There's nothing quite like the moment where a perfectly lovely family dinner takes a turn for the tense. Whether it's a political disagreement, old hurts resurfacing, or just the very logical result of a bunch of tired, stressed people getting up close and personal, it's never fun to have the conversation devolve.
Depending on how your family deals with conflict, you might find this more or less a part of the holidays … but it doesn't have to be. In fact, many conflict-ridden conversations can be toned down if you know the right language — in this case, assertive language.
What is assertive language?
This is the kind of communication where you clearly state what you have to say without trampling on the other person. It sounds simple enough, but it's actually really hard to do if you don't consciously put it on your radar. This isn't because being assertive is in and of itself inherently difficult; it's more because for the most part, we're societally taught to communicate either aggressively or passively.
Let's break these three options down.
Aggressive communication is based in a win-lose attitude. You put your needs above everybody else's, and it comes across as superior and disrespectful. When you disagree with someone, you make it very clear. And while we often think of aggressive communication as being loud and direct, it can also be more indirect.
Passive communication is based in a lose-win attitude. When you're communicating in this way, you put everybody else's needs above your own, and look for every opportunity to one-down yourself. (As opposed to one-upping yourself.) You agree — or at least appear to agree — with whatever's being said around you, which means that your conversation is normally indirect, and sometimes dishonest.
Assertive conversation is based in a win-win attitude, whenever possible. It involves considering the other's needs without bowing to them. You communicate from a place of equality, and when you disagree, you do it respectfully. This type of communication is always active and honest.
So let's say that Uncle Bill starts talking politics over dessert…
And he says something you really, fundamentally disagree with. If you were communicating aggressively, you might say something like, "That's just stupid. How could you even think that?" Or, if you were being indirectly aggressive (some call this 'passive-aggressive'), you might say, "Gosh Uncle Bill, you're so smart. I'm glad you're here to teach us idiots the right way to think."
If you were communicating passively, you might say something like, "Well, I guess there's room for both opinions," or "I don't know, I'm sure you're right."
Neither option is great, because they both shut down communication. One shuts the other person down, the other shuts you down.
But if you communicate assertively, you might say something like, "I have a problem with that. Are you interested in hearing why?" Or "That's an interesting perspective. I see it differently. I'd love to talk more so we can share our thinking with each other about this important topic if you'd like."
Can you see the difference?
In the last case, you're taking ownership of your opinion without forcing it on the other person, and you're giving them the opportunity to opt in to the turn the conversation's taking.
Like I said, it's not rocket science. But it will dramatically change your experience with tense conversations — and maybe even defuse a few along the way.
Enjoy using your assertive conversation in the next couple of weeks, and remember that I'm always here if you need a little extra guidance.