Dr. Purushothaman
September 30, 2013

Assertiveness is a simple skill that requires a lot of
practice to perfect. Basically, assertiveness requires us
to speak our minds, to do so in such a way that the meaning
of our communication is clear. Hopefully our expressed wish
is acknowledged, but this is not necessary for us to be
assertive. To achieve assertive communication, we have to
state what is in our minds; that is, our thoughts and feelings.
Advanced assertiveness (another article) is when we ask for
what we want regardless of whether the "recipient" understands
what we communicate, and regardless of whether or not we get
what we want.
This is the assertiveness "cover story," but it is
actually much broader and deeper, because we also have to
express our feelings in a way that usually is trained out
of us; that is, to tell others in some more direct way how
we feel, not just intellectually describe what we think.
Complete assertiveness requires both levels--intellectual and
emotional communication.
The workplace presents both a challenge and potentially
some relief when it comes to being assertive. On the one
hand, we work with others, usually often, so there is some
sense of familiarity. Yet, we do not live with them.
There is a certain built-in interpersonal distance.
(There are exceptions, like when we befriend a co-employee.
In that case there is a different dynamic that makes our
communication more personal. But I am talking about the
more general experience of acquaintances, which probably
better describes most of our work relationships.)
With acquaintances at work, the challenge is to ask for
what we want or at least state our opinion, more or less at
intellectual, pragmatic levels. We tend to leave out the
personal side, because our relationships
(above exception noted) are not that personal. From this
standpoint, assertiveness is easier because there are less
personal consequences. We can state "our case" and others
likely will not take our message so personally. This is
truer if the issue at hand is small. It is also more likely
to be true of communications among co-workers of equal status.
If there are other good elements; that is, more interpersonal
warmth, bonding and empathy, talking to the boss can be
assertively successful. But we need some slightly deeper
personal connection to the boss to make this work, to grease
the wheels of information exchange.
The workplace presents a challenge to being more
interpersonally intimate with co-workers who may not really
be so friendly. The same is true with bosses that have
different levels of power. (Interpersonal intimacy is the
aspect of communication that is more personal, private or
personally revealing of information normally reserved for
friends. This can be a little or a lot, depending upon the
extent of the burgeoning friendship. Power is defined by
how much a person can influence your experience. Obviously,
bosses usually have more of this, but co-workers with an
agenda; that is, when they have some underhanded motive(s),
can be just as powerful.)
Most people opt to not be so personal with fellow workers.
Most people choose to "keep it superficial." This limits the
amount of emotional depth that such a relationship evinces.
It also limits the effectiveness of assertiveness. Why?
Because true assertiveness requires the communication of
feelings to some degree or another. The more friendly and/or
personal the relationship, the greater the ease of expressing
feelings and consequently the greater likelihood of achieving
true assertiveness.
Does this mean that without empathy, warmth and (real or
potential) friendship that there can be no assertiveness? No.
In these cases, assertiveness just takes on a more intellectual,
transactional or superficial aspect. It can work, but it is
limited from a personal experience point of view. An example
is a grievance filed at work. In this circumstance, we
probably have lots of negative feelings. After all, we are
frustrated enough to file a formal complaint. The expression
of said complaint goes through channels, which is designed to
strip the complaint of its affective side. This is chiseled
down assertiveness, which is different from the kind we might
utilize with familiars.

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