Solving The Case of the Dirty Dishes Drama Using Assertive Communication

Alia Cross, LMHC on Nov 30, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

Have you ever felt walked on by others? Taken advantage of? Or that others are not respecting your time or resources? If you come home to a sink full of dirty dishes ONE more time, do you feel like you might blow up?! I think a lot of people struggle with their interpersonal relationships, so you are not alone in this oftentimes frustrating feeling. 

The thing about other people though is that they are not mind readers. It may seem obvious to you that the dirty sinks left in the sink are rude, gross, smelly, crusty, etc. and that your roommate should just “know” to clean up after themselves. But this isn’t the case. What may seem like “common sense” to you might be totally foreign to another person. Each and every one of us has been raised by different families, so we all have different norms around what is and what is not acceptable behavior.

Two things can help with the dirty dishes scenario. First, it helps to establish clear boundaries with the others in your life before the dishes (and your resentment) pile up. Before entering into a shared living space with someone, I would recommend having a frank, open discussion about what your expectations are with regards to household chores. See if your potential roommate claims to be a cleanly person. Is this an important topic for them to discuss with you too? Are they open to talking about scrubbing toilets and chore charts before you move in together, or do they try to blow the conversation off in any way? If they admit to being more casual about cleaning or if you’ve seen it for yourself at their old apartment/heard from a previous roommate of theirs, take heed. This might not be the roomie match made in heaven for you.

If you’re already living with someone and you didn’t make your expectations clearly known, you can still work on solving the situation. My second recommendation is to utilize assertive communication skills. What are assertive communication skills? 

I’ll start by sharing what they are not. Assertive communication is NOT aggressive communication. It is not yelling, shouting, name-calling, or throwing the dirty dishes on the floor. Assertive communication is not passive either. Passive communication involves ignoring the situation, caving in every time and washing the dishes and feeling sad/worth less than the other person. The final communication style that assertive communication has nothing to do with is passive-aggressive communication. Passive-aggressive communication includes making sarcastic remarks, leaving nasty notes, or sending harsh text messages about the dish drama. None of those styles of communication lead to a peaceful living situation.

Here's where assertive communication skills can come in handy. Assertive communication is about honoring your boundaries, time, and energy while also respecting the other person in the situation. Assertive communication is best done in-person so that the other human involved can hear your tone of voice (gentle, calm, strong) and so that they see you don’t fear them nor are you trying to intimidate them. Assertive communication says, “I’m okay, you’re okay.” There is a matter/behavior that you’d like to see change, and you’re both okay people.

Using “I” statements is key when utilizing assertive communication. “When I come home and see a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, I feel irritated/tired/put out because I work hard to keep it tidy around here. I don’t want the sink to be smelly or the mosquitos to return. What I’d like from you is to wash your dishes right after you use them.” Notice that there was no name-calling involved and there were no wild accusations. 

Assertive communication is about objectively describing the situation without strong emotions in the moment, using “I” statements about your feelings, and making a suggestion for what you would like the other person to do differently. Sticking to the one topic at hand (in this case, the dirty dishes) is best. Now is not the time to bring up your roomie’s loud boyfriend or their cat that throws up frequently or their eating your leftovers without asking… Or, or, or…

I hope that this article helps you navigate assertive communication about dirty dishes. I enjoy role-playing various scenarios, modeling effective communication skills, and discussing healthy versus unhealthy relationships as part of my counseling practice.

Alia Cross is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Niagara Falls, NY.

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