No matter how pleasant, charming, and well-mannered you may try to be, sooner or later you will have to stand up for yourself. After all, at some point in their life everyone is confronted by rudeness, spite, or blank stupidity.
Passive, Aggressive and Assertive
There are essentially three ways of engaging with other people. You can be either passive, assertive or aggressive. In reality, of course, even the most passive individual is occasionally aggressive, just as the most aggressive of people will sometimes be passive.
Imagine you have taken your dog for a walk in some local woodland. It is a cold, wet day, so you have your hood up. You are half way down a muddy hill when you hear someone yell “get out of the way!” You turn around and there is a man hurtling towards you on a mountain bike, making gestures with his arm for you to move. It is too late and he is forced to slow down, then stop. In a situation like this, the aggressive individual would go red in the face, square up to the cyclist and scream “don’t yell at me. Who do you think you are? You shouldn’t be flying along at that speed anyway you idiot.” The passive person, on the other hand, would quickly step off the path and apologize. His head would drop, his voice would become thin and weak, and he would avoid eye contact. Whereas the aggressive person goes on the attack, the passive individual puts himself in the wrong, even when it isn’t his fault. The assertive individual, however, would stand calmly in the middle of the path, neither moving aside, nor lunging towards the cyclist. He would keep his chin up, his shoulders back, and his eyes fixed on him. And most important of all, he would wait for the cyclist to speak. When he then replied, his voice would be calm, level and clear. He wouldn’t swear or gesticulate, neither would he apologize. Imagine the cyclist has come to a halt and yells once again “didn’t you hear me shouting? I wanted to get past.” The assertive person would continue as before: shoulders back, chin up, staring him straight in the eyes. He would then reply, loud and clear, “yes, I heard you shouting, but I didn’t have time to get out of the way. Maybe next time you should check that the path is clear. You could have run into me or my dog.” Then he would turn calmly around and continue on his way.
Many people confuse assertiveness with aggression. But aggression is more often a sign of fear and weakness than courage and strength. If someone is unsure of themselves, they will usually either shrink back in fear or go on the attack. The assertive stand their ground and do neither. The gay activist and writer Quentin Crisp left a wonderful example of assertive behavior in the face of violent aggression. One night, walking home through London dressed in flamboyant clothes, he was attacked by a group of thugs. Rather than hitting them back, or curling into a ball and begging for mercy, he stood up straight, looked the leader in the face and said in a loud, defiant voice, “I appear to have annoyed you gentlemen in some way.” Such a mixture of irony, humor, and defiant courage can profoundly unnerve a bully.
How to Stand Up for Yourself
Those who are not assertive by nature will often say “oh, it’s the way I am. I can’t help it – I just don’t like confrontations.” But assertiveness can be learnt, just like any other skill. And the more you practise it, the better you will become.
1) Decide to be assertive. First, you must decide to be more assertive. You need to be aware when you are slipping into either aggressive or passive behavior. After any confrontation, argument or disagreement, no matter how mild it may have been, consider your response. Did you apologize unnecessarily? Did you overreact? Decide to be calmly assertive next time. You could even replay things in your mind and imagine what an assertive person would have said or done in that situation.
2) Stay calm. You must learn to control the rush of adrenalin. For aggressive people, it is like throwing gasoline on a raging fire. Passive people, on the other hand, tend to be overwhelmed by it, often feeling sick and dizzy. Again, achieving such control demands practise. The more you expose yourself to difficult, rude, confrontational people, the more desensitized you will become. So remain calm, neither backing away nor clenching your fists. Those who react passively often irritate and provoke the other person, while those who become aggressive just intensify the problem. Nothing will unnerve your opponent quite like a fearless calm.
3) Use assertive body language. Passive people usually avoid eye contact, lower their head, hunch their shoulders, and take a step backward. Aggressive people, however, will stare intently into the other person’s eyes, clench their fists, puff out their chest, and move towards them. Instead, keep your shoulders back, your chin up, and maintain eye contact. But don’t stare into the other person’s eyes, and don’t lunge at them.
4) Let the other person speak, and listen to their response. Some people are so frightened of confrontation and argument that they talk over the other person, doing everything they can to soothe and placate. Others simply lose their temper and pay no attention at all. Assertive people are calm and unafraid. They will allow the other person to have their say and then respond thoughtfully and reasonably.
5) Don’t use accusatory language. When people lose their temper, they tend to go on the attack, using aggressive, accusatory language. For example, imagine three people in a house share at college. One of the housemates, who never does his share of the cleaning, comes in a little drunk and complains about the lack of food in the fridge. His fellow housemate becomes angry and shouts “well you never clean up. You are so lazy. How dare you moan at me.” Assertive people approach things differently, focussing instead on how the situation affects them. They would reply “I am not responsible for the food. We each buy our own. Now can you please be quiet. I am trying to watch TV.”
6) Practise the ‘gracious no’. Passive people find the gracious no very difficult, while aggressive people go too far in the opposite direction. Imagine you are at work. You are due to finish in around 20 minutes, but someone in authority asks you to type up a letter. This would take you at least half an hour, meaning you would miss your bus and have to walk home in the rain. The letter isn’t urgent, and you know this person to be a bully. Calmly and clearly state the facts, and add nothing: “No, sorry, I can’t. If I do, I will miss my bus. I’ll do it first thing tomorrow.” If he attempts to beat you down, simply repeat, in the same calm, clear tone “No, I’m sorry but I can’t.”
7) Know when to be quiet. Say what needs to be said – and nothing more. Aggressive people often become so angry they no longer make sense: shouting and swearing instead of simply stating their case. Passive people, however, will jabber away, trying to explain and apologizing even when it is unnecessary.
Standing up for yourself can take immense courage; to some it comes naturally, others have to learn. Once you have mastered the seven tips set out above, you can put them together. Imagine your overbearing and intrusive father-in-law announces that he wants to take your infant daughter on a roadtrip. You know that he is a bad driver with failing eyesight and that his licence should have been revoked long ago. First, decide that you are going to be assertive. Stay calm, keep your chin up, your shoulders back, and look him straight in the eye. Allow him to speak and then reply without using accusatory language “No. I don’t want you driving my daughter. I’m sorry, but your eyesight is just not good enough, and I’m not prepared to take the risk.” Allow him to argue, and if necessary to lose his temper and shout. Do not interrupt, or become aggressive yourself, simply repeat “No, I don’t want you to drive her. I know you love her, and I am happy for you to spend time together, but my mind is made up.” Now be silent again. It isn’t your job to persuade him, neither do you have to explain, apologize or justify yourself.