How to communicate harsh things without causing resentment

Keep your focus on what you want, not what you don’t.

How to communicate harsh things without causing resentment

The importance of expressing your feelings in an intimate relationship shouldn’t be underestimated. Being honest about how you feel allows for bonding and emotional closeness, which improves every aspect of your relationship; withholding how you feel creates distance and disconnection. But even knowing how important emotional expression is, many people fear and avoid expressing their emotions—especially when they are upset. The most commonly cited reason: “I don’t want to cause a fight.”

How do you let someone know you’re upset or unhappy without causing a fight? These three steps might help you more effectively express yourself.

1. Don’t assume you’ll be met with a negative response.

Assuming that expressing your emotions will cause conflict is part of the problem. To be fair, most people jump to this conclusion because they’ve experienced trying to express how they feel and having it turn into a fight. But when you imagine something going badly, you prepare for it to go badly. When people expect a fight, they avoid expressing negative emotions until they are so upset that they can’t hold them in any longer. Feelings that may have been brewing for many weeks come out in an explosion that feels like an attack to the other person.

Instead of doing this, imagine what it would be like to talk to your partner in a way that would feel calm. When you don’t expect a conversation to go badly and can anticipate a positive outcome, your approach and energy will be entirely different when you engage with your partner.

2. Use “I feel” statements without justifying them.

Expressing emotions can make you feel vulnerable. As a result, most people are naturally inclined to want to justify their feelings, often by blaming the other person in some way: “I feel upset because of what you said and did.” But blaming the other person by stating that how you feel is his or her fault makes them defensive—and prevents them from hearing what you are saying.

Instead, try to state how you feel—and then put a period after the emotion and wait for a response: I feel annoyed. I feel frustrated. I feel sad. Most people find this much harder than it sounds, because putting an emotion out there without a justification can make you feel awkward and exposed. But if the person you are speaking to cares about you, their natural response will be “Why?” That person is now engaged and has invited you into a conversation.

3. Express what you want before what you don’t want.

Most negative feelings are generated because of something you don’t like or don’t want. On the other side of what you don’t want, though, is something you do want: “I feel angry because I don’t like being dismissed: I want to be heard.” Or, “I feel hurt because I don’t like that you are always busy: I want you to spend more time with me.”

Instead, skip over the part about what you don’t want, and go directly to what you do want to avoid putting the other person on the defensive. This way you empower the other person to identify what they can do to make the situation better—and you increase the likelihood that your needs and wants will be heard.

You: I feel upset because you never spend any time with me. (blaming)

Your partner: What are you talking about? We are always together. (defensive)

You: I feel upset. (feeling without justification)

Your partner: Why are you upset? (inviting)

You: I love you and want us to spend more time together. (what you want)

Your partner: I would like that too.

Changing the way you express your emotions is harder than it sounds. I encourage you to practice first in your head and then on other people before trying it with your partner. The benefit of getting your needs met and increasing the emotional intimacy in your relationship is well worth the effort.

I am the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare, the developer of Future Directed Therapy, and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.

Even when justified, these challenging emotions can adversely affect us.

Posted January 17, 2017 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma


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How to communicate harsh things without causing resentment

With the recent U.S. election and upcoming presidential inauguration, feelings of anger and resentment have become more widespread and more intense. Many people seem to be carrying their anger and resentment wherever they go, like an overstuffed suitcase. It is baggage that weighs them down and demands considerable attention and energy. This anger related to recent and current events and the resentment it fuels are contributing factors to ever-greater levels of interpersonal conflict and animosity — including among friends and family members.


Anger is a normal, natural emotion. In many situations, it’s a healthy and appropriate emotional reaction. Anger is an emotional response to a real or imagined “wrong” or injustice, but sometimes people get angry simply because things don’t go the way they would like. Anger takes place in the present, when life isn’t going the way we think it should. In this way, anger has a corrosive effect — it is a “fight” against present-moment reality, a refusal to accept what is. As Mark Twain put it, “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

Most often, anger is a secondary emotion. It can take shape instantly and unconsciously in response to something or someone that evokes feelings of hurt, fear, and/or inadequacy. When most people experience these primary emotions, they feel vulnerable, and their energy and attention are focused inward. For many people, this revealing of vulnerability creates so much distress that the underlying emotions are automatically transformed into anger.

Anger serves several defensive purposes:

  • It works as a shield that deflects uncomfortable primary emotions so they can be avoided or kept at a distance.
  • It provides a sense of power and control.
  • It directs focus outward to identifiable, external scapegoats (individuals, groups, institutions). It is almost always easier and more comfortable to focus on the actions of others than it is to focus on oneself.


Resentment is closely related to anger. Resentments are negative feelings, basically ill will, toward someone or something that emanates from the past. Resentment is the re-experiencing of past injustices — real or perceived — and the old feelings of anger connected to them. Resentments form when people get angry toward a person, institution, or situation, and steadfastly hold on to that anger.

Some people hold resentments for many years, refusing to let go of them. Over time, whatever caused the original anger and led to the resentment may be forgotten, while the resentment remains, like a still-smoldering ember left after the flames of a fire die down. The fire no longer rages, but the ember remains hot and at risk of the fire to reignite until it is extinguished.

There is a saying that when you resent somebody, you become his or her slave. The stronger the resentment is, the more time you spend thinking about it, caught up in the anger connected to it. This is a form of mental, emotional, and spiritual bondage. Ultimately, the person holding the resentment is the one who suffers most. Consistent with the 12-step adage, “Holding a resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”


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Although of course there are times when anger and resentment are appropriate and justified, often they built on a foundation of distorted belief that others should or must act the way you want them to. If you allow yourself to become angry or resentful whenever situations don’t go the way you prefer, then you are effectively giving control of your feelings to others. It’s similar to using a remote control to change channels on the TV. If your feelings depend on how other people behave, you are giving them the remote control to your emotions.

There are specific actions you can take to address feelings of anger and resentment in more healthy and helpful ways:

1. Practice identifying and allowing yourself to feel the underlying emotions that anger may be superimposed upon — such as hurt or fear. Strive to be present with and accept these feelings and the vulnerability they elicit.

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2. Practice being consciously present with your anger and resentment. Observe it. Allow it to simply be. Hold it. Visualize putting space around it. Notice what happens.

3. Identify how you may have contributed to the situation(s) that you are angry or resentful about. Be aware that people (including you) frequently play a part in the circumstances about which they are angry and/or resentful.

4. Practice expressing anger and resentment differently. Share these feelings with safe, supportive individuals whom you trust. Journal or write about them. Discharge them through physical activity by working out, taking a walk or run, going for a hike, or playing a sport. If appropriate to the situation, participate in activities that promote social and economic justice and other forms of nonviolent activism.

5. Learn and practice relaxation and self-calming techniques. Examples include intentional breathing, mindfulness, meditation, yoga, Qi Gong, progressive relaxation, and quiet, unplugged downtime.

6. As difficult as it may be, endeavor to practice treating those people you feel angry at or have resentment toward with kindness and compassion. Notice what happens when you change how you act toward them — they will often change how they act toward you.

7. Resist the urge to be a channel for the anger and resentment of others. The anger and resentment of others can be seductive — they can have an almost magnetic pull. Don’t buy into it; resist the urge to join in their negativity or participate in gossip.

8. Practice applying the understanding that unless you’ve learned how to change the past, it’s as good as it’s ever going to get! Find ways to remind yourself of this whenever you need to — you don’t have to like what’s happening in the present or has happened in the past in order to accept it. And acceptance will free your attention and energy from the shackles of anger and resentment, enabling you to be more skillful in the present.

Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain

It’s like there’s an invisible wall between you and your partner. Each of you is annoyed or even outraged at the other’s behavior. You think your spouse’s actions are unfair. They think your actions are ridiculous. You don’t feel connected, emotionally or physically. In fact, even though you’re inhabiting the same space, it feels like there are miles between you. And you’re withdrawing more and more from each other. Maybe you even feel like roommates.

This is resentment.

Resentment often occurs when partners become parents. Each partner compares how hard they’re working and how much they’re doing. Usually, new moms feel especially resentful because they’re overtired, overwhelmed and lonely, said Meredith Hansen, Psy.D, a psychologist in private practice dedicated to helping couples and families thrive. They perceive that their husband’s life has remained the same: He still works out, works late and plays golf. Or new moms feel like their husbands could be more helpful with their baby or the house, she said.

Resentment also results from any kind of perceived inequality: You feel like you’re doing more around the house. You feel like you’re contributing more financially. You feel like you’re always the one initiating sex.

Resentment builds when partners don’t feel like a priority. For instance, “when one partner tends to spend more time with friends or on hobbies, their spouse can begin to feel hurt and resentful that they are not receiving more quality time,” Hansen said.

Resentment builds when one partner feels they’re more attentive and aware of their relationship’s needs than their partner, she said.

“Over time, resentment can evolve into contempt, which is coined ‘the sulfuric acid of love’ because it will erode a marriage.” You feel disdain for each other. You feel like you’re above your partner, and all you can do is roll your eyes.

Thankfully, you can intervene before your relationship unravels. Below, Hansen shared three ways we can prevent resentment from ruining our relationship.

Be direct and clear about your needs. Resentment surfaces when one or both partners aren’t getting their needs met. The first step is to make clear-cut requests about what you need.

According to Hansen, instead of saying, “It would be nice to get a pedicure this weekend,” say “I need you to watch the kids at 2 p.m. Saturday so I can get a pedicure and run a few errands.” Instead of saying, “Why don’t you ever do anything romantic for me?” say “I would really appreciate it if you could plan a romantic date for us. I miss that aspect of our relationship and it would make me feel loved.”

Hansen also has couples use a weekly calendar system: Every week partners sit down to talk about their plans and needs, and put them into their joint calendar. “The more a couple uses the calendar system each week, the more naturally needs get expressed in everyday life and the less resentment a couple experiences.”

It might be tough to fit everyone’s needs into one week. Which is why Hansen suggests couples look at the entire month. “Over the course of 4 weeks, there should be time for mom, time for dad, family time and couple time.”

Focus on feelings. “The best type of communication to reduce resentment is to express feelings more than thoughts,” Hansen said. That’s because a thought sparks debate and defensiveness. A feeling, however, gets at the heart of the issue. “Once it’s expressed, it can be processed and worked through.”

According to Hansen, instead of saying, “I feel like you don’t care about me” (which is really a thought), you say “I feel lonely.”

Focus on the positives. “Many couples get stuck in seeing all the ‘bad’ things their spouse is doing,” Hansen said. He always interrupts me. She always clams up when I’m trying to have a serious conversation. He didn’t empty the diaper genie. She rarely cooks anymore. He never closed the bank account. She never asks me how I’m doing.

Refocusing and acknowledging the good things your spouse is doing helps you reconnect to what you love about them, Hansen said. This is not easy to do, especially when you’re really upset. But our partners are not the enemy, and they’re likely doing many kind things, which we overlook.

Hansen shared these examples: “He works so hard for our family without complaining. He cleaned up the yard without me asking. She took the kids down to the park so I could get a few things done. He grabbed some groceries on his way home. She tells me she loves me every day. He still finds me sexy.”

Many couples ignore the resentment brewing inside their relationship. Over time, they become “comfortable” with the distance between them, because it feels safer to put up a wall than address the issues head-on, Hansen said. But “the more a couple ignores the resentment, the greater it gets, as they continue to search for evidence that validates their resentment.”

Sit down when both of you are calm, and discuss the issue. Talk about your feelings. Listen to each other without judgment or debate. Name what you need. And remember you’re on the same team. A team that you love.

How to communicate harsh things without causing resentment

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Spend a day in any office, and you’ll quickly observe the multitude of different communication styles present in the workplace. Some people like to stick to facts and figures; others love to ask about your latest family vacation. Some people’s eyes glaze over if you start by diving into nitty-gritty details; others panic if you don’t start a project with a robust timeline in place.

What’s not quite so readily apparent is the impact these differences can have on the workplace.

A recent report by The Economist Intelligence Unit and Lucidchart examines different communication styles in the workplace and the effects they have on organizations. The report looks at four different communication styles, based on research from Mark Murphy :

  • Analytical: Prefer to have data and facts; use specific and precise language
  • Intuitive: Prefer to get the big picture and not get bogged down in too much detail
  • Functional: Prefer to focus on the process and think through plans step by step
  • Personal: Prefer to place emphasis on relationships and establishing personal connections to understand what others are thinking

What I found particularly interesting is that when you break down the distribution of communication styles by role, you find a fairly even spread across all job functions. (Sales is the exception, as they lean towards the “personal” communication style, but that probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise.)

What’s the takeaway? Communication styles aren’t packaged nicely by department. All types of communicators are scattered throughout your workplace.

That variety is a good thing—your team wouldn’t function very effectively without it, and it’s these differences that drive innovation. What’s problematic is that 42% of survey respondents cited different communication styles as a leading cause of miscommunication at work.

It’s not as if we only want to work with people who are just like us— 54% of respondents report enjoying communicating with people of different communication styles. The problem is that we don’t know how to do so effectively.

If left unaddressed, the communication breakdowns can take a toll on your organization—increased stress, decreased productivity, low morale, and even sales losses.

So how do you make sure this diversity in communication styles works for your bottom line rather than against it?

Pay attention to how people communicate

Make an effort to understand your co-worker’s communication style. This point might seem obvious, but it takes conscious effort. If you simply spout off information the way you like to hear it, you’ve only got a one-in-four chance of getting a positive response.

It’s especially important that managers understand how each member of their team communicates. They need to know how best to present information and feedback in order for an individual to receive the information well and act upon it. If you work with a functional communicator, they are likely to be very stressed about a new project unless you provide a detailed and clearly defined process. If you’re announcing changes to a team process, your analytical communicators will want the numbers behind that decision before they buy in. Taking the time to understand what makes a person tick will make your interactions with them more effective.

Provide the right tools

According to the Economist report, 63% of respondents believe communication could be improved by using a wider range of tools. Just as different types of learners in the classroom are more receptive to certain teaching methods, different communication styles lend themselves to certain tools.

Defaulting to email just won’t cut it. People need to be able to choose the tool that allows them to share their ideas and feedback effectively—while also taking into account what avenue will resonate most with their audience.

Many workplace communication tools revolve around the written word. This is the optimal method for certain instances; however, there are also times when taking a visual approach will paint a clearer picture. When explaining a new process, it is much easier to look at a picture mapping out the steps and assigning responsible parties than it is to read a page of text.

Be transparent

A culture of transparency opens the door for frequent and honest dialogue, regardless of communication style. Be transparent about your company goals and progress towards those goals—this practice keeps everyone on the same page so they know how their individual contributions impact the larger company vision.

I don’t filter what my employees know about our organization. Transparency has been a staple of our culture from the get-go. We have two company updates per month—one led by executives covering the previous month’s and year-to-date performance and one led by employees highlighting their department’s current projects. Once a quarter, the executive team walks through the presentation they gave to our board of directors and relays the feedback they received. Twice a year, we have an Executive AMA session in which employees ask the executives any questions they have regarding the business.

Provide the resources

Just like any skill, communicating can get easier with practice. We recently started offering company-wide trainings as part of our learning and development program. Many of these trainings are designed to help employees communicate with their colleagues, regardless of differing communication styles. For example, we’ve had trainings on how to overcome your fear of public speaking, how to collaborate effectively as a team, and how to provide feedback.

I already mentioned making a variety of tools accessible to employees—in order to encourage people to branch out and actually use these new tools, you’ll want to provide training so people across generations understand how to best use them.

In addition, our managers have weekly 1:1s with each member of their team. These intimate meetings provide an ideal setting for managers to talk with their direct reports to understand their communication styles and how they personally like to receive feedback and instruction. In addition, managers can coach employees on how to better communicate with team members who have communication styles different from their own.

Follow the flowchart to discover your colleague’s preferred communication style.

How to communicate harsh things without causing resentment

“Would you rather be right or free?”

Do you have the freedom to say what you really feel? Do you share your true thoughts and ideas, or do you struggle to avoid hurting, disappointing, or angering others?

It can be easier to try to meet others’ expectations and avoid conflict. We may even believe we are making someone happy by not speaking our truth. What’s the cost? Slowly giving up fragments of who we genuinely are: our authentic self.

There was a time when right and wrong worked for me. I had stability, harmony, and a practical path for pursuing a career in accounting, marrying a wonderful man, and raising three beautiful children.

I didn’t realize I was following expectations of what I thought should make me happy based on what I learned and believed to be true. I was living on the surface, stuck in the paradigm of right and wrong. Though I was happy, something was missing.

Until I ventured within and followed my real passion (psychology, writing, and seeking spiritual truth), I couldn’t see that I’d been living in the framework of family norms and social conditioning, not knowing how to listen to myself.

I grew up shy, fearful of having the wrong answer, one that didn’t fit into what others told me I should be, do, know, and think.

The social mask forms the moment we’re born and we hear our first words. We learn to please, meet expectations, and avoid sharing our feelings, which can turn into a lifelong struggle to be good enough, know enough, and have enough.

We long to be seen and heard for who we are unconditionally, but we find ourselves on the path of conditional love, seeking the approval and appreciation from others that we eventually discover must come from within.

When I began sharing my ideas, it went against expectations of “right and wrong,” and I faced criticism and judgment. I was finally following my own values and the things that excited me.

I’d eagerly share with my family, not realizing how far “out of the box” I’d gone, and was met with silence, or criticism behind my back.

As I stepped into my beliefs, I encountered defensiveness and attempts to prove I was wrong. Conflict for the first time! Both of us were living in our ego’s fear, needing to be right in a space of “how could you think that?”

Then a twenty-year friendship ended abruptly when I wasn’t following her “right” way of business ethics.

As university friends, we had both become coaches, leaving behind our corporate careers, and suddenly I was a competitor instead of a friend.

She felt the need to control the way I did business. Sadly, it turned out to be more important than our friendship.

Soon after, I faced blaming, false assumptions, and horrific judgments from a friend of over a decade. I no longer followed her “right way,” which culminated in a six-page letter about why I was wrong, and who I should be—otherwise this friendship wasn’t working for her!

I was shocked, and felt enormous hurt, disbelief, and some things I didn’t expect: anger, hatred, and resentment.

I hadn’t felt this intensity of negative emotions toward anyone in my entire life. I couldn’t forgive because I’d become attached to my way needing to “be right” for her.

At the same time I’d developed a strong inner trust, validated by the most fulfilling life experiences in all areas of my life. Suddenly, I could see that who was right and wrong didn’t matter.

I was judging her for judging me!

I was also trying to correct her in an effort to fix her, convincing her of my beliefs, needing to control, or trying to change her to make me happy.

It often happens with those close to us who are now hurting us with their “disregard, disobedience, or disrespect” for not following our right way.

I now held the energy of criticism (finding fault, complaining), and judgment (blaming, resentment, punishment). While I trusted what was right for my well-being, I needed to let go of it being right for someone else.

Doing this does not mean we accept or absolve responsibility for all manner of words and behavior. It just means that we stop blaming and judging someone else and consider that they’re doing their best from their own state of consciousness.

The constructive or destructive choices they make form their learning and experiences, and can only be 100% their responsibility.

We may have the best of intentions with our criticism and judgment, and we might find ways to punish, yell, impose, demand, and justify them as the “right way,” but love does not condemn.

When we’re coming from a place of love, we share, teach, and role model in a space of curiosity, compassion, and understanding.

How do you communicate authentically from a judgment-free space so others will stay open to your thoughts? It may help to use these phrases:

  • I notice that…
  • Are you willing to…
  • I’m curious about…
  • Here’s how I’m feeling, what are you feeling?
  • Are you open to hearing my thoughts and feelings around this?
  • Here’s what I desire for our relationship…what do you want?
  • Are you willing to listen to my point of view, even if it may not be the same as yours?
  • I’m feeling disappointed or not okay with….because what’s important to me is…
  • I think/believe that…what do you think/believe?
  • What exactly did you mean by…
  • I just want to understand where you’re coming from, can you say more about…?

You may want to avoid certain phrases that come across as criticism and judgment, as they may cause defensiveness and affect other’s ability to be authentic with you:

  • You should
  • You never….
  • You always…
  • Why can’t you get that….
  • What’s wrong with you?
  • Why or how can you not see that…
  • I’m so disappointed that you…
  • How could you…?
  • I can’t believe you…
  • You are so…

I’ve learned that, at times, I cannot be authentic because it will bring out someone’s ego (blaming, complaining, condemning), even if I share from a genuine place of love.

We have no control over where someone chooses to live on the spectrum of fear versus love, and must discern whether there’s space to share—and what’s better left unsaid, so we don’t step on other people’s spiritual path.

Sometimes we may simply need to wish others well on their journey, creating a new space for both sides to reflect on what truly matters. This is also a loving choice.

And when you love without judgment, you won’t need to be right because you’ll be free.

“Out beyond ideas of right and wrong there is a field. I will meet you there.”

How to communicate harsh things without causing resentment

“Those who are free of resentful thoughts surely find peace.”

Life is short. Time spent feeling angry or resentful about things that happened or didn’t happen is time squandered.

What’s that? You think those feelings motivate you and help you get things done? Hogwash! If you’re honest with yourself, you realize getting things done isn’t the end goal. The goal is to feel fulfilled and happy.

Accomplishments fueled by resentment and anger seldom contribute to serenity and fulfillment. More importantly, the moments you spent crossing things off your to-do list with a scowl slip away without giving you anything positive. They’re gone; never to return.

Resentment is like a cancer that eats away at time—time which could have been filled with love and joy.

Here are four powerful tips to reduce resentments and live a happier life.

1. Think loving thoughts for the person you resent.

You’re probably thinking, “You can’t be serious.” Hear me out.

What’s the opposite of anger, hate, or fear? That’s right: love. By sending only love toward someone, praying that they receive all the wonderful things you want for yourself in life, you’re slowly chiseling away at negative emotions that do you more harm than good. Don’t believe me? Try it.

Whether or not you believe in prayer, you can still set aside time during the day to think loving thoughts about someone you resent, wishing them good fortune and blessings. Say it out loud, “God/Buddha/Creator/Universe/Door Knob/etc.: please give love, health and peace to Lisa today.”

At first it will most likely feel awkward and meaningless, not to mention difficult. It may take weeks, months, or even years, but eventually you’ll notice where there were once ill feelings, now there is peace and love. And that you start actually meaning it!

A good rule of thumb for this exercise is trying it every day for at least fourteen days.

2. Check your motives and expectations.

The best way to eliminate resentment is not to set yourself up for it.

For example, think about when people ask you to do things for them. You probably form expectations about what they’ll do for you in return. If there’s a hint of what’s in it for me, chances are you’re headed for some resentment.

This can be difficult to assess before taking action. If a friend is moving (again) and asks for your help (again) maybe you’re thinking to yourself “I better help because I know I’ll need it when I move next year.”

Next year when you move what happens if your friend doesn’t show up? Booyah!

When you give without expectations—only when you’re comfortable giving for the sake of it—you’re less likely to resent people for letting you down.

3. Be grateful.

A heart that is full of gratitude has little room for conceits or resentment. I utilize something called a gratitude list. Whenever I’m feeling stressed, resentful, or angry, I put pen to paper and write down at least ten things I’m grateful for in that particular moment.

It’s difficult to resent what you don’t have when you’re focusing your energy on what you do have.

4. Stay open to different outcomes.

The key to finding happiness is realizing that you already possess everything you need to be happy. When you realize happiness is an inside job, you’re less apt to place demands on other people and situations.

Reducing resentment takes practice and mindfulness. First, you have to become aware of how they manifest and why. A few summers ago I had the perfect opportunity to do just that.

I was looking forward to the first weekend my fiancé and I would get to enjoy our pool since we opened it for the summer. I had been thinking about this all week, planning to relax with a good book and soak up some rays.

Saturday morning came and we had to deliver a new paint sprayer to my fiancé’s son and his wife, who were preparing to paint their new home. Subconsciously, or maybe consciously, I knew a nice paint sprayer would save them time and ultimately get us out of having to help.

Upon arriving, we realized they’d already begun painting and didn’t want or need the sprayer. That’s okay I thought, at least we tried. Then out of no where my fiancé offered our help for the day! What was she doing? Didn’t she know the important commitment of lounging I had planned for today?

I could feel the resentment rising from deep inside as I visualized my lazy afternoon vanish into sweat and countless trips up and down a ladder. Being mindful, I recognized this and removed myself from the situation.

I found a quiet spot under a tree and sat to meditate for a minute. I asked for acceptance, guidance, and willingness, and sat there quietly and concentrated on my breathing. Then it came to me in a flash. It was simple and profound:

Years from now, what will I remember the most—the day I sat by the pool doing nothing or the day I helped my future stepson and his wife paint their house?

The choice was easy. The day turned out perfect, and I learned a powerful lesson about expectations. It’s okay to have them at times, but the ability to be happy and experience peace at any given moment is not contingent on how I expected an event to occur.

We all have the ability to manage expectations, change our state of mind, and ultimately be happy regardless of how we expect things will unfold.

How to communicate harsh things without causing resentment

It’s extremely important to speak your mind in the professional world. Expressing yourself openly makes you appear more confident, demands the respect of the people around you, and helps to illuminate problems before they grow even worse.

Whether you’re bringing a complaint about working conditions up to a superior or criticizing a traditional marketing approach that needs to be changed, voicing your concerns is important–but it’s also nerve-wracking. It’s easy for your honest expression of apprehension to be taken as a negative complaint, forging a fine line between “problem solver” and “whiner.” Fortunately, most bosses and supervisors will naturally favor the former impression, as honest feedback is necessary for a smooth operation, but if you’re worried about how you’ll come off, you can use these strategies to soften the blow.

Time Your Concerns Appropriately

Your first goal should be to bring up your concerns in an appropriate manner. If you’re in the middle of a staff meeting and you don’t agree with a new policy change, blurting out your problems with it during the meeting itself is a bad idea. You also don’t want to complain about something trivial–like a coworker’s behavior–during a time of crisis in the office. Instead, schedule some time with your boss for a one-on-one meeting in private, and make sure it’s still a good time before opening the discussion. This will set the stage for a much more productive conversation.

Be Specific

If you have concerns about something, be specific about it. Coming to your boss with a general complaint like “the atmosphere around here sucks” or “this whole marketing department can’t do anything right” could ruin your reputation and instantly discredit your complaint. Instead, cite specific instances or specific fault points that you need to address, and the more specific you can get here, the better. Now isn’t the time to mince words with generalities or ambiguities. Don’t be afraid to name names and dig into details; as long as you do so respectfully, it will help your case.

Be Objective, and Lose Your Emotional Attachments

You need to be objective about your concerns, and that means losing your emotional attachments to the cause. If you’re angry about the way management handled something, lose that anger. Focus on the facts, and come to your boss with a solid reasoning for why the problem needs to be addressed. For example, let’s say your coworker scrapped your work in favor of his own and the project didn’t turn out as well as either one of you had hoped. Instead of expressing your anger and frustration at the situation, state the objective costs of having an employee who refuses to listen to others, and recommend preventative actions to ensure the scenario doesn’t unfold again.

Come With Solutions in Mind

It isn’t enough to come to your boss with a problem. Doing so will make you seem like a complainer. Instead, come to your boss with a problem and a solution already in mind–preferably multiple possible solutions. If you do so, it will show that you’ve thought the problem through and you’re looking at the future, rather than the past or present. Coming with solutions will also increase the likelihood that your boss will take action on your concerns–it gives him/her something to work with.

Focus on the Positives

Don’t take up the entire meeting time talking about what’s bothering you; instead, take some time to point out complementary positives. Doing so softens the blow of the criticism and also shows that you are aware of both the positives and negatives of the given situation. For example, you could say, “While Mary is a punctual and diligent worker, her work on these analytics reports is making it difficult to do my job,” or “Our sales team has done a great job this year, but because we don’t have a great follow-through process, I feel that we’re losing some of our potential.”

Leave the Decision Up to the Boss

Don’t ever demand that a specific action be taken, or worse, introduce an ultimatum. Saying that you’ll leave or take negative actions if your desires aren’t met is a way of holding your boss hostage, which looks very poorly on you. Instead, frame your concerns as a request rather than a demand, and allow your boss to make the final decision with respect. Then, respect the final decision that is made. Even if you don’t get what you want, at least your complaint will be on the record.

Get Support If Necessary

If a problem is recurring, or if your concerns have not been met with recognition, don’t be afraid to get support. Assuming the problem affects more than just you, ask your coworkers to voice their complaints in a similar manner. Doing so will illuminate the fact that multiple people are affected by the problem, and will motivate management to take further action. In extreme cases, you can go above your boss’s head, but only after repeated attempts to solve the problem at a ground level.

Use these techniques to make sure your concerns are voiced–and heard–without seeming like a Negative Nancy. As long as you focus on solutions, rather than the problem itself, and share your feedback honestly and calmly, you have nothing to worry about. If anything, your supervisor will thank you for bringing it up in the first place. It’s impossible to make progress until someone addresses the problem.

All of us are passive-aggressive. That is, we use a mild form of passive-aggressiveness: “saying yes when we mean no,” according to psychotherapist Andrea Brandt, Ph.D, M.F.T.

However, some of us use passive aggression on a regular basis.

Brandt defined passive aggression as “a coping mechanism people use when they perceive themselves to be powerless or when they fear using their power will lead to bad outcomes.”

According to Signe Whitson, LSW, author of How to Be Angry: An Assertive Anger Expression Group Guide for Kids and Teens, passive aggression “encompasses a range of behaviors designed to ‘get back’ at someone without that person recognizing the underlying anger.”

People who are passive-aggressive seem to gain pleasure from frustrating others, she said.

We learn to be passive-aggressive as kids. This often happens in households with one dominant parent and one subservient parent, said Brandt, author of 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness. “The child learns that powerful and volatile people can’t be approached directly, but it’s OK to lie to them or keep secrets to get what you want.”

Brandt gave this example: “’We won’t tell your father,’ the passive-aggressive partner says, showing that spending money for childhood treats behind dad’s back is OK.”

A better approach is to be assertive. Assertiveness helps you communicate honestly, cultivate authentic relationships, better understand your own feelings and get your needs met.

Whitson’s favorite way to define assertiveness is “making friends with your anger.” In her book The Angry Smile with co-author Nicholas Long, Ph.D, they use this meaning: “a learned behavior that is used to express anger in a verbal, non-blaming, respectful way.”

Assertiveness entails having a strong sense of self-worth and establishing healthy boundaries, Brandt said.

Assertive communication is clear, direct, has no hidden agenda and acknowledges the other person, she said.

“[It] is an effective way of expressing how you feel at the same time that you learn how the other person is feeling about the same situation.”

Unfortunately, in many settings, assertiveness is either subtly or blatantly discouraged. “The hierarchy of many workplace cultures makes the direct expression of emotions risky for employers and employees alike,” Whitson said.

In many schools, teachers prefer compliant students who don’t ask questions or assert their opinions, she said.

However, “direct, emotionally honest, assertive communication” is key. It is “the best ‘antidote’ to passive aggressive interactions.”

Here are five ways to communicate assertively.

1. Allow yourself to feel anger.

The biggest obstacle to assertive communication is the belief that anger is bad and expressing it in an assertive way is “unseemly,” said Whitson, also a school counselor and national speaker on bullying prevention, anger management and crisis intervention.

However, anger is a normal and natural emotion, she said.

It isn’t a bad emotion, and people aren’t bad for feeling angry, Brandt said. “People need to learn that they deserve to have their feelings whatever they are.”

Brandt suggested using mindfulness to process and express anger. She’s recently written a book called Mindful Anger: A Pathway to Emotional Freedom, which explores how to use mindfulness. (Here’s our review, and a helpful exercise from the book.)

2. Make clear, assertive requests.

An assertive request is straightforward and doesn’t deprecate the other person, Whitson said. This is in contrast to passive-aggressive requests, which are asked in a “roundabout way, adding in backhanded jabs that are plain enough to hurt, while covert enough to be denied.”

For instance, according to Whitson, a passive-aggressive request is: “After you get your pedicure or do whatever it is you do all day while I’m at work, would you mind picking up my dry cleaning for me? That is, if you are not too busy.”

If the other person gets angry, the passive-aggressive person responds with: “What? I wasn’t trying to hurt your feelings. I was just saying that you might be busy doing other things. I didn’t know you’d be so sensitive about it. Geeze.”

This response lets them be a victim, “passive-aggressively musing about why the other person can’t take a joke.”

However, an assertive request is simply: “Will you please pick up my dry cleaning for me on your way home tonight?”

3. Validate the other person’s feelings.

This means understanding “their feelings and where they’re coming from,” Brandt said. Validating feelings, however, doesn’t mean that you agree with them, she said.

Brandt gave this example: “Lisa, I understand that you’re upset because you have to switch work days in order to get this project done; however, it is very important to me and I appreciate your doing it.”

4. Be a good listener.

Being a good listener includes maintaining a “very respectful and open nonverbal attitude and posture while listening to [the person] and [restating their] words,” Brandt said.

You also maintain eye contact, and manage your own emotions and thoughts, so you can “set aside any personal agenda, reactions, defenses, explanations or rescue attempts.”

5. Be collaborative.

Being assertive also means working together. It means being “constructive and collaborative [and] look[ing] for ways to achieve a situation where both people are happy.”

How to communicate harsh things without causing resentment

Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

An aggressive communication style is characterized by high emotion, low empathy, and a focus on “winning” the argument at any cost.   It’s a style of communication that is favored by narcissists and bullies, but it can show up in conversations anywhere. You might hear aggressive communication from parents, friends, co-workers, romantic partners—or you might even use it yourself.

When a person uses aggressive communication, the rights of others are not even allowed to surface. When this happens, others feel victimized and relationships suffer. In that way, relationship aggression is bad for the aggressors as well as the recipients of the aggression.

Aggressiveness is a mode of communication and behavior where one expresses their feelings, needs, and rights without regard or respect for the needs, rights, and feelings of others.

Examples of an aggressive communication style include saying things like:

  • “This is all your fault.”
  • “It’s my way or the highway.”
  • “Do what I say.”
  • “I don’t care what you have to say.”
  • “You never do anything right.”
  • “I don’t agree with you so I don’t have to listen to your opinion.”
  • “Everyone has to agree with me.”
  • “I’m right and you’re wrong.”
  • “You owe me.”
  • “I’m entitled to this.”
  • “I’ll get my way no matter what.”

Negative Impact

The toll that relationship conflict takes in terms of stress can affect us in many ways. It can affect our stress levels, health, and happiness. Aggression and conflict can also damage relationships in a wide variety of ways. Aggressive communication can lead to:

  • Aggressive responses from others
  • Barriers to communication
  • Distrust
  • Fear of sharing
  • Feelings of disrespect
  • Greater stress
  • Lack of connection
  • More conflict
  • Negative interactions
  • Poor goal achievement
  • Secrecy

Assertive Communication

A powerful tool to use in the face of aggressive communication is assertiveness. Assertiveness is sometimes mistaken for forceful communication, but it is important to distinguish between assertiveness and aggressiveness.

Assertiveness involves expressing one’s own needs and rights while respecting the needs and rights of others and maintaining the dignity of both parties.

Assertiveness results in healthier relationships and increased life satisfaction. While communication styles aren’t the only way that aggressiveness can surface in relationships, those who endeavor to change their aggressive communication patterns to assertive ones tend to be open to other improvements as well.

Tries to dominate others

Relies on criticism and blame

Low tolerance for frustration

Loud, overbearing, demanding

Tries to form connection with others

Relies on respect and clarity

Calm, clear, relaxed

Listens without interruption

Your Communication Style

If you want to work on your communication, it is helpful first to understand how you tend to communicate with others. What do you know about your habitual communication style? Are you prone to aggressiveness, assertiveness, or passivity? Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Am I upset if others don’t agree with me?
  • Do I check in with people to see if they’re comfortable, or do I force my own agenda?
  • Do I know how to disagree without being disagreeable?
  • Do I know how to get my needs met without violating the needs of others?
  • Do I know how to stand up for myself?
  • Do I put people down?
  • Do I seek out other people’s opinions, or just share my own?
  • Do I talk over people or interrupt frequently?

The above questions can help you get started thinking of whether you are comfortable standing up for yourself, too comfortable walking all over others, or have perhaps found a comfortable middle ground. Research suggests that learning about your style and finding ways to replace aggressive responses with more assertive ones can improve your communication style.  

How to Be More Assertive

Some things you can do to be more assertive in your communication:

  • Ask for what you need rather than expecting others to guess.
  • Calmly express your feelings.
  • Explain your feelings and needs.
  • Let other people know that you recognize their needs.
  • Listen well to what other people have to say.
  • Listening to and respecting others’ needs.
  • Look for win-win solutions rather than win-lose ones.
  • Try to understand others’ needs
  • Voice your needs

Assertiveness may feel aggressive at first to those who are used to a passive style of communication. Conversely, it can feel passive to those who are accustomed to an aggressive style of communication.

If you weren’t raised in a family where assertiveness and respect for others was the norm, it can feel particularly difficult. It may require some practice to find the balance between steamrolling over other’s needs and allowing them to trample yours, but it’s well worth the effort. Once you find that balance, it’s easy to continue being assertive in all of your interactions, which can prevent conflict and resentment in the future.

A Word From Verywell

Aggressive communication can damage your relationships in all areas of your life, including school, family, and work. Even if this is your dominant way of communicating, there are things that you can do to replace aggressive behaviors with more productive and assertive ones.

If you’re not sure what your communication style is, you might want to consider whether you might be guilty of some common conflict resolution mistakes such as criticizing and shutting others down. You can also learn more about healthy communication techniques you can use with the many people in your life, including listening carefully and trying to see things from other people’s perspectives.