I think of good communication as having two qualities: honesty and kindness. If we are able to communicate honestly about our needs while still being kind, we take care of ourselves and build our relationships with others at the same time.
Let’s take an everyday1 example of communication. Your partner, who hasn’t done much housework this week, complains bitterly to you about having to do the dishes instead of relaxing. You think the dishes need to get done and it’s not your turn to do them. There are four basic categories of responses:
- Aggressive (honest and unkind) — Aggressive communication is an attack on someone else in an effort to get what you need: “Quit whining like a baby! Do the damned dishes!” If you communicate aggressively, you may be quite honest about how you feel but because you are unkind your message is not likely to be well-received or understood. You often end up feeling guilty or ashamed.
- Passive (dishonest and kind) — Passive communication is giving up what you need in an effort to be kind to someone else: “OK, I’ll do the dishes.” If you communicate passively, you may be doing a kindness to someone else but it is at the expense of your own well-being. The other person does not find out what you are really thinking. Often, you end up feeling resentful.
- Passive-Aggressive (dishonest and unkind) — Passive-aggressive communication is a stealthy attack on someone else in an effort to get what you need without having to be honest about it: “Just the other day my friends were complaining about their partners and how they never do their share of the housework. Can you believe that?” If you communicate passive-aggressively, you are hurting the other person and causing confusion about what you really mean. Other people often end up being upset with you without being able to figure out why.
- Assertive (honest and kind) — Assertive communication is an effort to get what you need while being considerate to the other person: “I know you hate doing dishes when you are tired. I would like it if you could just go ahead and do them and get it over with. Then after that, maybe we could have some time to spend together tonight.” If you communicate assertively, you have the best chance of getting what you want because the other person understands what you need and doesn’t feel defensive or angry about it. Often, assertive communication can strengthen your connection with others and facilitate problem-solving.
All kinds of communication have their place. But usually, assertive communication is the most effective. Try to be aware of your habitual communication patterns and think about whether you need to be more honest or more kind. Your relationships are likely to improve as a result.