or create an argument. Perhaps you’ve learned something valuable about that other person and their difficulty in handling assertive communication effectively or appropriately. But ultimately, you haven’t done anything wrong in communicating your needs/wishes; if the other person wants to get themselves upset or to try to create an argument, then that is their responsibility.

And really, the passive person often is only temporarily avoiding conflict anyway, because in addition to being stressful, the irritation and resentment of not communicating your needs and not having your needs met will build up over time. Eventually it gets difficult to keep the lid on the frustration, and when the lid blows, the resulting expression of upset and emotion often flips over to the aggressive side of communication and doesn’t work very well either.

So, the benefits of assertive versus passive communication are clear, and there are several general strategies to follow to communicate assertively. A good acronym to remember to help steer your communication is that it can be HARD to communicate assertively (Honest, Appropriate, Respectful, and Direct). If you are able to assess what you’ve said to someone and it meets these components, then you’ve hit the sweet spot of assertiveness. Telling someone, “No thanks, I don’t want to do that” meets HARD, as does, “I would like some help with this please”, or, “I ordered this without mayonnaise, could you please take it back”.

When attempting to tell somebody that they are doing something that you don’t like, the usual model is “I feel _______ when you _________”. For example, I feel frustrated when you don’t follow through with what I’ve asked you to do; or, I feel upset when you speak in that tone of voice to me, could you please stop.

As is the case with most things, effectively communicating directly and clearly takes considerable practice, but becoming more proficient at assertive communication should result in the significant benefits of reducing stress, resentment, and frustration while increasing the likelihood of getting your needs met. Look for your practice opportunities to communicate assertively, and even though it may feel risky at first for the reasons mentioned in this article, go ahead and assert yourself repeatedly until it becomes comfortable and automatic for you.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Preventing Burnout

No, not the burnouts that the NASCAR drivers do after they win a race, those are great, but the burnout that people experience when the typical life demands associated with work, family/kids, and general life responsibilities drain their physical and emotional energy and leave them feeling chronically depleted and without sufficient reserves of energy to continue to manage everything. It’s fairly common for me to talk to people who present as depressed, stressed, or chronically irritable, only to have it become clear that these mood symptoms are secondary to the person experiencing varying degrees of burnout from all of their life demands.

Many people I talk to feel that their tanks of physical and emotional energy are frequently well below half-full and even accept that this is about as good as it is going to get, given all of their life demands that drain from their tank. And realistically, mostly full tanks may not be likely, or even necessary for good health and bright moods; but burnout arises when a person has been running nearer to empty or even on fumes for extended periods of time.  I‘ve seen people keep that up for years or decades, but over time, continuing to push on a near empty tank results in significantly unhealthy emotional and physical symptoms.

The characteristic symptoms of burnout are 1) feeling physically worn out most of the time; 2) feeling emotionally drained, which can present as chronic irritability, moodiness, or dysphoria; 3) experiencing more frequent illnesses secondary to a lowered immune system; 4) withdrawing somewhat from interpersonal relationships and getting less enjoyment from them; 5) finding it harder to get into work and becoming less efficient and motivated while at work; and 6) feeling increasingly pessimistic and finding it harder to get excited about life.

It can be incredibly challenging once burnout has set in to refill the tanks and to feel recharged in any lasting sense, so the key is to notice early on when burnout is occurring and to do something about it immediately. The strategies for doing this could comprise a full book and would include the obvious things such as taking care of yourself by getting enough rest, eating well, and exercising. I‘ve also covered the cognitive strategies for mood management, so in this article, I wanted to discuss a specific behavioral strategy that is often neglected but is incredibly helpful at keeping the tanks sufficiently above empty.

John Gray, in Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus, discussed the idea of the necessity of cave time for men and how men need that in relationships. My spin on cave time, however, is that men and women both need cave time from the standpoint of rejuvenating and refilling the tanks of physical and emotional energy. Cave time is really anything that a person can do, that for them, recharges the system and prevents the downward spiral of running on fumes and hitting burnout.

Almost anything could work as cave time! You can even invite other people into your cave with you if that helps to fill up the tank, but during cave time, make it be exactly what you need. Common caves for people are watching television shows, reading, playing on the computer, doing yard work, engaging in hobbies, cooking, working on a project, shopping, and exercising. You probably noticed that a couple of those caves had the word “work” attached to it, but it really isn’t work if you feel rejuvenated and restored from it. A colleague of mine used to spend hours in his garden and with his rose bushes and talked about how doing that was better for him than bottles of stress medications and blood pressure pills.

One of the keys is to make this cave time part of the daily routine, even if it is fairly short in duration. How many times have you gone on vacation or escaped from all the life requirements that take energy, maybe for a weekend…..maybe even an entire week…..and then returned to “real life” (as I often hear people say) only to find the tank of energy almost empty again in a day or two! The more helpful strategy is to find something that you can do every day so that you can constantly refill the tanks and keep them from getting too low.

Conceptually cave time is a fairly simple and obvious behavioral strategy, but people have great difficulty doing this for two primary reasons. I often hear people say that they feel too guilty to take time for themselves when they know others in their lives have needs that will go unmet during that time. People also often can’t get themselves to take time to rejuvenate because they’re all too aware of the mental list of the next 10 things that need to be done, and that won’t get done, if they take cave time.

But life is an ultra marathon, not a wind sprint! Someone may get a good start initially by redlining their engine constantly and running on fumes without refilling, but if they crash and burn down the road with the physical and emotional problems associated with burnout, that great start sure wasn’t worth it. I know it’s difficult to overcome the guilt of taking time for oneself and difficult to let things sit for later while taking some rejuvenation time, but burnout can be prevented this way; and in reality, by taking those regular breaks, you have much more to give in the long run because there is energy in the tank to put toward the kids, to stay productive and energized at work, or to truly enjoy and take pleasure in some of the good things going on in your life.

And again, I want to stress the importance of doing this now and doing it regularly. I talk to so many people who have hit a point where they have been running on fumes for years or decades, and they have an incredibly difficult time bouncing back from this and ever getting their tanks to fill back up. So take your cave time now, talk yourself through the guilt you may have about doing it, don’t let the discomfort of letting other life demands sit for a bit stop you from taking it, and ultimately, prevent burnout from occurring!