When many folks think of assertiveness, they think of sender skills. An assertive person is one who communicates their thoughts and feelings confidently. Openly.
And while this is true, it’s not the entire picture. In practice, the most difficult part of assertive communication is the receiver half.
Because an assertive communicator is not only open to speaking their own truths — but also open to hearing and considering those of the person they’ve talking to. Even when those truths are unpleasant. Or radically different than one’s own.
A great way to think about assertiveness? Is to consider it an honesty exchange.
The Honesty Exchange
As Phi, a mono kinkster in a mono/poly relationship, writes in “The Honesty Exchange“:
In the world of kink and BDSM, we talk about the “power exchange.” I love to focus on the word “exchange,” not as a “one gives and one takes,” but as a mutual give and take between the people involved. It looks a little bit like the symbol for recycling – not a one-for-one exchange, but symbiotic exchange running on a continuous loop.
…it’s easy for me to expect honesty from the people in my life because I make it very easy for people to be honest with me. That’s part of the Honesty Exchange that I’m talking about.
Expecting honesty from your partner isn’t only about wanting them to be truthful at all time, it’s also about learning to accept honesty graciously when you don’t like what you’re hearing, and learning to give honesty tactfully when it’s not what they want to hear.
Phi acknowledges that it’s difficult when someone tells you something you really don’t want to hear.
And she’s right. The emotional reaction floods our nervous system with chemicals. As Yerkes-Dodson famously demonstrated, it’s difficult to do anything well if you’re too keyed up (a.k.a., excessive sympathetic arousal diminishes performance).
“Thank You For Your Honesty”
To account for this effect, Phi advises a very simple response, “Thank you for your honesty.”
And after this acknowledgement to take a second to breathe and check in with your own feelings before reporting them back in a calm and measured way.
“Thank you for your honesty. I’ll admit it’s hard to hear and some of it worries me, but I want to work together to figure out how we can best move forward.”
Perhaps adding a call to problem-solve: “What do you think? How can we do that together?”
Of course, the exact delivery, the details, and approach, etc, will vary widely depending on the nature of the unpleasant news: Did they bum a smoke when they were supposed to have quit? Spend money they shouldn’t have? Hit something with your car? Violate your relationship agreement?
Each of these scenarios will likely be addressed differently.
But the general process is basically the same.
Conserving Honesty, Sender to Receiver and Back Again
Fessing up is hard to do. And honesty is priceless.
But the nice thing about this kind of response is that it encourages that person to share things with you in the future.
If you’d screamed obscenities, given them the silent treatment for days, or similarly warred (Barenaked Ladies anyone?), they might not be so keen on opening up the next time. But instead? You reward the behavior you want to see (honestly sharing difficult truths) with a behavior that will be equally well received (a measured response).
And this approach still gives you an opportunity to be honest back about your feelings and how the statement has affected you. Rather than insta-doormat-ing, going along with whatever, and pushing your feelings down.
Because that’s no good either. And it’s by being an assertive receiver of communication, especially when it’s hard (when we’re in conflict, when someone’s screwed up, etc) that we conserve this resource and promote future honesty.