More Thoughts On Assertiveness

Assertive communication is one of the best skills I ever took the time to learn. It cost me a fair bit of money to hire an expert who would teach me this, but it was worth every penny; not because it generated an economic return, but because it bought me more happiness and contentment than could any other way I might have spent that money.

Under the theories that underpin assertiveness training, all communication falls into one of three categories: Aggressive, Passive, or Assertive. These categories are mutually exclusive, thus something cannot be both Aggressive and Assertive at the same time. If we define an act of communication as being Assertive, then it is by definition not one of the other two categories; and so it is for each kind of communication. (For our purposes here, communication that is "passive-aggressive" is usually one or the other; it is not both. The phrase "passive-aggressive" is an idiomatic expression that does not correspond to something in the assertiveness training world.)

Here are three statements that contain the same basic information, phrased in the three communication styles, which should help you gain a sense of what these styles are like:

Aggressive: "Listen to me!"
Passive: (No words, but stands near the other person expectantly, waiting for him to make the first move.)
Assertive: "There's something important I'd like to say to you. Is now a good time for you?"

As you can see, Aggressive and Passive communication both place the full burden on the other person, albeit each does it in a different sort of way. Assertive communication, by contrast acknowledges all possibilities plainly and attempts to work with them. "There's something important I'd like to say to you" is a neutral fact; "Is now a good time for you?" gives the other person an equal position in a cooperative attempt to have a mutual conversation.

Seen another way, aggressive and passive communication styles deal with control issues that are not present in assertive communication. Aggressive communicators attempt to control other people using domineering language and gestures. Passive communicators either feel powerless to affect anything, and thus become resentful of others' supposed refusal to acknowledge their needs, or attempt to control other people manipulatively. ("I didn't say you wouldn't listen to me, I just assumed you had no interest in hearing what I had to say…")

So, an aggressive communicator who learns assertiveness might find that he has to relinquish control in order to communicate with people. He might fear this loss of control, but remember that we are talking about things he should never have been in control of in the first place, i.e. other people's choices. Meanwhile, a passive communicator who learns assertiveness might find that the people with whom he wants to communicate are suddenly put off by his newfound assertiveness. Indeed, they might think that by no longer being a pushover or a wet blanket, he's now being aggressive or stubborn for having finally stood up for himself. As long as he doesn't involve himself in taking control of other people's choices, though, he's merely being assertive, and everyone else will simply have to learn to accept his assertiveness.

Since my own personal tendency is toward passive communication, I find this latter problem to be a regular issue. People who know me to be passive are sometimes surprised by what they perceive to be stubbornness. But it's not stubborn to stand up for yourself, provided you do so assertively and not aggressively.

How do you draw the line? It's surprisingly easy. Just keep in mind what things you are entitled to control -- yourself, your thoughts, your behaviors, your feelings -- and what things other people are entitled to control -- themselves, their thoughts, their behaviors, their feelings. Anything that involves yourself is something you can stand up for, provided you do so in plain, non-judgmental, firm, polite language. Anything that involves them is something you must leave to them. Rather than drawing a conclusion about them, ask a question and have them confirm or deny it themselves. Rather than proceed with an impression they've given you, tell them that you have an impression, and ask them if it's the correct one to have. If they didn't expressly state something to you, don't assume that they did so implicitly; instead, ask and confirm.

To people who are healthy communicators, none of this will ever be problematic. It's only among dysfunctional communicators that asking questions and verifying their thoughts and beliefs will be seen as objectionable. This is because aggressive and passive communicators expect you to read their minds and "just know." They don't expect to have to tell you outright what they think or feel. They want to hold you responsible for their thoughts and feelings instead.

As you can probably imagine, assertive communication doesn't solve all problems, and can even create conflict among people who communicate non-assertively. But it's far better than the alternative, which would be to communicate non-assertively yourself. For one thing, two wrongs don't make a right; but more importantly, assertive communication is clarifying and empowering.

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