Assertiveness and active listening. Zzzzzzzzz.
We know. These words don’t exactly sound very exciting, which is unfortunate because they are so important! At Prepare/Enrich, we consider them foundational skills – what all other skills are built on. Without assertiveness and active listening, working through conflict becomes impossible, talking about money is an exercise in frustration, and growing as a couple is, frankly, unlikely.
Having trouble remembering what an assertive statement is or what active listening sounds like? Here’s a quick refresh:
Assertiveness is the ability to express your feelings and ask for what you want.
“I want to go to on a long beach vacation this summer with just you, but I know you already identified that you’d like us to spend time with your extended family. I’m feeling torn about the decision because I’m not sure we will be able to make both happen.”
Active listening is the ability to let your partner know you understand by restating their message accurately and acknowledging their feelings.
“If I’m understanding correctly, you are feeling torn with where we should spend our free time because you want to spend time at the beach with just me, but you know I want us to spend time with my extended family, and you’re unsure if we’re able to do both. Is this correct?”
Seems straightforward enough, right? And yet when it comes down to it, so many of us struggle with carrying out these components of effective communication. What gets in the way? Let’s take a closer look.
Assertiveness gets a bad rap. It can have connotations of being demanding or aggressive, when by definition, it is neither of these. Cultural norms can also dictate how assertiveness is interpreted and accepted. However, the ability to respectfully express your feelings and ask for what you need and want is underappreciated, both in its difficulty and importance. Being assertive on our own behalf can feel too strong or even selfish for some people. But who else knows exactly how you feel or what you need better than yourself?
Sometimes we might hold back from asking for what we need or sharing how we truly feel for fear of our partner’s reaction. Will they be hurt? Angry? Annoyed? Judgmental? The thing is, when we aren’t assertive, we aren’t giving our partner a fair chance to step up to the plate. It is scary to put yourself out there in vulnerable way, but giving them the chance to meet you there creates an amazing opportunity to grow closer as a couple.
Active listening can feel a little silly or even robotic when you’re restating what your partner said, but it’s really a concrete way to ensure that you understand the meaning behind their words. Do you know someone (besides your partner) who makes you feel like the most interesting person in the world when you talk to them? They give you their full attention, ask all the right questions, and seem to really want to understand you. Chances are, this person excels at active listening. What factors prevent us from listening to our partner in this way?
Maybe it’s because they know us on a deeper level (and vice versa), and we get defensive. We get sidetracked preparing a reply or rebuttal instead of lowering our guard and opening our ears and hearts to truly hear what our partner is telling us. It’s understandable – we’re human. But the ability to put aside your own insecurities in order to better understand your partner is what can take your communication from frustrating to transformative.
If you and your partner are struggling lately, take a minute to reflect on how well you’re carrying out these fundamentals of communication. Are you telling each other what you need and sharing your feelings respectfully? Are you listening to each other without judgment and truly hearing each other? Over time, we tend to make more assumptions while being less mindful of these foundational skills. That’s why relationships are always a work in progress, and why revisiting the basics can give you the perspective you need.