Assertiveness for Everyone

Assertiveness is an essential component of good communication in all aspects of our lives, personal and professional.  Yet, it is often a poorly understood concept.  Many people would like to be more assertive, but are not sure how to go about it.  Sometimes aggression is confused with assertiveness. Aggression is always totally unhelpful in communication and is not assertive.  Passivity is the opposite of aggression and is also not assertive.

Sometimes people fear that if they are assertive they`ll come across too strong and others won`t appreciate it. This is not helped by some definitions of assertiveness whereby the word ` forceful` is sometimes used to describe it and people may not want to be forceful. There is no need to be forceful when being assertive.

Mutuality is the bedrock of assertiveness.  It is different to equality in that it acknowledges the presence of `self` and `other` in all communication, irrespective of any power differentials that may exist.  Mutuality affords us choices in our communications – either we choose to deal with something or to let it go.  In order to optimise communication, both parties need to be assertive.  However, even if only one person is assertive, the communication will be better than if neither is.

The key ingredients of mutuality are Dignity and Respect for `self` and `other`.  Dignity is of course a human right whereas respect is a choice.  Assertiveness requires both dignity and respect for `self` and `other` to be present.  Often respect for `self` is missing when people are struggling to be assertive.  Bodylanguage, including good eye contact and calm tone of voice, timing and place are also factors in assertive communication.  

Sometimes even though we`ve assertively chosen to let something go, it continues to bother us. When this happens it`s probably better to respectfully voice our concerns, factoring in all of the above. This is known as having a `Difficult Conversation`.  It has three parts FACT, FEEL, Want/Would Like as an outcome.  It is important to implement these sequentially.

It is necessary to know at the outset what the desired outcome of this communication is, bearing in mind that we don`t always get what we want and we have no control over `other`. However, if we communicate our wishes assertively and do not get the desired outcome, we will feel better knowing that we have done our best to communicate our wishes assertively.

The first step is to lay out the facts as we see them, knowing that facts are often disputed. The other person may have an entirely different version of the facts.  This is where communication often gets derailed as it just goes around and around, back and forth.  It is important to remain calm at this stage.

The second step is to convey how you feel about it.  It is essential here to use the word “I”.  If you say “You” or “It” here, the other person will feel attacked and become defensive.

The third step is to convey what you would like as an outcome. It takes a bit of practice, but is worth it.

Written by:                                                                                                                Dr. Anita Corfe                                                                                          Clinical Psychologist                                                                                    SACAC Counselling

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