As adults navigate their way through careers, relationships, and parenthood, they often look back to their school days and complain that they learnt nothing of practical use. Such a complaint is understandable – vital as education obviously is, classes in geography and Spanish do not help you cope with debt, unreasonable work colleagues, or dysfunctional relationships! So many vital life skills should be taught to children from an early age: how to grieve, for example, or how to manage money. But most important of all, everyone should be taught basic assertiveness.
The Nature of Assertiveness
First, it must be emphasized that assertiveness is not the same as aggression. During a confrontation or argument, most people behave in a ‘passive’, ‘aggressive’, ‘assertive’, or ‘passive-aggressive’ manner. Imagine a rude, bad-tempered manager who calls four different workers into his office, yelling and swearing at each in turn and blaming them for the shop’s falling profits. The first worker is passive, avoiding eye contact, blinking away tears and mumbling apologies. The second is aggressive, clenching her fists and screaming that it’s not her fault his “stupid shop” is failing. The third is passive-aggressive, rolling her eyes and muttering a sarcastic comment under her breath. But the final worker is assertive: she puts her shoulders back, looks him straight in the eye and replies in a calm, clear voice, “don’t speak to me like that. I am a conscientious, hard worker and this is unfair.”
If you are going to be assertive, you must feel worthy of fair and respectful treatment. And that sense of self-worth needs to be founded on a clean conscience. So go out of your way to be polite, kind and fair in your dealings with others and you will have the right to expect the same in return.
Approaching the world in this way absolves you of responsibility. Assertiveness coaches often tell their clients that they are not responsible for other people’s emotional states. Of course, this does not mean that you can kick someone and then shrug your shoulders when they seem upset! But, so long as you approach the world with good will and try to be kind, you can refuse to take responsibility when someone claims to be offended or insulted.
You also need to get in the habit of monitoring your thoughts and behavior. Try to spot any recurring patterns. Are you over-eager to please, to be liked, or to avoid causing offence and embarrassment? Many unassertive people allow others to walk all over them because, in their words, “I don’t like to make a fuss.”
Finally, you must not give up. Remember, you are learning. Assertiveness is a skill. And like any other skill, you cannot expect to master it overnight. There will be times when you attempt to assert yourself and find that someone more confident overwhelms you with the sheer force of their personality. Don’t be put off. Look upon such experiences as practice.
Learn to Say No
Many people are so eager to please and so afraid of giving offence that they become perpetual yes-sayers. Unfortunately, this is rarely appreciated. In fact, though no one likes a bully, they secretly despise his victim even more. If you become a doormat, do not be surprised when people walk all over you.
The key is to say no and mean it. Always be reasonable and, when appropriate, explain why you are refusing. But do not feel you need to justify your refusal. Watch an unassertive person try to say ‘no’ to a confident and domineering work colleague. They will blurt out the ‘no’ in a weak, hurried voice and then spend the next 20 minutes apologizing and trying to justify and excuse their refusal. Say your piece in a calm, clear, friendly manner and then add nothing more.
There are a number of techniques you can use when saying no to someone. First, there is what is known as ‘the broken record.’ This simply means that you calmly and politely repeat your basic assertion. Imagine your boss asks you to work on a Saturday afternoon. You can’t because you need to pick your sister up from hospital and you don’t know what time she will be leaving. He tries very hard to persuade you to change your mind. First, he explains that the business is in trouble and that you are desperately needed. Next, he tells you your sister is old enough to catch a bus or hire a taxi, and so on. Each time, just repeat the same thing, “my sister has had a rough time lately and I want to be there for her,” beginning with the words “like I said,” or “as I said.” And, once again, add nothing.
If saying ‘no’ places you in a nasty, confrontational situation, a couple more useful techniques are the so-called ’empathic’ and ‘consequence’ statements. In the first, show the other person that, though you are refusing, you do empathize. Imagine a friend has just got divorced and is lonely and depressed. He won’t leave you alone and is becoming selfish and self-pitying. On Friday morning, he invites you to his apartment in the evening for a drink, but you have promised to help your daughter with her revision. You say “I know it is tough for you right now buddy, but I can’t.” Though you have said no, you have made it clear that you sympathize and understand. A consequence statement explains what will happen if you do or do not comply (or if the other person does or does not comply with you). So, you might add “if I come over, my daughter will be upset,” or “I’m worried that she’ll think I don’t care – or that these exams are trivial. It’s important to send the right message.”
The ‘I’ Statement
Always focus on how someone’s behavior affects you. Do not go on the offensive. Many people quickly lose their temper and hurl insults and accusations at the other person. And they often do so in the mistaken belief that they are being assertive; in fact, that is simply aggression, and it may provoke an angry response. If, for example, your neighbor’s loud music is keeping you awake, do not knock on the door and tell her she is “selfish,” “ignorant” and a “bad neighbor.” Instead, say “could you turn your music down – I can’t sleep.”
Closely related to the I-statement is what is known as the ‘holding statement’. In essence, this means killing a potential confrontation dead by telling the other person that you cannot trust your emotions. So, to return to an earlier example, imagine that the recently divorced friend gets angry and accuses you of being selfish and uncaring. You have practiced the I-statement, saying “that has really hurt me. And it isn’t true: I do care, but I have to put my child first.” Follow it up with an empathic and then a holding statement, as follows “I know you are low and that you feel vulnerable. And you know I am here for you. I will speak to you tomorrow. I don’t like being spoken to like that, and I do not want to lose my temper.”
For many, assertiveness does not come naturally. Others have spent so long behaving in a mean and passive manner that it can take years to re-wire their brain. And some people are so self-centered and narcissistic that they don’t notice or respond to what you have said anyway! Generally, however, the more you practice these techniques, the more natural and instinctive they will become.