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On This Page:

Assertiveness

The Problem

Conflict
Emotions

The Solution

Principles
Practice
Face


 

Assertiveness

In the previous chapters, we have looked at the various components of interpersonal communication, and we have also begun to explore how a better understanding of these components can be useful in everyday situations. Soon, I will talk about the application of communication skills during negotiation, and then I will make some observations about the effects of a team environment on our interpersonal interactions.

However, before approaching either of these topics, I want to introduce a quality which is an absolute prerequisite for each of them. Indeed, this quality is essential in any communication in which there is a possibility of conflict between the parties involved – a situation which is far from being uncommon. As you can guess from the chapter heading, what I am referring to here is assertiveness.

The Problem

Although assertiveness is my topic, I will first say a few words about the situations in which it is most needed. As mentioned above, these situations involve conflict. Conflict usually results from differences in what the parties to a discussion think, believe, feel or want to bring about. The intensity of the conflict is usually closely related to the intensity of any emotions which are aroused by those differences.

Conflict

Conflict is a broad term denoting opposition or incompatibility between people, ideas, feelings, processes or things. The type of conflict under consideration in this chapter is the interpersonal conflict which results when two or more people are striving for mutually incompatible outcomes. Those outcomes might include anything from agreement about facts or opinions to plans for specific actions.

There are many possible causes for such conflict, but they all follow the same general pattern. Those involved want different things, and it is not possible for all of those things to coexist. Each individual or group then struggles to achieve its desired outcomes, at the expense of some or all of what is wanted by the other individuals or groups involved.

In some cases, a decision (though not necessarily agreement) may be reached by putting each matter to a vote. Arbitration by an external body is another possibility. In other cases, of course, the resolution might not be democratic, or even legal. In the case of countries, unbridled conflict may lead to war.

However, most of our everyday conflicts simply express themselves as a failure to reach agreement, usually associated with a sense of irritation or dissatisfaction. This sort of everyday conflict frequently occurs when human beings meet to discuss anything which they consider to be important. While it remains unresolved, such a disagreement may impair or prevent co-operation between the people involved.

Emotions

Although there are many possible reasons for desiring different outcomes, I want to emphasise the importance of the emotions felt by the parties involved. Not only can emotions be found lurking somewhere in almost every case of conflict, but they are frequently the chief catalyst when a minor disagreement escalates into a serious dispute.

However, if I discuss human emotions under the current heading, I will be repeating myself to the tune of more than two hundred pages. That is because human emotions are the subject of my earlier book, "Wanterfall",[1] which has been mentioned a number of times already in these pages. The Appendix to that book, incidentally, addresses the various underlying causes of the desires which may underpin conflict.

As well as tending to promote the conflicts which make assertiveness necessary in the first place, unresolved emotions are very damaging to assertiveness itself. It is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to be appropriately assertive if you have much emotional "unfinished business" in the "pool of pain" discussed earlier in this book.

Instead, you may be either too submissive, or too aggressive; or else you may simply evade the issue in some way or other. Unless you understand your own emotions, and deal with them effectively, they will trip you up every time. In that case, whether you are "trampled on" or "win" (while making more and more enemies) you will never negotiate effectively.

The Solution

Principles

The emotional health necessary for assertiveness is, as mentioned above, addressed in Wanterfall. Here, I will only look at some of the more specific principles which underpin assertiveness. The first of these is equality. In a sense, equality is the very platform on which assertiveness stands.

Assertiveness is not bullying people until you get whatever you want. Nor is it letting other people bully you, in order to get what they want. Is it halfway between those extremes, then? No, not at all! Assertiveness is not the midpoint of a tug of war. Assertiveness is an alternative to war. Other people may be jumping up and down and reading from a warlike script, but the assertive person is not reading from that script at all.

Even though playing in the same production, the assertive person reads from a different script altogether (having first written it!) To be assertive is to be able to state what you think and what you want, and listen to what others think and want, and agree or disagree, all without fuss or drama – no matter how much sound and fury is going on around and about you.

Assertiveness is, therefore, as much a way of being and experiencing oneself, as it is a way of acting. It is perhaps most simply expressed in the famous self-help mantra "I'm OK – You're OK".[2] When calmly and solidly based in that mindset, it is much easier (though not always easy) to "keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you".[3]

This allows you to think relatively clearly, even as the feathers fly, and to state your own views – and also to defend them rationally, when necessary. Of course, that is greatly facilitated by having as many relevant facts at your disposal as possible. Assertiveness is not a substitute for being up to speed.

Here is something else that assertiveness is not. It is not a sort of interpersonal judo for the purpose of manipulating other people and twisting them in the direction of your own desires. It may, however, be employed to prevent other people from doing just that. It is important to understand such manipulative behaviour (which has its own chapter later in this book).

Here is yet another thing which assertiveness is not. It is not reserved for Very Clever People. It can be started in a very small way, by anyone, at any time – and it can grow from there. If you don't find "I'm OK – You're OK" quite believable, you can always start with another famous self-help mantra, "I'm not OK – You're not OK – and that's OK".[4]

Practice

Although being assertive does not come naturally to most people, it improves with practice. If you practise it in a thoughtful way in simple situations, such as shopping or telephoning for information, it will gradually become easier in more challenging situations. Learning to say "no", without either getting angry or feeling guilty, is an excellent exercise.

Some aspects of assertiveness can even be packed in your lunchbox (metaphorically speaking) ready for use when needed. For example, a haematologist I used to work with would often, after listening carefully, calmly say "I don't agree, and I'll tell you why, OK?" Then he would explain exactly what it was he didn't agree with – and why. That stock phrase was always ready, and usually worked well for him.

However, it will probably not work well for you, unless you tailor it to suit your own situation. The haematologist in the example above was a middle aged male and was the head of his department. He was also well liked and highly respected by everyone who knew him. Should any of these things make a difference? Perhaps not. Do they make a difference? Yes.

Disagreement always needs to be handled with care, and the exact method depends on literally everything about the people involved. It often helps if you agree with something acceptable first. It may also be wise to disagree with one thing at a time, or perhaps with one particular aspect of a thing. The words you use, and the way in which they are delivered, must be tailored to the culture of the group involved, and your position in it.

There are also situations in which assertiveness may need to be avoided altogether. Not every individual or group follows democratic principles. Too much assertiveness when dealing with your boss might be bad for your career. Even a little assertiveness when dealing with a club bouncer or an angry policeman might be bad for your health. Assertiveness must always be filtered by common sense!

Face

Whatever specific or non-specific techniques you use in your assertive approach, it is very important that they do not cause anyone to "lose face". To lose face is to suffer diminished status in the eyes of other people, as might happen if a person were treated disrespectfully in front of friends or associates.

Some readers may feel that the whole arena of self-esteem is unfortunate, if not completely counterproductive. However, when practising assertiveness on planet earth, face is usually important to most or all of the parties to any discussion. That being the case, it is always best to seek solutions that allow all of those involved to "save face".


(Click the number of a footnote to return to its reference in the text)

[1] Coates, G.T. 2008. Wanterfall: A practical approach to the understanding and healing of the emotions of everyday life. Free e-book from www.wanterfall.com

[2] Harris T.A. 1967. I'm OK - You're OK. Avon Books, New York.

[3] Kipling R. If… (Poem). Multiple publishers.

[4] Kübler-Ross E. Personal communication (and many public lectures).

 

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