Iris Mini: Assertive Communication

“Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you. It means learning to respect and use your own brain and instinct; hence, grappling with hard work." - Adrienne Rich

Cancer can raise new conflicts, and communicating about these concerns can be challenging. Communicating effectively about your needs can require some skill-building. The good news is that simple communication strategies can go a long way in helping you cope more effectively with cancer and its demands.

Each person has their own communication preferences and needs. Think about your needs, how to advocate for yourself, and how to communicate assertively.

Conflict and Disagreement

Both conflict and disagreement are normal under the stress created by cancer. Assertive communication can help resolve conflicts while reducing the tension conflicts can cause. 

Try these communication strategies and additional tips:

  • Assertive communication involves clearly expressing your feelings, beliefs, and needs in a way that respects the rights and beliefs of others.

  • “I" statements express your needs and can make asking for help easier. "I" statements are a structured way to communicate assertively (I feel, I have, I am, etc.).

    • An example if you feel rushed with your medical team: Instead of “You never give me enough time,” try “I feel worried and disrespected when I don’t have time to ask questions because I’m worried about this new symptom.”

    • Try using this sentence structure to express your needs:

      • "I feel _______ when _______ because _________”

  • Additional tips

    • State clearly what you need or experience.

    • Do not expect the other person to read your mind.

    • Avoid pressuring the other person to agree with you if they don’t.

    • Voice your needs in medical appointments to help communicate with your healthcare team.

    • When in doubt, ask. Get comfortable being curious and asking questions until you understand.

Managing Unwanted Advice

Often people living with cancer and their caregivers receive unwanted advice or well-meaning offers of help from loved ones. It may come from a feeling of helplessness and wanting to show concern. There are many ways to respond, such as:

  • Thank them for their concern and let them know you'll contact them if you want more information. 

  • Offer an alternative. Example, "We’re not up for hearing about treatment alternatives, but we’d love a meal if that works for you." 

  • Express your trust in your medical team. Example, “I trust my medical team and I am not interested in hearing about alternative treatments right now.”

Strategies to Try

  • How do you nicely say that you don't want to talk about cancer when someone asks you how you are? This is unique to each person, but some people find that something like this helps:

    • "Thanks for your concern, I promised myself a day free of talking about cancer. Let's talk about..."

  • Back pocket phrases: It can help to have a selection of phrases that you can pull out when you want to quickly make a point or transition a conversation away from the details of your diagnosis or treatment. What “back pocket” phrases do you use? When do you find you need them most?