Everyday Assertiveness

Dr. Purushothaman
September 30, 2013

Have you ever felt dissatisfied after talking to someone? Ever felt, "That could have gone better."? Do you ever walk away realising that you didn't get what you want? That you just weren't very assertive? There is a French idiom, "l'esprit de l'escalier", the wit of the stairway, which signifies all the things that you wish you'd said but only think of afterwards when it is too late (that is, when you're at the bottom of the stairs, having departed.) Well, rather than indulge in regrets, let's think positive and find a better way.

So what do we mean by 'assertiveness'? Well, our behaviour towards each other can be divided into three broad categories: aggressive, passive and assertive.

Aggressive and passive behaviours come from a fairly instinctive, primitive part of ourselves. They are the classic fight or flight responses to any perceived threat. Aggressive behaviour might be shouting, invasive body language, talking over the other person, demanding that you are right, ignoring what the other person needs. It can get you what you want but often at the expense of the relationship; it's a short-term victory. Passive behaviour is backing down, avoiding conflict, keeping quiet and encouraging the other person to ignore your needs. It rarely gets you what you want and it certainly doesn't boost your self-esteem.

Assertiveness, on the other hand, is about standing up for your rights and needs but not at the expense of others. It's about looking for a 'win-win' outcome. Assertiveness encourages questions, genuine communication, greater understanding and better relations between you and others. However, people often describe themselves as "assertive" because they have stood up for themselves and got their own way. If they did so at the expense of another then it probably felt more like aggressive behaviour to the person on the receiving end.

True assertiveness involves: * stating clearly how you feel about the situation and also what you would like to happen; * speaking calmly without raising your voice or resorting to bad language; * inviting the other person to explain their position; * relying on facts not assumptions; * actively trying to find a solution that could satisfy you both; * knowing that you have the right to say, "No"; * honesty.

Of course, assertiveness cannot always lead to a satisfactory conclusion. If the other person refuses to join you in finding that win-win outcome then it is difficult. What assertiveness does do is give you the best chance of finding a mutually satisfying solution and, even if you don't get there on that occasion, at least you know you gave it your best shot and that you approached the situation with some honesty and integrity.

Ultimately it is important to remember that assertiveness is a skilled way of communicating and, as a skill, it can be learned and practiced, and improved. How easily you find this skill will depend on your beliefs, values, upbringing, past behavior, and your self-esteem; but we can all do it. Even if you don't feel you are very assertive now, you can be. Think positive!

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