Applied Assertiveness

A number of years ago, I invested in some assertiveness training from a professional counselor. It was money very well-spent, and I would recommend it if you've ever considered it; maybe even if you haven't.

I was thinking about it this morning because I overheard a couple of conversations that jogged my memory. The conversations were both very similar. In both cases, women were happily engaged in outdoor activities when they were joined by uninvited men. In both cases, the women immediately set to work dropping hints get the men to leave; hints that the men either ignored or failed to recognize. In each case, the understandably frustrated women stated that they hated men who did this sort of thing, and said that they were offended that men would see women outside in public and automatically assume that they need to be chaperoned and kept company.

Naturally, this caused me to think about my assertiveness training, because the solution offered by assertiveness experts to both of these unwanted situations is for the women to assertively state, firmly but politely, that they do not want the uninvited company. The men must then move on without the women. It's true that the men in these situations might have felt angry or offended at being dismissed, but in the assertiveness paradigm, that's beyond the women's control. The women get to control what they say and with whom they associate; they do not get to control anyone else's feelings. The men must bear responsibility for their own feelings here. Such is the risk of attempting to join a stranger without having been invited to do so.

But notice the pattern here. First the women were confronted by a situation they did not want to participate in. Next, they decided to communicate passively to the men, rather than assertively. After passive communication failed to elicit the desired response, the women chose to speculate - negatively - about the men's motives.

We can all think of a handful of likely reasons why men would approach women in public and attempt to join up with them. Not all of those reasons are negative. Absent any direct evidence that the men genuinely thought that the women needed to be chaperoned, I think it would be unfair to claim that this is what the men truly thought. (Of course, the scenario with the highest likelihood was simply that the men wanted to meet women and explore the possibility of romantic chemistry. Mere friendship is also a very likely possible motive here.)

No matter how good the men's motives might have been, however, the women are of course under no obligation to accept their kindness. We all have a right to be left alone; none of us are obligated to become friends with a stranger, no matter how good his motives might be. So, in this case, the solution really does appear to be assertiveness: The women should have simply insisted that the men move along. That way, everyone would have been within their rights and no one's day would have been spoiled by a protracted, unwanted, awkward social interaction.

I'm highlighting these situations to illustrate something that wasn't completely obvious to me when I had my assertiveness training: There is a natural connection between passive communication and negative assumptions about other people's motives. With passive communication, we wait for everyone else to get the hint. If they don't, we become frustrated. That frustration often turns into resentment, and that resentment is often misplaced. Just because you couldn't communicate assertively doesn't mean someone else is a jerk for not reading your mind. And when that resentment grows into a full-scale assumption about the other person's private thoughts and motivations, it goes from being understandable frustration to downright silly fantasy. The world is not made up of angels who catch your hints and devils who do not.

If you want something from someone, tell them. Skip the part where you tell yourself stories about what they might be thinking. You don't know what other people are thinking unless they tell you. And even then, it requires assertive communication.

So stop assuming you know what someone's thoughts are and start communicating assertively.

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