Previous Chapter   Contents   Next Chapter

Communication is one of the most important factors in human relationships. It includes many forms: our choice of words, our tone of voice, how loud we speak, our emphasis on certain words, hushed expressions, facial expressions, hand gestures, body movements, and even silence. The purpose of this paper is to provide some practical methods for communicating in loving and unselfish ways. The ultimate goal of responsible communication is to show love and respect for others by giving them the freedom to respond to us however they choose, while at the same time being honest with them about our own thoughts and feelings.

There are basically three types of communication: aggressive, passive, and responsible. The type of communication we choose in any given encounter is an indication of what we are trying to accomplish in that encounter. Aggressive communication is the use of strength or power to overwhelm, intimidate, or manipulate others. The purpose of aggressive communication is to make other people think and/or act according to the way we want them to think and/or act. Passive communication is the use of partial or total silence (withdrawal) in order to avoid confrontation, arguments, hostility, and abuse. The purpose of passive communication it to keep the peace by appeasing the other person or giving him unrestricted freedom to vent his hurt or angry feelings. Responsible communication is the use of love (choosing what is best for others), respect, and truth (dealing honestly with facts, feelings, and assumptions) to express what we think and how we feel, while allowing the other person freedom to respond however he or she chooses. The purpose of responsible communication is to provide the best possible atmosphere for relationships to develop or be maintained through the use of two way communication, identification of the real issues, discovery of what the other person thinks and how he feels, a mutually agreeable resolution of conflict, and an affirmation of mutual respect and trust.



As mentioned before, the purpose of using aggressive communication is to make others think and/or act according to the way we want them to think and/or act, or in other words, to dominate and win. We resort to aggressive methods for one or more of the following reasons.

1. When we selfishly want our own way and fear that someone or something may get in the way.

2. When we are bitter or resentful, and believe "we just can't take any more," or "we've put up with enough."

3. When we fear the loss of something - like control, freedom, acceptance, or good feelings.

4. When we want to protect ourselves from what others might do or are actually doing to us.

5. When we want to put someone in his place, or get even.

6. When we let our anger get out of control.

7. When we are fighting for acceptance - either by trying to take over or by going on the defensive.

8. When we believe all else has failed and are therefore convinced we must be aggressive to right the wrongs and get what we want.

It soon becomes obvious that we can dominate and win, more often than not, by degrading, belittling, and humiliating others, or by being overbearing and inconsiderate. We develop a vocabulary and body language which puts these methods to their greatest use. We often try to insure our dominance and victory by severely crippling or paralyzing the other person's ability to defend himself and honestly express his thoughts, feelings, needs, and rights. In aggressive communication we come out on top by unlovingly taking advantage and pushing the other person down.

The basic ideas that we express in aggressive communication are: you are stupid, you are not important, what you feel doesn't count, I'm always right, what I want is all that matters, my rights are more important than your rights. We discredit others, ignore their rights and feelings, and unnecessarily hurt them this way either because we are willing to satisfy and protect ourselves at their expense, or because we have an exaggerated view of our own worth and importance. This arrogance also expresses itself in body language. With our eyes we glare at people. With our voices we become loud, harsh, sarcastic, or condescending. With our fingers we point like parents point at children being disciplined. With our faces we look mean and angry, frown, or whatever else is necessary to get what we want.

The motivation behind choosing aggressive communication can be as varied as our individual views and expectations of life. To explain further, our VIEW of life centers around our interpretation of the events that take place in our lives and the responses people make to us. Our EXPECTATIONS of life center around how we want the events in our life to go and how we want people to respond to us. Some of the motivation behind aggression is simply not wanting to be the one who is taken advantage of, manipulated, or beaten. Another motive is the urge to vent anger and hurt feelings as the result of being very passive in another relationship. An example of this is acting passively toward a boss, being hurt and angered by the relationship, then coming home and taking it out on our family by verbally beating them down or manipulating them. We may also choose aggressive communication because we were once hurt and refuse to allow the possibility of a similar situation happening again. Other motivation may come from the belief that aggressive communication is the only means by which we can be heard, because everyone else is just looking out for themselves. We may also have received reinforcement from our parents, peers, or circumstances that encourages us to believe that aggressive communication is the only way to survive.

The short-term, immediate consequences of aggressive communication often seem to be positive and very helpful. Some short-term consequences are the quick release of emotion, a feeling of power, the immediate attainment of goals, and the gratification of needs with minimal hassle from others. However, the long-term consequences of aggressive communication are negative and destructive. They are the loss of friends or meaningful relationships, the inability to build new relationships based on love and trust, an attitude of disrespect for others, a general feeling of mistrust toward all people, and a constant guard against being controlled by others. Aggressive communication leads to fighting, being tolerated rather than loved and appreciated, feeling misunderstood and unloved and unwanted. Aggressive communication tears people down rather than building them up. It destroys people's self-confidence and morale, and causes them to doubt their ability to think clearly. It leaves people feeling dumb, worthless, incapable, angry, hurt, hopeless, and taken advantage of. It encourages excessive self-criticism, self-doubt, withdrawal, retaliation, and rejection. Therefore, aggressive communication can get us what we want in the short-term, but sabotage what we want in the long-term.

The problem with us humans is that we tend to choose methods that bring immediate gratification (seemingly positive results) without regard for the long-term effects. The long-term effects are often more destructive than the immediate positive results, and ought to be given the most consideration. Therefore, any honest effort at stopping aggressive communication must include a recognition of the long-term consequences on us and others and a commitment to abandon any communication that damages relationships either immediately or in the future.



When we use passive communication, our motive is not that of love or seeking the other person's best. Rather, as stated previously, our purpose is to avoid conflict at any cost and to appease others. When we are passive in our communication it is most often because we are acting out of fear: fear of being rejected, fear of hurting someone's feelings, fear of an angry response or an argument, fear of unresolved conflict, and fear of losing someone's love, affection, or approval. We may also be afraid of how others will view us if we are not passive. We may fear being labeled as selfish, big-mouthed, unkind, insensitive, or even non-Christian. Other reasons for using passive communication are that we may have a false idea of what meekness is, or we are trying to get our own way by using nonverbal or behind-the-scenes manipulation.

When we use passive methods, we become dishonest by covering up and failing to honestly express our feelings, thoughts, and beliefs. We are often apologetic. We degrade ourselves, and question our abilities and beliefs. We give others the freedom to abuse us by speaking and acting in ways that allow them to take advantage of us.

Many sincere Christians believe that passive communication is the way God would have them respond when they are being taken advantage of. Let us quickly understand that "speaking the truth in love" is no more a part of aggressive communication than responsible silence is a part of passive communication. Neither power tactics nor fearful silence has any part in Christianity. False views of humility, meekness, and patience have no part in Christianity, either. Giving freedom to others to act irresponsibly has no part in Christianity. Making it easy for others to put us down, or taking the blame for something we did not do just to appease someone has no part in Christianity. And, behind the scenes manipulation, which takes the form of passive communication, has no part in Christianity. As stated before, passive communication is self-destructive, frustrating, and most often incapable of producing the results we would like to see.

To some of us, firm responsible communication seems like aggression, so we turn to passive communication in an effort to act polite and considerate. For some examples of this, we may think it is impolite to interrupt someone, even when they talk on and on and on and on. We might believe it is inconsiderate to disagree with or confront someone who is older than us or a guest in our home. Some may feel it is wrong to accept a compliment. There are four ways we can tell the difference between this so-called politeness (but actually passive communication) and a genuine love and consideration for others.

One way to tell the difference between false politeness (passive communication) and the appropriate use of love and consideration in communication is the signals that our bodies and feelings give us. Passive communication often results in some from of tension or resentment. The use of passive communication in expressing false politeness or love can bring on headaches, upset stomachs, tight muscles, backaches, sweating, hidden anger, bitterness, strong feelings of being treated unfairly, and a desire to get even. Our bodies and feelings frequently react to passiveness before we realize what we are doing.

Another way of discerning the difference between false politeness and true consideration is that passive communication often includes hidden expectations. This takes place when we sacrifice something important, imply by our words (passive communication) that our sacrifice is insignificant, yet expect the other person to do something specific in return without telling him what that something is. When faced with the possibility of making a personal sacrifice for the sake of someone else, we can ask ourselves if we will feel used, upset, or mad if the other person does not respond as we expect. If the answer is yes, we are being passive instead of polite and loving. An example of this is the man who wants his wife to go along with the purchase of an expensive hobby-type item. She is against the purchase because she believes it is a waste of money. Yet instead of telling her husband what she actually thinks, she agrees that he should buy what he wants, thinking at the same time that he would then agree to let her purchase a long wanted item for the house. She never told her husband about her hidden expectation, and when he refused to agree with her purchase, she got very mad. Hidden expectations and resulting anger and resentment are a common indication of passive communication.

A third way of discerning passive communication is by asking ourselves if it is likely we will, at some later time, remind others of their failings after overlooking them at the time of their occurrence. An example of this is a family member who borrows your folding chairs for a specific occasion and then does not return them for two months. When they are returned, you say nothing even though you needed them several times during the two months. However, in the middle of some future disagreement, you say something like this: "How can you refuse to lend your VCR to your sister? Do you remember the time I loaned you our chairs and you didn't return them for two months? I didn't say anything even though we needed them. And you mean to tell me you are going to start being stingy now?..." When we bring up such incidents, our original failure to honestly and lovingly express ourselves was not politeness or love, it was passiveness.

The fourth way of determining if we are being passive is to ask ourselves if our relationship with others is likely to change if we choose so-called politeness instead of honestly expressing our feelings and thoughts. For example, a neighbor does not own a lawnmower and begins to borrow yours. After a month of politely saying yes, you begin to make joke-type comments to your neighbor filled with pointed sarcasm about his continuous use of your lawnmower. As time goes on, you may try to avoid your neighbor when you think he is going to ask for your mower, or you may lie about it not working properly or needing gas. In this case, our false politeness, which was intended to preserve the relationship, actually ends up hurting the relationship and driving a wedge between you.

Another example of this is when someone asks us our feelings or opinions about something related to them. In an effort to not hurt or disappoint them, we give nebulous, yet suggestive answer that can mean what we want to say while at the same time be heard to imply some of what the other person wants to hear. This often leads the other person to pressure us for a more affirmative response. We then feel trapped and become angry at ourselves for not being more honest, and angry at the other person for putting us in a corner. We then will do what we can to avoid the other person. This hinders, hurts, or ends what may have been a good relationship. The other person feels hurt, misled, and possibly foolish. We feel guilty, frustrated over not knowing how to respond to those we think are pressuring us for a specific answer, and fearful of other similar situations.

These four considerations can help you determine if you have a faulty concept of Christian love, concern, and politeness. As you consider them, you may become aware that you simply do not know how to respond differently. The lack of communication skills may be a major hindrance for you now, but you can do something constructive about it. The section on "responsible communication" is written to help you begin learning new ways to lovingly express what we feel and think.

The short-term consequences of responding passively seem to be positive, and reinforce the idea that passive communication works. The avoidance of conflict, an atmosphere of peace, and the sense of being accepted all provide an instant feeling of success. Of course, the long-term consequences tell a different story. In time, we will feel used, abused, unloved, and that we lack the ability to get others to listen and respond in a positive way to us. We will think that people are out to get us or intentionally make life miserable for us when they treat us unkindly yet treat others with love and respect. We will become bitter and begin to avoid those who don't seem to care about us. We will be sold things we don't want to buy and will be talked into things we don't want to do. We may even feel helpless, and that life is hopeless. We may develop the psychosomatic problems mentioned earlier: headaches, ulcers, depression. We will be filled with resentment, bitterness, anger, even rage, a general distrust of others, an unwillingness to forgive, and a desire to get even. Others may avoid us, or single us out as someone they can easily control or take advantage of. In the long run, passive communication costs us much more in terms of healthy, happy, satisfying relationships than it gains in immediate good feelings or keeping of the peace.


Responsible communication is the one form of communicating which provides a way to be honest and yet shows love and respect and understanding, and allows the freedom of refusal to others. The purpose of being responsible is to provide a safe, yet honest, foundation for two-way communication. When being responsible, we can give and are more likely to get respect. We can ask for fairness on the part of others. e can seek compromise when conflicting needs arise. We can say no to requests without fear (like fear of what the other person will think of us for saying no, or fear that we aren't as considerate and loving as we should be), or without belittling the other person for asking. We can accept a no to our requests without taking it as personal rejection or without becoming angry because we will not get what we want. We can wilfully remain silent on an issue when responding would only hinder or destroy the good that is there. Responsible communication leads to seeking the best for both parties. It provides an atmosphere for honesty, cooperation, and the exposure of personal thoughts and feelings. It is the best way to live out the teachings of God on how we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

Responsible communication is not to be used as leverage for "getting what we want." We must be careful not to learn how to honestly express ourselves for the purpose of finally getting what we think we deserve. Using any form of communication to maneuver others into satisfying our wants and desires is selfish, and inherently has several bad side-effects. First, it feeds the success syndrome whereby we must always attain our goals at any cost. Second, it is based on selfishness and centers only or mostly on our needs or rights instead of on the needs or rights of both parties. Third, it will result in taking advantage of others' weaknesses or abusing their rights in order to benefit ourselves.

In general, those of us who usually respond aggressively fear becoming vulnerable and the lose of control over other people. We believe we can survive only by being invulnerable, and in control of others or the situation. This is a false form of security which overlooks the long-term consequences of aggression. To become responsible, we must deal with our fears (especially the exaggerated and irrational fears), insecurity, and selfishness.

Responsible communication turns our attention from trying to control others to controlling ourselves. We cannot change anyone by controlling them. The best we can do is get them to act the way we want by threatening them or offering some reward. This doesn't change anyone, neither can it build loving and trusting relationships. The only person we can change is ourselves, and that requires quite an effort. Yet as we take appropriate action to deal with our fears, insecurity, and selfishness, we become more confident in relationships. Our feelings of insecurity and vulnerability are reduced. We become open to closer, more loving, trusting, and satisfying relationships. We become better equipped to discern the rights and needs of others. We are able to see the hurts and fears of others, and help them talk about these things. We understand that there can be compromise: both parties can at least partially have their needs met and their goals achieved.

Those of us who respond passively generally fear the loss of approval. We believe we can survive only if others approve of us, have good feelings about us, or accept us. The approval gained through passive communication is not genuine. It may give us a sense of security, but it is a false security. We only trust in it because we have overlooked the long-term consequences of passiveness. If we are going to be honest, we must face the fact that no one and nothing can guarantee we will always receive approval or acceptance from others.

Responsible communication turns our attention from receiving approval to giving acceptance and approval in the right ways. When the primary focus of our attention is no longer on our needs, we soon discover that our needs are met as we meet the needs of others. This discovery frees us from an unhealthy dependence on others to give us approval. Once we are free from this dependence, we no longer have to aggressively demand or passively appease people into a position of giving us approval and acceptance. This increases our self-respect and self-confidence. We are better able to deal with conflict openly and fairly. We are able to take a stand on issues and encourage others to do the same. We can show respect for others while humbly being confident. And, we are able to accept whatever responses others choose to make toward us.

There are many forms of responsible communication which offer us various alternatives for meeting our communication needs. It is best to see these different forms as principles to help guide our responsible communication, and not as techniques to make others do what we want.


Basic Communication is the simplest expression of our personal rights, beliefs, feelings, or opinions in a kind but straightforward way. Examples of Basic Communication are:

1. Being asked a question you are not prepared to answer: "I would like a few minutes to think about that before responding."

2. Upon being interrupted: "Excuse me, I would like to finish what I am saying."

3. Returning an item: "I would like my money back for this item and this is the reason why..."

4. Saying "no" to a request or invitation: "No, today is not a good day for me to help you with that." "No, it would not work out for me to visit you tomorrow."

5. Refusing advice from someone: "I know you are trying to help, but I do not want any more advice on this issue."

6. Expressing love and appreciation: "I like you." "I really care for you." "You are a special person in my life." "Having you as a friend makes me very happy."



Many times we will want to express ourselves in more than what might seem to be a cold, straightforward manner. We may want to express sensitivity to the other person and their situation. We can make a statement that causes the other person to know we recognize their situation or feelings. We then follow that statement with another which expresses our feelings and thoughts. Examples of Sensitive Communication are:

1. When two people are talking loudly during a meeting: "You may not be aware of it, but your talking is making it hard for me to hear and concentrate. Would you please keep it down."

2. When someone is coming to do work at your house: "I understand you can't give me an exact time when you'll be here, but would you please give me a ballpark estimate."

3. Saying "no" to a request or invitation: "I understand you want to have your own car, but now is not the right time for that." "I appreciate your desire to spend time with me, but this evening is not a good time for me to visit you."

Sensitive responses recognize the other person first. They make others more willing to listen to what we have to say. This frequently brings the response we would like. This method, however, must not be used as a means of manipulation to gain our own ends. To repeatedly say, "I understand how you feel, but..." can quickly turn into a "con phrase" that makes others believe we are only considering their feelings when it serves our purposes and gets us what we want. Such behavior is not responsible. Rather, it is masked aggression. Sensitive Communication is good in that it causes us to take the time to try to understand the other person's feelings or situation before we respond. It helps us keep our response in perspective and reduces the chances of aggressively overreacting when irritated or frustrated.


Progressive Communication begins with a "minimal" responsible response that can, in most situations, accomplish our goal without too much effort or negative consequences. When someone does not respond to our minimal response (and continues to mistreat us), we gradually increase the firmness of our response. However, we must be careful to become increasingly firm without becoming aggressive.

Progressive Communication can begin with a request and increase to a demand. It can begin with a preference and increase to an outright refusal. It can begin with a sensitive response and increase to a firm positional stand. An example could be found in a situation where a vacuum cleaner salesman wants you to buy his machine and attachments. You may begin by saying, "That's a very nice vacuum but we will continue to use the one we have. Thank you for showing us yours." As he persists and presses for a sale, you may say, "No thank you. We are very happy with our machine and don't want to buy another." If he continues to press, you might say, "We are not going to buy your vacuum cleaner so please stop pressing us for a sale." The final blunt refusal is responsible when preceded by lesser statements of preference. To make that final statement our first and only statement would be aggressive communication. It is kinder and more respectful to begin with a "minimal" responsible response and increase from there if needed.

When our final response contains threatening consequences, it is best to give an adequate forewarning. This informs the other person what our final response will be, and gives him a chance to change his behavior before it occurs. For example, when a representative of a large company refuses to solve a billing problem his company has made, we might say, "I am being left with no other alternative than to refer this matter to your superior. I would prefer not to, but I will if it becomes the only alternative." Sometimes people only realize we are serious and desire their cooperation when we forewarn them of threatening consequences. This forewarning should not be a threat, and can be made in a non-threatening way. If we say it in a menacing, emotional way, it is a threat. If we say it in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, which simply gives information about the consequences, it is a responsible response.



When people's words contradict their deeds or previous words, we may responsibly confront them. Responsible confrontation involves objectively describing what the other person said was done or would be done. This can then be followed by a responsible expression of what we would like. Our confronting is to be done in a matter-of-fact, non-valuative manner. Examples of this are:

1. "I am supposed to be consulted before the place and time of our monthly meeting is finalized. I see someone has already written this month's meeting on the calendar. I won't be able to attend because of my schedule, so I want us to consider another day and time. In the future I want an opportunity to let you know when I'm free before we schedule the meeting."

2. "I felt we agreed you were going to put the customer first. Yet, today, I noticed you curtly told two ladies that you were busy and to look for someone else to help them. As we discussed earlier, I see helping the customers as an important part of your job. I'd like you to tell me under what circumstances you believe you cannot or should not put them first."

3. "I said my tools were yours to use as long as you checked with me first. Yesterday, I planned on using them but couldn't, because you had taken them without asking. I'd like to know why you did that."

These examples of responsible confrontation would lead to conversation and a likely resolution of the problem. When our requests include the need for additional information, this type of communication can lead to safe discussion and problem solving.

The opposite of responsible confrontation is aggressive confrontation. For example:

"Hey! The tools are mine. Keep your hands off them until I say otherwise. You proved yesterday your word is meaningless and that you can't be trusted. Only a real jerk would be that inconsiderate. I'm going to start locking my tools up, and then you'll have to ask for them."

Aggression involves being critical and unkindly judgmental of others. It is an effort to make them feel guilty, rather than describing their behavior and the situation in an effort to encourage communication and resolution.



We might find it difficult to express ourselves responsibly when we are feeling pressure and are frustrated, irritated, angry, feeling helpless, etc. I-statements help us responsibly express our negative feelings and also help us determine when and if we should express them at all. They work by helping us determine whether our feelings are due to someone else's violation and abuse of us, or if they're due to us trying to impose our values and expectations on others.

I-statements give us a format for expressing negative feelings about a person or his behavior in such a way as to not sound critical or judgmental of the person himself. This helps the other person join the conversation rather than resisting good communication by becoming defensive. The I-statement formula has four parts. Once we have learned the parts, we can intermix them to match our own style of speaking.

    1. WHEN............................... We objectively, honestly, kindly describe the other person's behavior.

    2. THE EFFECTS ARE............ We describe how the other person's behavior actually affected our life or feelings.

    3. I FEEL............................... We describe how it made us feel.

    4. I'D PREFER...................... We describe what we want.

The last two parts of the formula are optional. The 'I FEEL' part can help prevent others from making false assumptions about us by reducing misunderstandings concerning our feelings. However, it is not always appropriate or in the best interest of healthy two-way communication to express our feelings. If expressing our feelings will damage the relationship or put manipulative-type pressure on others, then we need to leave it out. The 'I'D PREFER' part gives an opportunity to offer our ideas for dealing with the situation. However, if that means squashing the other person's input (passive person), then we should encourage them to express their ideas first.

The following example illustrates I-Statement Communication in which one person expresses irritation and describes the actual effect of the other person's behavior. A house is shared by two people, one is messy, the other is neat.

"Today I had three friends over and wanted to serve pop but couldn't because there were only two glasses. When you leave the glasses wherever you finish your drink, it makes them hard to find, and I'm getting upset about it. I feel like you don't care about me or my needs. I'd like to hear your suggestions on what we can do about this."

An alternative I'D PREFER ending could be:

"I'd prefer that we purchase another set of glasses and assign a set to each of us so they would be there when we want them. Do you have any other suggestions?"

We might think the real issue is the other person's messiness. Such is not the case when messiness is a style of living. In this case, messiness or neatness is the result of each person's value system. To approach this problem from the standpoint that neatness is the right way to live is to impose our values on someone else. For example, "When you leave the house a mess, I feel frustrated and angry. I can't believe you like to live this way. I want you to be neater and more organized." This is not responsible behavior, even though at first glance, it appears to be. It not only fails to express an actual effect on us of the other person's behavior, but it will readily put that other person on the defensive. We must be careful to give others freedom to have and maintain their own values and expectations (that is whenever their values and expectations do not unnecessarily harm someone else). In giving people the freedom to be different from us, we must then look for other solutions to problems. In doing this we do our best to protect the rights and dignity of each person.

The opposite of responsible expressions (using I-statements to express irritation or other negative feelings) are aggressive expressions, in which we try to make others feel responsible for our negative (hurt, angry, bitter, etc.) feelings. We put the blame on others by using you-statements. In the following example, the first statement is aggressive, the second is responsible:

1. "You always butt in and it really makes me mad. What's wrong with you anyway?!"

2. "When I'm constantly interrupted, I find it hard to keep my train of thought, and I begin to feel that my ideas are not important to you. Then I feel hurt and angry. I'd appreciate it so much if you'd try and wait until I've completed my thought before you start to speak."

I-statements are especially useful when dealing with someone who is acting passively. We can reduce the passive person's fear or increase their self-confidence by expressing how their behavior is affecting us, how we feel about it, and what we'd prefer. Here's an example:

"I get uncomfortable when you compare yourself to me and cut yourself down. It makes me not want to share the good things that are happening to me. I'd like to be able to share my happiness with you without you cutting yourself down. I'd also like to hear you speak more positively and honestly about yourself."

We can and should help those who are passive communicators. This is responsible behavior on our part. We are using our ability to communicate to help others communicate so that we do not take advantage of them.

We can also help someone who is aggressive. When we are experiencing someone else's aggression, we might withdraw (respond passively), but this only reinforces the other's aggression. Or we might fight (respond aggressively), but this just leads to increased aggression on both sides, with each person tearing the other down while the real issues become buried. We can, however, learn to react responsibly. In other words, we can stand our ground and express our thoughts and feelings without belittling the aggressor. This frequently helps the aggressor calm down and focus on the real issues.




It is often effective to simply restate what the aggressor is saying or reflect back what we think he is feeling. This helps aggressive individuals realize that their message is being received. The reflection must be done tactfully so as not to give the impression we are agreeing with the aggressor. Ideally, the aggressor begins to calm down and communication becomes effective. In the following example, the first sentence is a reflection in response to an aggressive attack.

"I know that from your point of view the small raise you received this year is completely unfair. I would have liked to have given you a larger raise, but the company is in financial trouble and we're limiting raises. The only way I could give a larger raise to you, and to others who'd like them, would be to let some employees go. That's unacceptable to me and to the company."



This type of communication is appropriate when the aggressive person overreacts and ignores or discounts our thoughts, feelings, or wants. Rather than continuously justifying our feelings and opinions, it may be more effective to firmly repeat the original statement while still responding to legitimate points made by the aggressive person. For example:

A social worker disagreed with the staff physician about a client and wanted a second evaluation before therapy was ordered. The physician was sarcastic and refused to respond to the social worker's suggestion. The social worker again said, "I'd like a second opinion on this case." A third time she said, "I realize your decision is final, and I'm willing to abide by that, but I'd still like a second evaluation made of this client." The physician finally decided to act on the suggestion.

It is important to note that the responsible person stuck to her position and did not directly threaten or try to intimidate the physician. She also made it clear that she was willing to accept realistic limits. The repeated response was not a simple rote repetition. Rather, the basic message was repeated, legitimate points were taken into consideration, and non-relevant issues were ignored.



Under certain circumstances, responsible communication may take the form of a broken record - repeating the same message over and over again in a calm monotonous voice, responding in a superficial manner. The Broken Record may be appropriate when the other person is extremely aggressive, destructive, or manipulative.

A father aggressively attacked his son whenever he saw him, finding fault in everything his son thought, felt, or did. The son became silent, depressed, and anxious. Other types of responsible communication, in response to the criticism, were ineffective since the father completely ignored everything the son said. Finally, the son kept repeating, loudly, "I don't want to hear anymore criticism! It hurts me!" The father finally stopped after this was repeated many times.

Improperly carried out, the Broken Record can easily become aggressive manipulation if the person using it fails to respond to the other person's legitimate points. In contrast to the other types of responsible communication that have been described, the Broken Record is not a method which can be used by both parties at the same time.



Pointing out the implicit assumptions of the aggressor's position can help to diffuse the aggression. This involves listening closely to what the aggressor is saying, discerning the assumptions of the extreme position being taken, pointing out those assumptions, waiting for the aggressor's response, and then expressing one's own view of the situation. Pointing out these implicit assumptions sometimes helps the aggressor become more objective, making it possible for real communication to take place. In the following example, the implicit assumptions are underlined.

A man was aggressively attacked by his wife for disagreeing with her on a minor issue. The husband responded, "The message I'm getting is that under no circumstances - regardless of what I think or feel - should I disagree with you. It's like I have no rights except to agree with you." The wife essentially agreed with this absurdity and continued her attack. After a short time, the man interrupted, "The way I see it, as long as I don't put you down, I have every right to express my opinions. Just because I have a different opinion than you doesn't mean I think you're stupid. My opinions are my own, just as yours are. We can't always think the same way. I don't expect you to always agree with me, and I don't think it's fair for you to force your opinions on me."



I-statement communication is often an effective way of responding to someone's aggression.

An 18-year old son was being severely castigated for failing to keep his room clean. The son responds, "When I'm cut down and accused of being totally irresponsible and selfish, I feel worthless and that there's no use in even trying. When you get mad about my room, please just say 'Jack, your room is getting pretty sloppy, and I'd appreciate it if you'd pick up.' I'd feel more like cooperating if you talk to me like that. Will you do that please - for both our sakes."



Questions can be an effective way of responding to nonverbal aggression, by helping the other person become aware of his aggressive reaction.

When asked to wrap a package, the clerk said nothing, but she looked extremely irritated and disgusted, muttering as she wrapped the package. The customer responded in a non-sarcastic tone of voice, "Are you mad because I asked you to wrap the package?"

Another example: A security officer became angry when a college professor, who had forgotten her office key, asked him to unlock her office. After a few minutes, she asked him in an even tone, "Tell me, are you angry because I asked you to come down and open my door?" The officer responded with a polite but cold, "No, Madam." He paused and then continued, "Well, there are better things I could be doing besides opening doors for teachers who forget their keys." The professor paused and then said, "I can see how that does get irritating. I want to tell you that I don't make a habit of forgetting my keys. These papers are extremely important and I needed them today." In this situation, each party achieved a greater understanding of the other's behavior.



A paradoxical statement is a rather subtle technique which requires considerable skill for it to be responsible rather than aggressive. It involves diffusing the other person's aggression by making a statement which causes the aggressor to realize that his aggression could boomerang.

A man wearing prescription sunglasses was waiting in a restaurant lobby to be seated. A man walks up to him and says in a mean voice, "What's the matter with you? Got some kind of eye disease?" The responsible person answered in an even tone, "Now wouldn't you feel bad if I told you I did."



Paraphrasing content to describe the idea or message just communicated can be used when the other person clams up. This kind of paraphrasing is discussed in the RESPONSIBLE LISTENING chapter. Consider the following example of George and Jack's disagreement:

George: I just don't want to discuss this anymore. It's a waste of time as far as I'm concerned.

Jack: So you're skeptical about the whole thing and a little irritated that I want to talk about the problem again.

George: Yeah, I'll say that. What's the use? We've been over this again and again, and we never seem to get anywhere.

Jack: I can see that you're discouraged. I've been discouraged, too. I think that one of the things that's gone wrong in the past when we've tried to discuss this problem is that I, for one, have tried to convince you that you were wrong and I was right. I'm not going to do that anymore. This time I'd like to see if we can find a solution we can both live with, and I'll stop selling my one solution. Are you willing to give it another chance?


When the other person tries to sell you on his point of view, you can give feedback about the message that is coming across. For example you might respond, "The message I'm getting is that there's only one solution for this problem and that's yours and that you're not interested in what I have to say. I want my views considered too." Another way to respond might be to be empathetically assertive: "I realize that your solution is very important to you, yet if I'm to have an investment in working out the conflict, I'll need to have my desires heard and considered, too."



There will, of course, be conflict when both people simply keep restating their positions.

Mary: I want you to spend more time with the kids.

Tom: I work hard at the office, and I need to relax. The kids sure aren't relaxing to me.

Mary: The kids need a father.

Tom: No one appreciates how my work drains me, and the kids just get on my nerves.

Mary: Sure the kids are draining. They get on my nerves too, yet I don't give up being a mother. They need a father, not just a mother.

Tom: If I didn't have to work outside of the home on this job, I could do the parenting bit better. But frankly, I just get home exhausted. Do you realize what I have to put up with at work?

When a disagreement reaches this kind of impasse, it's as though each person thinks that if only the other person would understand how logical his point is, there wouldn't be any problem. The result is that neither person is listened to, and both feel misunderstood. One antidote to this problem is following the Stop Action technique outlined in the section on Responsible Listening.



With this kind of problem, every time one person brings up what she thinks is a reasonable issue, it is met by a stronger counter-complaint that makes it impossible to resolve either issue. This discussion between Alice and Fred is an example:

Alice: I want to talk with you about your giving me more help with cleaning the kitchen after we eat.

Fred: I should give you more help? What about all the times I have to drive you places. Why won't you just learn how to drive?

Alice: Helping me clean up has nothing to do with driving. Besides, I always clean the entire house too.

Fred: And that brings up another thing. You keep this place so perfect that I'm afraid to sit in the front room. Why do you have to be such a perfectionist?!?

Alice: I'm a perfectionist? What about you and the car? If you want to know why I don't drive, it's because you're constantly criticizing me!

Even though cross-complaining feels like a "tit for a tat" and the person is often counter-complaining in order to defend himself and attack the other person, the complaints are often legitimate ones. One way out of cross-complaining is to paraphrase the content of the complaint and the feelings of the other person, list the complaints that both parties have with each other, and make an agreement to deal with one complaint at a time during the problem-solving discussion session.


Sometimes responsible communication and listening skills are ineffective. Knowing precisely what the problem is only causes frustration because you cannot negotiate it. In some situations you can't be assertive. When it is not appropriate to be assertive, or the risks of assertive behavior are too great, or assertive communication efforts have not produced positive changes in the other person's behavior, you still have at least two sets of alternatives: YOU CAN CHANGE THE ENVIRONMENT or YOU CAN CHANGE YOURSELF.



When assertive behavior isn't effective or appropriate, you can sometimes change the physical surroundings. This means doing such things as "child-proofing" your home so that you won't have to constantly reprimand or limit a young child's behavior; getting a second TV set when there are frequent arguments about which program the family will watch; modifying courses when students' disinterest is partially caused by an inadequate curriculum; or enriching the jobs of workers who aren't motivated to use their abilities.



Alternative A: Developing Other Ways of Taking Care of Yourself.

In some cases you can develop ways of taking care of yourself and meeting your needs which do not require other people to change to accommodate you. This means figuring out how you can get your major needs met without support, change, or input from others.

Gloria requested a job transfer within a large company to another state so that she could be closer to her family. Being a new employee and unfamiliar with the project that was assigned her, she was eager to do a good job and learn the project as quickly as she could, but she wasn't getting enough assistance from her boss. She became frustrated to the point of not wanting to go to work. She believed that her boss had an "attitude" against her and that he was purposely frustrating her efforts to do the best job she could. Gloria initially focused her efforts on changing her boss's attitude, but realizing that this was going nowhere, she decided to see what behavior of hers she could change.

The first thing she did was to closely observe her own feelings at work, become more aware of her boss's actions toward her, and more particularly, become aware of her reaction to him. After some self-observation, she was able to pinpoint specific things that she did not like about her boss, two of which are described here.

(1) My boss is very unorganized; because of this he cannot set priorities. He is constantly giving me work with the impression that it is very important to get it done as soon as possible. When I ask him to set priorities on work that he has already given me (while stressing the fact that it is impossible for me to do everything at once), he won't. He responds by saying that everything he gave me is important to do and to work until I get it done.

She asked herself the following questions:

a. What do I want? "Information on which work priorities to fulfill."

b. What makes this want important? "Without this information, I may be working on the wrong set of priorities and be subject to criticism by my boss because I haven't fulfilled the priorities he considers important."

c. How am I currently trying to get this want fulfilled? "I ask him to tell me which priorities are important, and he won't give me this information."

d. How is this method working out? "Poorly."

e. What are some things I could do to fulfill this want? "I could use my own best judgment in establishing work priorities. Periodically, I could tell or advise my boss about the ones I've established and see if he has any reaction to my judgments. Alternatively, in the absence of negative reactions from him, I could assume that my judgments are good ones."


I now set my own priorities concerning work assignments. I make the decisions on what I think is most important to get done first. My decisions are sound, based on my previous experience at the company in another city. I keep an accurate daily log of work assignments, work completed and when, and decisions that I made and why. In case my boss or someone else (like his boss) questions my reasons for making certain decisions I can go back to that day and see why I made a particular decision. This makes me feel more relaxed. I feel that my judgment is good, and I am able to get my assignments done fast and efficiently.

(2) My boss is an egotist and resents anyone who knows more than a particular portion of a project than he does. Consequently, he does not inform his employees of everything they need to know to do their assignments correctly. He even neglects to tell us about important changes that have been made in the project that we need to know to get our assignments done. He normally volunteers the information once he knows that we are having problems completing our assignments. This can be very frustrating.

Again she asked herself the following questions:

a. What do I want? "Information about the job I'm supposed to do and information about any important changes that have been made."

b. What makes this want important? "I waste time and energy doing things that do not work correctly only because I didn't have the correct information."

c. How am I currently trying to get this want fulfilled? "Ask him and he won't tell me - even when I point out the tangible effects on me."

d. How is this method working out? "Rotten."

e. What are some things I could do to fulfill this want? "I could check out everything the boss tells me to do with other people. If it looks to me that doing something the way he tells me to do it will not work, then I'll find another way to do it. If it seems to me that I'm lacking a certain piece of vital information to do the job, I'll ask him directly instead of waiting, or I'll ask someone else in the department."


I do the above things and just show him the results. I don't tell him that I never did the assignment the way he wanted me to do it, and usually all he wants to see are the results anyway.

Gloria reported that she feels much better about going to work now. As she said, "I know what the problems are and I have been able to change my behavior to counteract these problems. In so doing, I have saved myself from worry and frustrations. I have even won respect from my boss, and he shows confidence in my abilities!"


A fifty-eight year old grandmother suffered from high blood pressure and was so worried about family problems that she felt the need to take tranquilizers daily in addition to her hypertension medicine. She kept an A-B-C behavioral chart to help her identify her worries and the results of her actions.

A. What happened just before she got upset: what she was thinking, what she and other people were doing?

B. What she did: what she said, actions she took, etc?

C. Consequences or results of her actions on herself and other people?

Keeping this chart of all significant events that led to her feeling upset and worried brought her to these observations:

I worry about my husband who is recently retired, his drinking at the bar, and his visiting old friends. (What happened before I got upset). I've tried talking to him, asking him not to do it, crying, begging, yelling. (What I did). Consequently, I feel upset and he continues to drink, something that he's done for years. (what the consequences were).

I worry about my daughter, whose husband has moved out of state for a job. She spends time in bars, dancing, and associating with her unmarried women friends. I've tried talking to her. She laughs in my face or else we get into an argument.

As a result of her self-observation, she realized that she was going to stop worrying herself to death over things she had no direct control over. As she put it, "The people I worry about will still be doing the same thing when I am dead, so why should I worry myself sick about them. They know how I feel about what they're doing, and I realize how they feel. No one is willing to change, so rehashing the same thing over and over again isn't getting me anywhere except closer to the grave. I need to do something else with my life than play watchdog for the family." As a result of her observation, she joined Weight Watchers and started losing weight. Though she received no encouragement from her husband, she did get encouragement from friends and club members. She joined a church group and her grandson's PTA. She also located a nursery for the younger grandchildren and told her daughter that she was unwilling to baby sit any longer. She had decided that she could do without the money and hassle that occurred with her daughter when she baby sat. The nursery was close to her home so that she could pick up the children at the end of the day. After several months her blood pressure returned to normal, and she stopped taking the tranquilizers.


Alternative B: Re-analyzing the Problem and Determining Whether You are Protecting Others from the Consequences of Their Behavior.

When people are protected from the natural consequences of their behavior, they have little motivation or reason to change. Acting on this alternative does not mean supplying new negative consequences for the undesired behavior, but rather simply letting others experience the natural consequences of their behavior. Going out of your way to punish someone's undesirable behavior can be effective in decreasing unwarranted behavior. However, this is an alternative to be used with considerable caution since it may produce undesirable side effects. It can arouse many emotions, such as anxiety and aggression on the part of the other person. If someone is strongly motivated to continue undesired behavior, he may continue it as soon as the punishment is discontinued, especially if he doesn't have any more constructive behaviors to replace it with.

Beth worked with a fellow social worker, Eugene, who was frequently gone from the agency and wouldn't tell anyone how he could be reached or when he would return. When his clients called, Beth listened to their complaints, "covered" for Eugene, and ended up taking care of his clients. This took a lot of extra time and subjected her to unnecessary stress in dealing with the clients' irritation. When Beth complained to Eugene about his behavior, he laughed it off and refused to cooperate. When Beth complained to their supervisor, he just responded with, "Well, what can you do with Eugene?"

As long as Eugene was not experiencing the consequences of his own behavior, that is, dealing with his own clients' complaints, he had no real reason to change. Even though Beth and the supervisor occasionally complained, Eugene had learned to let their complaints run off him like water off a duck's back. Finally, Beth calmly informed Eugene that she would no longer lie to his clients about his whereabouts, nor would she do his work for him. She would, she said, tell his clients the truth - that she didn't know where he was, that he had not left word, that she didn't know when he would return, and that she would advise them to take up the matter with him. During the next few days, Beth didn't go out of her way to be friendly or unfriendly; she simply kept up the usual social courtesies. The results were that, after a few days of alternatively sulking and calling her names, Eugene changed his behavior, staying at the office more often and leaving explicit information when he left.

Alternative C: Reanalyzing the Problem and Determining Whether the Person Has the Skills to Engage in the Desired Behavior.

Sometimes people are unresponsive to assertive communications simply because they are unable to do what someone wants them to do. If they do not, you will need to redirect your efforts.

A bank employee left his desk several times a day and didn't arrange for anyone to cover his responsibilities. Consequently, bank customers and officials couldn't get needed information. Though his supervisor repeatedly asked him to arrange for a replacement and the employee said that he would, he never did. As the supervisor reanalyzed the problem and asked, "What stops this person from doing what I want," that is, arranging for others to cover his desk, several things became clear:

1. The employee continually underestimated the length of time that he would be away from his desk.

2. He lacked the assertive skills to ask for help.

3. He was afraid that the other workers would think that he wasn't doing his job.

Upon obtaining this information, the supervisor redirected his efforts to having the employee keep a record of how long he estimated he would be away from his desk and how long he actually was away, helping him practice asking for help, and lastly the supervisor spoke to the other workers in the area and made it clear that he wanted them to help fill in when needed.

In another case, a student counseling service receptionist kept interrupting the psychologists' counseling sessions with calls from clients. Staff members' requests to hold all but emergency calls did not result in any changes. Upon re-analyzing the problem, one of the psychologists, Jim, realized that the receptionist had not always had trouble discriminating which calls were emergencies. In fact, the problem had started about a month previously. When Jim asked himself, "What other things were happening about the time the problem started?" he remembered that the receptionist's father had taken ill with terminal cancer and was in the hospital dying for the last month. Most likely the receptionist was not able to discriminate who needed immediate help and who didn't at this time. Many calls probably sounded like they came from desperately ill people. Realizing this, staff members redirected their efforts to sympathize with the receptionist's current state of mind and arranged to have another person screen client's requests when the psychologists were tied up in private sessions.


Alternative D: Reanalyzing the Problem and Determining Whether Assertive Expressions of Irritation are Actually Increasing the Undesired Behavior:

In some cases assertive expressions of irritation actually make the problem worse rather than better. This is particularly true when the other person gets a kick out of seeing you upset, irritated, or thrown off balance. For example, when students act up in order to irritate the teacher, the teacher's irritation can be a kind of reward or reinforcer. In such cases it is more effective to ignore (or extinguish) the undesired behavior (assuming that the undesired behavior is not dangerous or of such a nature that it must be responded to) and catch the person at being good instead of at being bad. One caution, however: When you ignore or extinguish the other person's behavior, that behavior usually gets worse for a while before it gets better.

One mother got caught in what has been called the Criticism Trap. She was fooled into thinking that criticism worked because the criticized behavior stopped for a bit, when in fact the behavior was being strengthened in the long run. Each time her five year old son, Mike, misbehaved, she criticized him. He stopped misbehaving but after a few moments did something else that was objectionable. In the long run her assertive expressions of irritation were making the problem worse. The way out of the Criticism Trap is to redirect your efforts to assertively praise desired behavior more and to be less critical.

Another mother had a continuing problem with her five and seven year old children. She constantly reminded them to do such things as make their beds, pick up their toys, and brush their teeth, with the result that there was a hassle nearly every morning. After discussing the problem with the children, she realized that they needed more praise and something more concrete than a simple "that's good" when they did what she wanted. She set up a star chart, and each morning after the children brushed their teeth or made their beds, they pasted a star on the chart; the stars were traded in for little special privileges. This system caused fewer hassles, the children upset her less, and she was now in a position to make positive comments rather than negative ones. The children felt proud of their increasing ability to take care of their responsibilities without reminders. Eventually they got into a positive morning habit and no longer needed the star system.

This following example deals with extinction. A woman took a job selling Cadillacs, a job previously held only by men. As is often the case, the salesmen had to go through a readjustment period, and in the process quite a few teasing and derogatory remarks were made - some meant in jest, some in earnest, and some just because the person did not know what else to say. Responding to each of these with assertively expressed irritation actually worsened the woman's situation. By passing over all but the most blatant comments and maintaining some perspective, she found that the problem gradually improved.


Alternative E: Using Listening, Understanding, and Discussion:

As indicated earlier, sometimes simple listening and increased understanding of other people is more effective and a better alternative to standing up for yourself. A young woman received a lot of criticism when she joined a previously all male staff. The most vehement remarks came from a particular man who strongly believed that women should stay at home. By listening and engaging him in discussion so that she could gain a better understanding of his point of view, she accepted him as an individual, and he gradually stopped viewing her as a threat. When they both accepted each other, they were able to discuss rather than debate their differences.


Alternative F: Using Empathy:

Another alternative is to express empathy rather than irritation. A man who was shopping for shirts was served by a very brusque and irritating clerk. He chose to be empathetic and inquired: "You seem to be having an awful day. Is something wrong?" The clerk disclosed that his wife was in the hospital and that he was worried about her. He expressed sympathy and asked whether the clerk would care to say what was wrong with her. They discussed her illness for a few minutes, in the process of which the clerk felt better. The customer left the store with a good feeling that his behavior had brought comfort to a fellow man.


Often we lack information about how to be influential in groups and maximize our impact - without being aggressive. While much has been written about persuasion, little has been said about ways of being assertive and persuasive. There are two principles which may maximize a person's impact when giving opinions in task-oriented groups, such as faculty meetings, PTA meetings, etc. The two principles concern how to use timing and tact in expressing honest opinions.



Before deciding when is the best time to assert opinions, it is important to decide which of all the many issues raised in a meeting have top priority and warrant taking an assertive position. People who fail to decide their top priority issues may end up being "assertive for the sake of being assertive" and talking far too long about virtually every issue that is raised. The consequences of such behavior is that the rest of the committee members view that person as being on an ego trip. Once someone has become so labeled, their opinions are not listened to seriously, even when they are raising good points on an important issue.

After identifying the priority issues, timing of the opinion becomes important. It is generally more effective to express an opinion after a third to a half of the committee members have already expressed their positions. At that point in the meeting, there is a better sense of the group's position and you can more easily address the points which thus far have been raised. Furthermore, this timing reduces the risk of the group members making up their minds before your position is known.

To achieve maximum impact, opinions should be stated clearly, cogently, and with few self-depreciatory remarks. For example, saying, "I sure don't understand what's wrong with this proposal. Maybe it's just me, but I kind of feel something's wrong with the whole thing," implies that the speaker is inadequate. It is generally more effective to present oneself as capable. For example, "The way I see it there is a flaw in this proposal that's hard to pin down. Does anyone else sense that too?" Needless to say the nonverbal behaviors which accompany opinions are extremely important. Losing eye contact, speaking softly or in a whining or belligerent tone of voice, covering one's mouth with a hand, etc. all reduce the potential impact of a statement.


Tact becomes very important when taking a position which is contrary to either the rest of the group or to a powerful group member. In assertive persuasion, tact involves a specific type of empathetic assertion or "stroking" which is said before stating an opinion. Stroking does not mean using flattery or making ingratiating comments, but rather finding something that is genuinely good about the other person's point. For example:

Your point about the lack of interest in student government is well taken. The students have been apathetic. But if we bow to apathy we'll never get anywhere. I say let's try to get a student questionnaire developed anyway and find out just how much support we've got.

I agree that the time-flex planning has not been widely used and the bugs haven't been completely worked out of the system. However, the experimental results have been encouraging to the point where I think the system's worth trying.

Communication is a basic ingredient of human relationships. Let us learn how to use communication wisely and responsibly so that we treat others with love, respect, and fairness, and help them also to become more responsible.

A great deal of credit and thanks go to Arthur J. Lange and Patricia Jakubowski for their excellent work in this area of communication. The primary material source for this paper is their book Responsible Assertive Behavior - Cognitive / Behavioral Procedures for Trainers. Another book by these authors which expands on this paper through further definition and many homework exercises is The Assertive Options - Your Rights and Responsibilities. Research Press Co., 2612 N. Mattis Ave., Champaign, IL 61820.


Previous Chapter   Contents   Next Chapter

Revised 2020