Assertive Communication Skills for Family Caregivers

When someone in a family becomes chronically ill, improving the way you communicate with each other can help reduce the stress that goes along with these changes.

Each person is suffering in their own way because of the illness. Negative energy can get pent up. No one wants to confront the sick person, even if he/she is behaving horribly. Resentment and anger can result.

You might feel like saying something like:

  • I can’t believe how demanding and insensitive you are. I am sacrificing everything to do what you need me to do and not only do you not say thank you, you criticize me for it.

If you are receiving care, you might feel like saying something like:

  • You march around here with a chip on your shoulder as if you are the one suffering, as if I asked for this illness or have any control over it. You have taken over things I don’t even want you to do and get mad when I ask for the help I need. Why don’t you just leave if I am such a burden.

Stop. Rewind. There’s a better way.

Communicating well helps people bond. Photo: Jenny Erickson,

Communicating well helps people bond. Photo: Jenny Erickson

How to Communicate Effectively

1. Say something positive before you say something negative.

If you are spilling over with negative feelings, vent them to someone else or in a journal before confronting your family member. Because starting off the conversation with a positive, loving statement can make all the difference with regard to the outcome and it’s hard to do this when you are boiling over with resentment.

2. Show that you are aware that the other person has their own struggles.

To communicate effectively, you need to show that you are trying to understand what the other person is going through, BEFORE you talk about what you are going through. You want the person to listen to and care about your needs, you need to set an example by doing that for them FIRST. But…

3. Don’t say “I know how you feel”. Do show that you are listening and paying attention.

It’s not at all helpful to say, “I know how you feel” or “I know what you are going through” because most of the time, we really can’t know these things and it can be insulting to assume how other people are feeling. It’s more effective to open the conversation by stating what you OBSERVE about the other person.

 A person who is receiving care from a family member might say,

  • “I know that you care about me and I appreciate all the time you sacrifice in trying to help me.”

A person who is giving care might say,

  •  “I know that you are suffering and in pain and I can’t know what that is like, but I see that you are really trying hard to get through this.”

Both might say:

  •  “You mean the world to me and it touches my heart that you are trying so hard to get through this.”

Don’t communicate anything that you do not believe or feel, because you cannot build mutual trust on pretense. In some situations it may be hard to find anything positive to say about the other person, but if you look very hard there may be some tiny glimmer of light you can talk about. Open the conversation with that.

  • “I noticed that you went and got your own glass of water when I was on the phone with my sister yesterday and I really appreciate your making the effort to let me have that conversation uninterrupted, it was very thoughtful of you.”
  • “I noticed that you made sure to bring me a glass of water before you went to bed and it was important to me that you took the time and care to do that.”

4. Say what you have to say clearly, without hedging, by using an I statement.

Use assertive “I-statements,” as opposed to “you-statements.” I-statements promote effective communication because they do not attack the other person or put them on the defensive. I-statements reveal something about you, the person who is speaking, and are less likely to lead to an argument.

An I-statement always begins with the words, “I feel”, followed by an emotion.

  • “I feel put down and hurt when you question my judgment and dismiss what I am saying about my symptoms and my body.” (As opposed to: “You never listen and you act like a big know-it-all.”)
  • “I feel unloved and unappreciated when you yell at me and find fault with what I am doing to try to help you.” (As opposed to: “You are a tyrant and all you ever do is yell and criticize.”)

5. Say what you would like the person to do in place of the offending behavior.

  • “I feel invisible when you take over without asking me first. I feel awful that I can’t do these things on my own anymore and I feel even worse about myself when you take over without asking me first what I need help with. I appreciate that you are taking the time to help me and I would value your help so much. I just want you to ask me what I need you to do before you do something.” (As opposed to: “You are way too pushy and not the least bit helpful, why don’t you just leave.”)
  • “I feel very unappreciated when you assume that I can and should do what you want when you want it. I’m willing to do all that I can for you, and I know that you are frustrated about having to depend on someone else, but I need you to respect that I have other demands on my time and I am doing the best that I can. I’d appreciate it if you would accept that the non-urgent things are not going to happen exactly when you want them. (As opposed to: “You are demanding and ungrateful and I’m done helping you.)

Beware of you-statements that are disguised as I-statements. Just because a sentence starts with “I feel” doesn’t make it an I-statement. Example:

  • “I feel that you are a jerk.”

A genuine I-statement must reveal something personal, an emotion that the speaker feels. It must be free of criticism and judgment, yet it states clearly what the other person’s behavior is that is offensive and offers an alternative.

Effective and Assertive Communication Improves Family Relationships

To bring people closer together, reduce stress in relationships, get your needs met, and make it easier to be in relationship with others, assertive communication is the foundation. It takes practice. Don’t get frustrated if you make progress and then things go south again. In fact, you should expect this. Solid communication isn’t a state that we perfectly achieve, it’s something to keep striving towards with each new issue.

Re-learning communication skills is not always easy to do, but the more you practice the better you will get at it. The most important thing, really, is to communicate in a genuine and heart-felt way, and don’t give up on your loved ones, even when times are tough. It might help to realize that the more someone is acting out, whether it’s the caregiver or the care recipient, the more pain and stress they are feeling. It’s hard to bump up against a loved one’s limitations, especially when you really need them. All you can do is your best and care for each other, regardless of who has the diagnosis.


©Lisa C. DeLuca, all rights reserved.  It is a violation of copyright law to reproduce this work on the web or for business use without permission from the author. Please contact the author with your reprint request.

This article was originally published on the web December 19, 2008.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *