Week 1: Understanding irritable bowel syndrome

Week 4: Healthy thinking, healthy self

Week 5: Balancing activity and reclaiming your life

Week 6: Maintaining your gains and staying well

Learning to be assertive

Earlier, we discussed the importance of assertive communication. Assertiveness skills allow you to speak your mind, assert your rights, and get your needs met. This can be particularly helpful when working with your doctor to find an effective treatment plan. The nature of irritable bowel syndrome means that it can be a process of trial and error before you find something that works. You will need to be able to communicate your symptoms, preferences, and experience with various treatment options in a clear and confident way. This will save time and result in a quicker recovery for you. 

  • Identify what you feel and why. This involves observing and understanding your inner experience. To be able to communicate effectively and get your needs met, you must first be aware of what you’re feeling. The next step is to put words to your experience and ask yourself what is influencing how you feel. 

E.g., Blair was sitting at home alone after a day off work with intense symptoms. Blair noticed she was feeling sad and anxious. Blair’s sadness came about because she was thinking about how alone and miserable she felt with her irritable bowel syndrome symptoms. Her anxiety came from dwelling on how much work she would have to catch up on next week. 

  • Work out what your needs and wants are. This step requires you to figure out what your needs and wants are. Are there things you want from a person or situation? Do you want your pain to be known? Do you need to be heard? Perhaps you want some extra support around the house? Work out exactly what you want and need here, as this is essential for the next step 

E.g., Blair identifies that she is not coping with her current workload. She identifies a need to reduce the amount of pressure in her life. She also identifies a need to feel supported in her struggles with irritable bowel syndrome. Blair decides that she wants to ask her doctor for a medical certificate and speak to her boss about reducing her work hours.  

  • Prepare a plan for expressing your feelings, needs, and wants. This step involves combining the information from the above steps and adding a request. Here, you describe the situation, express how you feel about it, and ask for what you need or want. We suggest you create a script by following the steps below. It can be helpful to practice your script ahead of time.
  • Describe the situation clearly and objectively. Put words to your experience but avoid judgemental language, blame, or assumptions. Try your best to stick to the facts of the matter.

E.g., “I have been having an increasing number of sick days lately but my symptoms are not getting any better. I’m falling behind at work.” 

  • Express your feelings about the situation to the other person. You can’t assume the other person knows how you feel, even if it seems obvious to you. Try to keep this quite short or you’ll risk wandering off track. We suggest you use ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements, as they are less confronting to others. For example, use “I feel”, or “I think” instead of, “you should”

E.g., “When I take days off, I feel anxious about the amount of work that piles up”. 

  • Ask for what you want or say ‘no’. Don’t assume people can read your mind when it comes to your wishes. You must make your request or response very clear. Be specific about what is expected or being asked of the other person. If possible, phrase your request in the positive (what you would like) rather than the negative (what you wouldn’t like).

E.g., “I would like to reduce my workload to a level that I feel able to cope with at this time. Would that be something you’d be willing to consider?” 

  • Point out the positives. It can help to inform the other person of any benefits that will occur if they follow through on your request. Highlighting how you can both benefit from the arrangement can act as a motivator for the other person to take action.

E.g., “If I was working less, it would mean that I can take time for my health and be more productive when I am at work” 

  • Act like you mean it. Use assertive body language to support what you are saying. Keep your head high, shoulders back and arms uncrossed. Try to maintain appropriate eye contact and use facial expressions to support what you are saying. Speak slowly and clearly and avoid mumbling. Don’t forget to give a warm smile from time to time.

E.g., Although Blair felt nervous about approaching her boss, she did it in an assertive way. She had a relaxed but upright posture. She spoke firmly and maintained good eye contact with her boss throughout. She avoided fiddling with her hands and looking at the floor.  

  • Keep your goal in mind and don’t get distracted. It is easy to stray off topic, especially if the other person becomes argumentative, withdraws or throws accusations your way. Keep your message simple and repeat it if necessary. Your body language must also be confident but non-aggressive. Avoid apologising and hesitating.  

E.g., When Blair’s boss changed the topic following her request, Blair repeated her message. In a calm manner, she said “ Paul, I would like to reduce my hours due to health reasons. Do you have time to talk about this now?”

  • Try to work with the other person. Ask them for their ideas and solutions. If they can’t meet your request, you may consider a compromise. It’s best to know where you are and aren’t willing to compromise ahead of time. This back-and-forth process is called ‘negotiation’

E.g., During their discussion, Blair’s boss outlined several reasons why it would be difficult for her to reduce the number of days she works. They agreed on a compromise. Instead of reducing the number of days, Blair agreed to reduce the number of hours she works each day. Both parties were happy with this outcome.