Notes to Self

Thoughts on psychology, spirituality and soft skill development for personal improvement



"Don't just focus on what you want to say. Most misunderstandings arise because of how you say it."

Regardless of the level of our communication skill, interacting with people can often be quite stressful. Learning to be assertive can help us reduce and cope with this stress. Assertiveness is a communication style where we express our personal rights and feelings more openly.

Everyone is assertive to some level, but the level of assertiveness could vary according to the social situation. For example, a man could be very assertive with his colleagues at work, but not with his wife and kids. Assertiveness training (AT) defines some basic concepts and skills to enhance our assertive behavior under varied social interactions.

Communication Style

Assertiveness training defines three different communication styles used by us when we interact with someone:

  • Aggressive: Examples of aggressive behavior are fighting, accusing, threatening, and a general disregard for the other persons feeling. Aggression is about dominance. A person is aggressive when they impose their will onto another person and tries to force them to submit.

  • Passive: People behave passively when they let others push them around, when they do not stand up for themselves, and when they do what they are told regardless of how they feel about it. Passivity is about submission. Nobody likes being dominated, but it might seem like the smart thing to do at the time (perhaps to avoid disagreement or confrontation).

  • Assertive: Assertiveness is about finding the middle path. We behave assertively when we stand up for ourselves (when required), express our true feelings, and do not let others take advantage of us while, at the same time, being considerate of others' feelings.

Obviously being aggressive or passive has its advantages. If you are always aggressive, people won't try to push you around and you may get things done by cowing others down. People who are passive and give in to the demands of others may stave of disagreements or confrontation and be generally liked by everyone. However, if you are conceived as pushy and aggressive, people would prefer to avoid you. Passive people might end up being taken for a ride, as people take advantage of them, and feel anger and resentment.

Personal Boundaries / Rights

Assertive behavior is about a balanced approach. It is not about simply choosing between an aggressive or passive style of communication. It's about respecting the rights (personal boundaries) and feelings of others and expecting others to respect your rights and feelings too. If someone doesn't respect your rights and feelings, you communicate it to them. It isn't about scoring points or getting even by lashing out at them (aggressive) or feeling hurt and not talking about it so as to not embarrass the other person (passive). Assertiveness is about respect - for self and others.

Assertiveness training emphasizes that to be assertive, one must be clear about their (and others) rights while communicating. The five basic rights of every individual:

  1. You have the right to do anything as long as it does not hurt someone.
  2. You have the right to maintain your dignity by being assertive - even if it hurts someone else (provided you are not intentionally trying to hurt them i.e. being aggressive).
  3. You have the right to make a request from someone, as long as you recognize that the other person has the rights to say no.
  4. In many interpersonal situations the rights aren't clear. But you always have the right to discuss the problem with the persons involved, to clarify it.
  5. You have the rights to your rights.

Assertive Behavior

The behavioral characteristics of assertion include:

  1. Openness implies being clear and specific about what you want, think and feel. A lack of openness often leads to misunderstanding. "I didn't like that movie", "I feel irritated when you show up late", "I want to eat Chinese. Can we get Chinese?" are statements that are clear and unlikely to be misinterpreted.

  2. Directness means addressing the person / situation directly. For example, if you are in a group and want to say something to someone, communicate directly with that person instead of addressing the whole group and hoping that the person gets the message. Or, if you want your husband to get you vegetables from the supermarket, address it directly, "Will you please get a packet of frozen peas from the supermarket?" instead of asking, "Will you, by any chance, be going out today?".

  3. Honesty in communication implies that you be truthful and not mislead the other person. Example: your friend says, "I don't like your hairstyle" and you reply, "Yes, I don't too" when in fact you actually do. When we aren't honest, we deprive the other person a chance to get to understand and know us better.

  4. Appropriateness implies taking the social and cultural context into consideration before communicating. Asking out a girl in a bar might be appropriate, but trying to get a date with a widow on her husbands funeral can certainly get you into trouble. In other words, don't forget your manners!

If our communication isn't open and direct, the other party has to do a lot of guessing work to determine what we are actually trying to say or want. They may also feel manipulated (especially if you are being dishonest too). Behaving inappropriately will lose you respect and invite ire against you.

As we grow older and deal with more complex social interactions between friends, family and co-workers, we also learn to be flexible. Here, flexibility implies learning to control emotions so that we can choose our communication style as per the situation, and not let our emotions dictate our approach.

For example, if your life partner or boss is yelling at you, it would be more prudent (and assertive) of you to NOT give in to anger and be aggressive too. However with a stranger you might prefer (choose) to be angry and aggressive when threatened, to have an advantage. Or you might purposefully choose to be passive when you are being robbed at gun point, so as to not endanger your life (even if you know Karate and fell like thrashing the mugger!).

Becoming Assertive

After understanding the basic concepts, the next step in assertiveness training is practicing it out. Assertiveness training deals with behaviors of various complexity. In the first phase, we need to practice our non-verbal cues. This means, while communicating

  • Stand straight
  • Make eye contact
  • Speak loud enough
If we don't, we quickly lose contact with the other person, our voice might sound monotonous and our communication rambling and indirect, and the other person will have trouble following us and get bored or annoyed.

In the second phase, we need to practice

  • saying yes or no, when we want to
  • ask favors and make requests
  • communicate our feelings and thoughts in an open and direct way
  • and handle put downs

In the third phase, we need to learn

  • adaptive behaviors in job situations
  • the ability to form and maintain a social network
  • develop close, personal relationships

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