Any relationship between two people involves 3 kinds of space: “My Space,” “Your Space” and “Our Space.” Space can be literal, as in a shared living situation with a roommate. Space can also be figurative, as in the spoken and/or unspoken rules we have for talking with one another and behaving with one another.

A boy yelling into a microphoneIn any relationship, the other person will sometimes cross a boundary by breaking rules of Our Space, or even commenting, critiquing or requesting something that infringes on My Space.

How do we handle these violations? Typically we handle them passively, aggressively or assertively. Sometimes, it’s helpful to have tools for all three of these responses. However, if we want to maintain a healthy relationship with someone over time, assertive responses can be the most helpful.

It’s important to remember, though, that not all people respond well to assertive responses so they’re not a magic formula that will always work. We have to consider the consequences of assertive language, and sometimes to choose not to engage when assertiveness has not worked with someone in the past. Also keep in mind that it might be dangerous to use assertive language with an abusive person.

A lot of people know how to be passive and some people know how to be aggressive, but many of us have never been taught how to be assertive in respectful and thoughtful ways.

“I Statements” I feel __(specific feeling word or words)________________________ When You ______(specific behaviors)__________________________ Because ______(state the infringement)________________________ OR, Because I take it to mean ____(state interpretation)__________________.

Then, follow the I Statement with a request for the other person: REQUEST: ________________________________________________________?

For example: “Yesterday, I felt frustrated when you asked me to come home for the holidays as soon as my last final is completed, because I’d really like to spend some time with a few of my friends before coming home. Can we negotiate on a different date when I will get home?” Or another: “I feel conflicted when you keep asking me to go out with you because I take it to mean you don’t hear me telling you that I really need to study tonight. Is there a way you can respect my decision to study tonight if we plan for some special time together soon?”

Passiveness tends to convey respect for the other person’s wants while disrespecting our own feelings; being passive often leads to resentment of the other person, or for feeling sorry for ourselves.

Aggressive statements (“You always…” “You never…” “You’re so…”) tend to do the opposite: convey respect for our own feelings at the expensive of the other. Assertive statements attempt to show respect to both parties in that we are sharing our own feelings in response to specific behaviors of the other. They end in a request, which asks the other person to come to the table to negotiate a solution. However, assertive statements won’t work unless the other person is open to hearing about our wants and needs in the relationship.