Communication Modes: The Benefits of Being Assertive

Illustration of several overlapping speech bubblesWhen we relate to others, there are three modes we can utilize. However, most of us probably predominantly behave and communicate in one of these modes.

Submissive mode is a way of communicating that demonstrates lack of respect for one’s own needs and rights. Most submissive people do not express needs, or do so in such an apologetic and diffident manner that they are often ignored and not taken seriously. Sometimes a submissive person will think that they have communicated clearly when in reality their message was so vague and unclear that it was not understood at all.

Aggressive mode is an expression of feelings, needs, and ideas in a way that goes against the other person. It is a “move against” or “move with the intent to hurt.”

Assertive mode is a method of communication which enables a person to maintain self-respect, clearly communicate and pursue their needs, and defend their rights and personal space without abusing or dominating others. It confirms one’s right to be in the world and put forward needs, desires, ideas, and feelings.

Understanding Submissiveness
The payoff for submissive communication is that the person gets to avoid conflict. Submission is a way of avoiding, delaying, or at least hiding the kind of conflict that is very scary to some people. Most people have been trained for submission by parents, older siblings, teachers, and others. Submissive people are often praised for being submissive: they are called “nice”, unselfish, good sports. It is important to note that submissive people often “win” and control others through their seeming niceness and weakness. They get to have what they want by having the least amount of responsibility and avoiding conflict at the same time.

There is also a price for “nice.” Submissive people go along with everyone’s wishes and needs and do not call their own play. Their relationships tend to not be as intimate and satisfying as those of others: a relationship requires two people and the submissive person is almost not there. People may like and praise the submissive person who voices no complaints for a while, but eventually the other person may start to feel guilt about being selfish or taking advantage of the submissive person.This feeling can then turn into pity, irritation, and eventually anger. Submissive people themselves eventually lose affection for others because they feel a lack of fulfillment.

The thing to remember is that every submission is a repression of anger, which eventually seeps into the affection individuals may feel. Sadly, submissive people act this way in order to be loved—but that very way of being eventually creates conflict and estrangement.

Understanding Aggressiveness
The aggressive person tries to get their needs met, even at the expense of another. Aggressive communication and behavior pay off in three major ways: the aggressive people tend to get their material needs met, are able to protect their space, and seem to have control over their lives and the lives of others.

There are also several downsides to aggression. Aggressive people are very fearful: people are aggressive not because they feel strong, but because they feel weak. They tend to make enemies, and their aggression ultimately makes them even more vulnerable and fearful. Aggressive people tend to alienate people and are usually not liked or loved. This alienation is a very powerful reason to deal with this issue. Too much aggression can also have serious consequences on one’s health and creates an unsafe world for all to live in. There are many aggressive people in our society.

Understanding Assertiveness
Assertiveness has a number of benefits. Assertive people usually like themselves more than the other two types: there is a connection between the ability to assert yourself and improved self-esteem. Assertiveness usually fosters better relationships by making a person more comfortable with themselves and therefore more comfortable to be around. Assertiveness greatly reduces fear and anxiety and enables people to release positive energy towards each other. Healthy and mutual satisfaction of needs in any relationship can only occur between assertive people. The biggest benefit of assertiveness is the feeling of living one’s own life. Your chances of getting what you want out of life greatly improve if you can let others know what you want and need, as well as how you feel.

I think that a person is most likely to get what they want from life and from others by being assertive. Of  course, assertiveness doesn’t always guarantee that you get what you want and need, but under most circumstances it is still most appropriate and preferable.

Is there a price for assertiveness? Yes, there always is. Learning assertiveness takes effort and can be a struggle. It is not easy to change a habitual way of communication. It can also be very painful to communicate vulnerably and honestly what you need, want, or feel and have that lead to conflict or rejection. In order to be assertive, you must be willing to risk enduring a conflict in order to hopefully forge a more authentic, intimate, and satisfying connection.

There are times and situations when submissiveness and aggression are appropriate. The problem is when those kinds of behavior are compulsive.

A choice to work on becoming more assertive is not an easy one. But it is the only possible way to take charge of one’s life and break out of a rut of compulsive behaviors learned in dysfunctional relationships. Assertion helps people to develop the power of having and making a choice, as well as learning to respect that choice in others.  In the end, assertiveness is better most of the time.

© Copyright 2010 by Irina Firstein, LCSW, therapist in New York City, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Nate

    Nate

    August 23rd, 2010 at 7:03 PM

    I believe each one of us behaves in all the three modes at least once every day. I say this because when I was reading the article, what came to my mind is that I am assertive when I’m with my friends, aggressive with an incompetent junior and I’m submissive when the boss is mad at the team.

    So I think it makes perfect sense to say that nobody is stuck with one mode all throughout his life but adapts to the needs of the situation.

  • Kennedy

    Kennedy

    August 24th, 2010 at 4:38 AM

    I guess that there are times where we become one of these kinds of communicators but I guess there is also one that is the most predominant in our personalities. I definitely think that I am assertive with most people. It is not that I bully them into listening to me like someone who is aggressive might do- it is just that I am not going to take any crap from anyone and I am determined to get my point across and make myself heard. And that does not mean that you necessarily have to agree with what I am saying (although that would be nice) but you do have to respect my right to say it.

  • vanessa N

    vanessa N

    August 24th, 2010 at 4:56 AM

    it is important to stand up for yourself and not get carried away by others who stamp your own needs.but it is equally important to be nice to other people and not be too self-centered.it takes good sense of responsibility to perfectly balance this and have a judicious blend of being nice and being assertive.

  • wayne

    wayne

    August 24th, 2010 at 7:35 PM

    I feel controlled-aggression is the best way forward…I say this because people are just not-so-nice anymore. Everybody is trying to con everybody else and it would be disastrous if you try to just be very nice to others, you may be taken advantage of…!

  • Ryann

    Ryann

    August 25th, 2010 at 4:44 AM

    Being assertive when you are communicating with someone is one thing, but being aggressive is another thing entirely.

    I hate that feeling of when someone is all up in my face trying so hard to make a point but I swear when they do that to me it really does make me just tune them out and not listen at all to what they have to say.

    Maybe I should tape a sign across my forehead: does not do well with aggressive talkers!

  • GERRALD

    GERRALD

    August 25th, 2010 at 5:04 AM

    Have you guys observed-if one person is very submissive, others around him tend to become a little more aggressive than their natural selves just to be able to bully over the submissive person?
    I have observed this at school and feel really bad that we have a nature of changing ourselves for bad.

  • Sami

    Sami

    August 25th, 2010 at 8:15 PM

    Yes, assertive communication is a good thing and can really improve your standing and make others treat you with respect but I believe only a confident person is capable of doing it and it is necessary to actually tell more and more people about the benefits of assertive communication and how it can help them.

  • Maddie

    Maddie

    August 26th, 2010 at 4:46 AM

    What about those people who get so caught up in being in submissive roles that they would not have a clue as to how to assert themselves and make themselves heard? They may not feel that what they have to say is importnat so they have no way to convey to others that it is. That must be sad to feel like that.

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