In May 2009, I allowed the BBC Britain to bring two troubled British teens to my home to make a show called “The World’s Strictest Parents.” They brought me two seventeen-year-olds named Hannah and James. For two days Hannah and James had tantrums and tried every way they could think of to initiate power struggles and force us to become aggressive. This is generally called, “button pushing.” What they didn’t know was that I got rid of all my buttons long ago.
On day three, the teens were all of the sudden completely different. They were obedient and generally wanted to communicate effectively. I was really impressed with their new personalities. I said to Hannah, “Hannah, why did you suddenly stop yelling and getting angry?”
She said, “Well, at my house if I yell, I get my way, or someone at least yells back. But, here you always stay so calm that it doesn’t do any good. So, I just figured I might as well try staying calm too.” Because Hannah saw that her aggression wouldn’t work, she was able to completely change the way she communicated. So what did Hannah give up her aggression for? We taught her assertiveness, which was a new way to get her way. (To see the BBC show go to )
When most people think of communication, they think of words. While words are a vital way to communicate, there are many ways communication happens. Body language actually communicates even more than words do. A person’s body, eyes, and over all feeling expressed speaks much more about what the person thinks and feels than words ever will.
We all know this. We form our opinions and moods from these intuitive clues all the time. So, why don’t we think more carefully about how we move, and express ourselves then? We get fooled into thinking that we see other people’s moods and feelings more vividly than they see ours. People see everything you do, and hear more in your words than what you say. They hear your tone, and the feeling carried by the tone is what speaks to their hearts.
So, what about those people who choose to say nothing? Are they impossible to read? No way! They are easier to read in many ways. They think they are controlling themselves by shutting down all communication, but what they don’t know is that people can’t ever stop communicating. Choosing to be absent or silent is also a communication of how you feel about other people and your disapproval of an issue, or distance from the other person. These communications are obvious and cannot be hidden by the best actor or actress.
There are four ways people generally try to get their way; by being passive, aggressive, passive/aggressive, or assertive. If you don’t know which way you generally try to gain control of situations and other people’s emotions, then take this little test.
Let’s say you are in a check-out line at a grocery store and someone cuts in front of you in line. What do you do?
Do you grab the person and shove them aside? Do you very loudly say,”Hey, I was here first. The back of the line is over there.” If you find yourself acting like this in similar situations, then you are aggressive and try to gain control of your environment by force.
Maybe you are more inclined to say nothing and focus on thoughts like, “People are so rude now days. No one even looks to see if I am here. Oh well, its better not to say anything because I never know what they might do if I spoke up. It’s better to keep the peace.” If you think things like this and often do nothing then you are passive to gain control of your surroundings and keep the peace.
Perhaps you are the kind of person who responds by saying nothing to the person who cut in front of you, but might make a rude remark about the person who cut in line to the person behind you or to your impatient child. You might “accidentally” get too close to the person in front of you with your cart and make it difficult for them to move, or just glare at the back of their head and think hateful things about the person for a good while after the person leaves the store. During all of this you will feel proud of yourself for not showing emotional weakness by yelling at the person. If you take all the control inside yourself and argue with body language and feelings instead of with forceful actions and words then you are a passive/aggressive arguer.
These three manipulative responses are the most common ways to react to the situation described above, but they are not the only way to handle the situation. Instead, you could choose to assume the person in front of you is unaware of the line and kindly suggest a correction of the problem. It would look like this. You tap the line-cutter on the shoulder in a kind way and say, “Excuse me.” After the person turns around and can see eye-to-eye, you disagree in an appropriate way. In my home we call this skill disagreeing appropriately. It is a fundamental skill to creating a successful, happy adult.
The disagreement would go something like this, “Sir, I know you probably didn’t notice before, but this is not the back of the line. The back of the line is actually over there. Would you mind moving to the back of the line instead of right here? Thank you.” Speaking calmly, with respect and assuming the best of the person who you are communicating with is called being assertive. Assertiveness is the desired way to get what you want or what is right, and it works.
Sure, you could be assertive and the other person could come back at you with aggression, but this is usually very rare. Remember, that the feeling of your body, voice tone, and soul will be felt by the other person. So, if you choose to really love the offender and see his side for a minute, and communicate those feelings to him while setting the situation right at the same time, then he will have a hard time returning aggression for those kind feelings and actions.
However, if a person chooses to be aggressive to you when you are assertive, then the best thing to do is to say, “Oh” and pity the person for obviously having such a bad day or being out of control at the minute. It’s okay to see another person fail at communicating. Love them anyway. (I like using “Oh.” It is the perfect statement. It says “I hear you” but doesn’t say “I agree.”)
Aggressive people choose to rage because it feels powerful for a minute and releases tension. They choose aggression to get what they want because they know other people don’t know how to handle their emotions. Aggressive people tend to believe that there are two kinds of people; the kind that use aggression and get what they want and the kind that back down and never get what they want.
My British child-for-a-week, Hannah proved this when she said, “Well, at my house if I yell I get my way or someone at least yells back…”
Have you noticed that the majority of adults are not aggressive in public? The reason this is the case is because it is generally agreed that aggression is something that happens with frustrated children; not adults. Children have to be taught to overcome aggression. However, in private, many adults prove they never really learned to handle their aggressive tendencies. They don’t know they can have good relationships by being assertive instead of aggressive.
Passive people think aggressive people are scary, and choose not to battle things out with them for self preservation. They don’t know about being assertive and think that their only options are either to be aggressive, which looks out of control, or to be passive, or passive/aggressive which seems like control. Truly passive people see themselves as weak and everyone else as strong. They take abuse from other people because they just don’t know how to handle it. Passive people feel walked on and frustrated because no one really understands them or cares about their wishes and feelings.
Sometimes passive people attempt to communicate but get shut down easily and choose to become reconciled to their situation because they don’t feel heard. Seeking attention by expressing their weaknesses, or having “pity parties,” is common with passive people.
You may wonder how a passive person could feel like they are gaining control over their environment by being passive and backing down. The passive person controls the environment by keeping the peace and being able to stop an argument. They know that if they back down to the other person’s wishes then they can control most of the responses of the other person and have less tension. Again, truly passive people are rare because a truly passive person has to choose passiveness for the sake of peace, and then not desire any change that would put the peace in jeopardy.
The reason truly passive people are rare is because most passive people would fall into the category of passive/aggressive. Instead of backing down from confrontation for the sake of peace the passive/aggressive person backs down for force. They see that the person who says less is not as vulnerable as the person who says more. They completely buy into Benjamin Franklin’s quote, “It is better to not say anything and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
Saying nothing feels powerful to passive/aggressive people. They use their silence to make their argument. They only want communication if the other person will see their way. If the passive/aggressive person doesn’t think his idea will be adopted as the best, then he will not offer it up. Passive/aggressive parents might leave a child who isn’t ready to go on time. The passive/aggressive spouse is the kind who sits in the car on Sunday mornings with a scowl on her face feeling superior to all those not ready on time for church. Her actions communicate, “I’m ready; it’s obviously all your fault we are late.” Her body and feelings do all the arguing.
Passive/aggressive people put up emotional walls. They close themselves off from other people and choose not to do any verbal communication assuming they are choosing no communication. What they don’t know is that they are communicating.
Their body movements and argumentative feeling of their soul are easily felt. They feel distant because they have made themselves thus. Their silence tells everyone on the other side of the wall this, “I don’t agree with you. I feel like not talking but know that if I talk to you I will feel better. I want to be understood. I want you to see things the way I see them. I feel so alone.
You just don’t get it. Because you don’t value my opinions I feel like our relationship is ruined right now. Do you really care what I think and feel? My opinions are important…”
This really is what they are trying to say, whether they have thought about it or not. As a parent or spouse it is helpful to know that the person is shutting you out to get your attention and encourage relationship building. It is tempting to be passive/aggressive too and let the wall become stronger and taller, but that will not take care of what the passive/aggressive person is really asking for; attention, understanding and an insight into how to communicate with you.
Passive/aggressive people can seem difficult to connect with, but they are screaming in a silent way for connection and acceptance. An assertive spouse, friend, or parent can change these hearts.
Assertiveness is the only problem-solving method which isn’t manipulative! It doesn’t need to be because assertive people have the power of self-government. Their reaction is about them controlling themselves not them controlling others. They know how to keep their emotions controlled, while still problem-solving situations. They are calm, friendly, loving and understanding while at the same time firm and principled.
Assertive problem solvers recognize that they have the power to communicate either with love or contempt and choose love. They really seek to understand what the other person might have been thinking or feeling. Next, they lovingly describe the situation, and suggest a remedy or give an instruction. Then they trust that the person is good and wants to choose the right choice, even if the choice doesn’t always turn out as planned.
An assertive person isn’t afraid to talk about situations and feelings. They believe that open honest discussion is the key to solving a problem. In fact, assertive people usually instigate healthy, humble discussion.
Assertive people are not afraid of aggressive people because they are secure. Assertive people do not rage because they trust their communication skills. Assertive people do not build up emotional walls because they know that relationships are the most important part of communication. Are you assertive? I haven’t always been.
I gave my parents most of their gray hairs with my aggression and passive/aggression in my younger years and have had many family arguments over the years which were all about building up walls. But I learned there was another way to get what I wanted; to be assertive.
Once I realized this skill was desirable above all other problem solving skills I knew I had to improve upon it and teach it to my children so they wouldn’t be the kind of children I was and so they could be “joyful, happy adults, who know what their mission in life is and can’t wait to fight for it, and have solid relationships with God and family.” ( by: Nicholeen Peck) This is my goal, and teaching assertive problem solving is my way. I call it teaching self-government, and it has changed my life.
Talk about these four attitudes toward solving relationship problems and disagreements as a family. If each person is aware of the four different ways to see situations they are more likely to choose the assertive way. Then the whole family can communicate more lovingly and effectively.