How to express your feelings in a respectful way
Your partner calls. They’re screaming because you forgot to pick up the kids. They’ve been waiting for two hours. Remorse envelopes you. They say you are worthless. Your stomach drops. You feel low as you drive to get your kids. When you arrive, the kids are okay, but the word worthless, and the screaming, stick with you all week. Your energy level is shot, and at the same time, you feel like you are bursting with anger at your partner’s harshness. You’re surprised at how affected you are by the situation. The kids weren’t harmed or really bothered—they got extra play time at their afterschool program—and the screaming only lasted half a minute or so. But the truth is, it hurt.
While this scenario may or may not feel familiar in its specifics, most of us have experienced a time when we felt hurt by a loved one’s actions. In cases such as these, it is important to communicate these feelings openly and honestly while remaining open to the other person’s feelings and needs. This is the definition of healthy assertive communication-conveying a message about your needs and feelings without trampling on the other person’s needs and feelings in the process.
Clarify your feelings
Central to clarifying one’s feelings is keeping in mind that there are no wrong feelings. You are not responsible for the feelings you experience, but you are responsible for how you choose to respond to them. Clarifying them will not only help you understand how to respond in an effective way, but it will also help you communicate your emotional needs to your partner. In a situation like the one above, perhaps you’d feel ashamed or devalued. How would you communicate this? Effective feelings statements, called “I” statements, have three parts:
- “I feel ________ (feeling word),
- when ____________ (describe situation)
- because (explain why you feel that way).”
In the above scenario, you might say, “I feel hurt when you describe me as worthless because making a mistake doesn’t make me worthless” or “I feel devalued when you yell at me so harshly because I made an honest mistake” or “I feel disrespected when you scream at me because screaming is not a respectful way to express feelings of disappointment.” Consider writing these down or practicing saying them in advance so it is clear in your mind what you want to convey.
The final push: Suggest an alternative
Have you ever received feedback that focused solely on what you did wrong, with no suggestion of how to make it right? It’s not very helpful because you are left to guess what the other person wants you to do instead, putting you at risk of disappointing them again. That’s why it’s important to explain what you would like your loved one to do instead. In some cases, this may be as simple as asking them to lower their voice when expressing a concern or refrain from using stinging words such as worthless. In others, it may be necessary to brainstorm together what other options exist in order to find a solution that you both can agree on. This also provides the opportunity to learn more about your partner’s feelings about the situation, which can be helpful to both of you in future situations.
Preparing your expectations and goals
It is natural to hope that our partner will be receptive and open to what we say when we share vulnerable feelings. It is also a worthwhile endeavor as it gives them the opportunity to respond. There is nothing wrong with hoping for this, but it is important to temper that hope with an awareness that even if you convey your feelings message with stellar respect and clarity, the other person may react in an unsupportive way or become defensive. Their reaction is beyond your control. Some may see this as too big of a risk and decide not to have the talk at all. The problem with such avoidance is that it robs you of the chance to communicate and to move forward. Thus, it is best to go in with a goal to communicate in a way that you can feel proud of, not with the goal of them hearing, understanding, or agreeing with you. Having unrealistic expectations of what might happen puts you at risk of feeling angry, which then puts you at risk of communicating in an aggressive way.
Key tips and tricks
There are several ideas about style, tone, and body language to keep in mind when trying to convey a tone of respect amid assertiveness.
- Eye Contact. Allow yourself to meet their gaze confidently and clearly while you provide your message. Avoid staring.
- Tone of Voice. Consider that a gentle, calm tone is more likely to be received than one that is biting or harsh. Keep your voice level down and the tempo of your speech even.
- Body language. Try not to approach the person with angry facial expressions, or arms crossed. Avoid getting in their personal space.
- Language. Avoid blaming, threatening, or criticizing language. The goal of this type of assertive communication is to state your feelings in a way that conveys that you, not the other person, are responsible for how you feel. For example, instead of judging their behavior, try something like, “When you raise your voice and I hear it get high pitched, I feel….”
- Slow down. It can be tempting to try to have a response to their response immediately, as though if we don’t, they won’t hear us. Particularly if you feel triggered, take a pause before responding to what they say. You’re likely to uphold your value to communicate respectfully if you pause and not simply act on your emotions.
- State what you want. Sometimes, people have a hard time understanding what we want from them if we don’t tell them. Do not simply leave the conversation at what behaviors you don’t want. Suggest what behaviors might work better for you in future similar situations.
Assertive communication takes practice. If you struggle to communicate assertively and it’s taking a toll on the important relationships in your life, contact Serenity Solutions at 267-317-8817 or schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation here to learn more about how we can help you on your journey towards a more fulfilling, meaningful, communicative relationships.