A simple tip for staying assertive in emotional conversations

Asian Tigers fight at the Wat Pa Luangtabua Buddhist temple May 22, 2001, in the western Thai village of Sai Yok, where they are cared…
Asian Tigers fight at the Wat Pa Luangtabua Buddhist temple May 22, 2001, in the western Thai village of Sai Yok, where they are cared…
Image: Reuters
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One night this week, I debated the merits of mint-chocolate-chip ice cream with three strangers on a Zoom call. Things got pretty intense.

“I understand that you find it overwhelming, and personally, I think the mint is refreshing,” I said politely to a person I’d just met.

“I can see how it’s refreshing, and I can take or leave it,” said another stranger, fidgeting slightly with her hands.

Okay, maybe not so intense.

We engaged in this low-stakes argument for an online class on building assertive communication skills, taught by Jen Oleniczak Brown at the Brooklyn Brainery. Brown, the founder of a company called The Engaging Educator, specializes in helping people improve their communication by drawing on the principles of improvisational comedy.

All of the people in the class identified as women, and most were interested specifically in learning how to be more assertive in the workplace. The ice cream debate was meant to give us practice putting a classic pillar of improv—“yes, and”—to use during emotionally charged conversations.

In improv, troupe members are expected to “yes, and” one another; that is, to accept and build on one another’s ideas. “To me, ‘yes, and’ means don’t be afraid to contribute,” Tina Fey writes in her book Bossypants.

In assertive communication, “yes, and” serves a slightly different purpose, Brown explained. It’s a strategy that comes in handy when a disagreement is getting heated, and all parties are feeling angry, stressed, threatened, or anxious, or any combination thereof.

When conversations get uncomfortable, it can be easy for someone who struggles with assertiveness to simply shut down or give in. If, for example, your boss becomes hostile when you question his decisions, you may decide there’s no point in pushing back. Such scenarios can be particularly fraught for women, who may face backlash for being deemed too forceful. (The bar as to what constitutes “too forceful” is significantly lower for women than for men.)

One way to address this problem, Brown said, is to repeat the other person’s statement—thereby letting them know that you’re listening and understand their perspective—and then add your own perspective. She says it’s crucial to use the word “and” rather than “but.”

“The word ‘but’ pits two things against each other and elevates the second part of the sentence,” she said. “It makes one opinion more important than the other.” The word “and,” by contrast, puts both people’s feelings and opinions on equal footing.

During our mint-chip discussion, emotions were not running high. Still, my fellow classmates and I all said that we felt a bit nervous about disagreeing with one another.

That made me eager to keep practicing the “yes, and” rule in everyday conversation, and not just so I can better handle conflicts as they arise. I appreciate the egalitarianism that underpins “yes, and,” and the way that language can encourage us to put equal value on ourselves and others as we move through the world of work.

After all, as Brown told us, “Your opinions, feelings, and wants matter just as much as the other person’s.”

That’s why assertive communication isn’t about winning; it’s about compromise, and the self-respect we feel when we stand our ground.