Communication and Assertiveness

“The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but progress.” ~Joseph Joubert

Setting boundaries Appropriately: Assertiveness & Communication Training

Assertiveness Training suggests that there are essentially four different ways that people can relate to one another.They can be:

  • 1) Aggressive
  • 2) Passive
  • 3) Passive-Aggressive
  • 4) Assertive

Most people come to assertiveness training already understanding what aggression, passivity, and passive-aggressiveness mean, but they don’t understand assertiveness at all, at first.

Aggression is about dominance. a person is aggressive when they impose their will onto another person and force them to submit in effect invading that persons personal space and boundary. Violence may be used in this effort, but it is not a necessary component of aggression. Passivity, on the other hand is about submission. Passivity occurs when a person submits to another person’s dominance play, putting their own wishes and desires aside so as to pay attention to fulfilling the wishes and desires of their dominant partner. They may not like being dominated (most people don’t), but it seems like the smart thing to do at the time (perhaps to avoid the threat of violence or other coercion). Aggression is about domination and invasion; it is fundamentally disrespectful of relationship partner’s personal boundaries. Passivity is about submission and being invaded; it is fundamentally disrespectful of one’s own personal boundaries.And then there is the passive aggressive personality. Passive-aggressive behavior is a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them. There’s a disconnect between what a passive-aggressive person says and what he or she does. For a passive-aggressive person, true feelings are shared through actions, not words.For example, a passive-aggressive person might appear to agree — perhaps even enthusiastically — with another person’s request. Rather than completing the task, however, he or she might express anger or resentment by missing deadlines, showing up late to meetings, making excuses or even working against the task.

In contrast to these three fundamentally disrespectful positions, assertiveness is about finding a middle way between aggression, passive-aggression and passivity that best respects the personal boundaries of all relationship partners. Assertive people defend themselves when someone else attempts to dominate them, using any necessary method (including force) to repel the invasion attempt. Though they can be strong people who are capable of aggressive domination attempts, they never act in an aggressive manner, however, because they know that to do so would cause them to disrespect their relationship partner’s boundaries. Another way to say this is that assertive people use aggression defensively, and never offensively.

There are many classic examples of assertive behavior in history that you can draw upon for guidance and inspiration. The examples of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King come to mind readily, however. Both were leaders of oppressed, invaded groups who were dominated by an upper class (British colonials in the case of Gandhi, and the American white establishment in the case of Dr. King). Both leaders came to a realization that submission to the ruling powers was no longer working and that something drastic had to happen. Both leaders chose a path of non-violent resistance – this is what makes their behavior assertive rather than aggressive and what separates them from run-of-the-mill freedom fighters everywhere. Their commitment to non-violent resistance is what made them great. Both leaders demonstrated and protested against their oppression by the powers that held them down, but did so in a manner that respected the people wielding those powers to not themselves be violently targeted or oppressed. Both stuck to their posture of assertive protest despite becoming targets for escalating violence against their person, their families and the people they represented. In the end, both succeeded in making important reform occur even if only imperfectly. They were able to make change occur through assertion, and you can do it too.

It is very hard for people used to acting passively to understand how to act assertively. However, many people new to assertiveness training mistake aggressiveness for assertiveness. This is because their baseline position is passivity, and they literally cannot conceive that there is any alternative to just giving in to the demands of others other than to “fight fire with fire”, usually in the same violent manner that their dominant partners model for them. Such newly “assertive” people will start yelling and screaming back at people who have historically yelled and screamed at them, not realizing in their newly empowered angry state that by acting in this way, they are going far beyond what is necessary for defending and may enter into the realm of becoming themselves abusive and dominating. This beginners mistake is probably inevitable, and certainly okay to make as a temporary  learning how to become assertive, but no one should linger there and  transitional stage towards better unnecessarily long. To do so is to substitute aggression for passivity, and to become a bully yourself.

Assertiveness training is all about helping people to know that there really are situations where they have a perfect right to defend themselves from bullying attempts made by others. Once people realize that it is okay, and even proper for them to stand up for themselves; to allow themselves to feel angry when they are taken advantage of, they tend to find that actually defending themselves is not so hard. Assertive behavior basically consists of the following steps:

  • realizing that you have been dominated, or taken advantage of
  • feeling the angry feelings (directed towards the dominating partner, and/or to yourself for allowing yourself to be dominated)
  • deciding to act to put a stop to the domination
  • acting on your conviction (which involves finding a way to demand your rights be respected, while also being polite and civil about it so as not to become aggressive yourself)
  • waiting for your dominating relationship partner to escalate his or her bad behavior, so as to put you back in line and force you to submit again and then
  • resisting the urge to submit again in the face of escalation.

There is a certain inertia to how people relate to one another in relationships. A dominant partner is used to getting his or her way, and a submissive passive partner is used to giving the dominant partner his or her way. This pattern feels normal to both partners and any change will leave both partners feeling unsettled. Expect to feel weird when you decide to become assertive and change the pattern, and also expect that your partner will feel weird too and will generally be motivated to act so as to reassert the old comfortable pattern. Because the normal amount of domination is no longer working, most dominant partners will “up the ante” and try coming on stronger so as to try to power you into submission. Don’t fall for this. If you can stand your ground for a while, both of you will get used to the new pattern of you being assertive.

Assertiveness training is not just for passive-acting people; it is also of great use to people who are habitually aggressive towards others, as a component of a larger program of Anger Management. Passive & passive-aggressive oriented people generally feel badly about their passive position and passive-aggressive ideas & ideals; they are motivated to make changes and happy when they realize that they have a right to do so. In contrast, angry or bossy aggression-oriented people tend to be happy with their dominant position in relationships, even if they are not happy people in general. Aggressive and dominating tactics work for them (or so they think) and they are seldom motivated to change on their own. Assertiveness training  makes intuitive (if frightening) sense to passive-oriented people; it seems to have little to offer to aggressive types. Therefore, assertiveness training must be supplemented with other interventions (and often serious consequences) if it is to get through to the aggressive person.

As a social emotion, anger is experienced through communication. Angry people tend to have distinct communication postures that they habitually take up when communicating with others. Psychologists have described four of these communication postures, each possessing its own motto:

  • The Aggressive communications posture says: “I count but you don’t count.”
  • The Passive communications posture says: “I don’t count.”
  • The Passive-Aggressive communications posture says : “I count. You don’t count but I’m not going to tell you about it.”
  • The Assertive communications posture says: “I count and you do too.”

As you might guess, angry people tend to use the Aggressive and Passive-Aggressive postures a whole lot. Aggressive communicators are more likely to start an argument than they are to get the results they want achieved. However,being passive in your communications is also a mistake, as it communicates weakness and tends to invite further aggression. The Assertive communications posture is the most useful and balanced of all the postures as it is the only posture that communicates respect for all parties. Communicating assertively is the most likely way to ensure that everyone involved gets their needs taken care of. Learning how to become assertive rather than aggressive or passive-aggressive is an important step in discovering how to communicate appropriately with others.

Elements of the Assertive Style

  1. Mottoes and Beliefs
    • Believes self and others are valuable
    • Knowing that assertiveness doesn’t mean you always win, but that you handled the situation as effectively as possible
    • “I have rights and so do others.”
  2. Communication Style
    • Effective, active listener
    • States limits, expectations
    • States observations, no labels or judgments
    • Expresses self directly, honestly, and as soon as possible about feelings and wants
    • Checks on others feelings
  3. Characteristics
    • Non-judgmental
    • Observes behavior rather than labeling it
    • Trusts self and others
    • Confident
    • Self-aware
    • Open, flexible, versatile
    • Playful, sense of humor
    • Decisive
    • Proactive, initiating
  4. Behavior
    • Operates from choice
    • Knows what it is needed and develops a plan to get it
    • Action-oriented
    • Firm
    • Realistic in her expectations
    • Fair, just
    • Consistent
    • Takes appropriate action toward getting what she wants without denying rights of others
  5. Nonverbal Cues
    • Open, natural gestures
    • Attentive, interested facial expression
    • Direct eye contact
    • Confident or relaxed posture
    • Vocal volume appropriate, expressive
    • Varied rate of speech
  6. Verbal Cues
    • “I choose to…”
    • “What are my options?”
    • “What alternatives do we have?”
  7. Confrontation and Problem Solving
    • Negotiates, bargains, trades off, compromises
    • Confronts problems at the time they happen
    • Doesn’t let negative feelings build up
  8. Feelings Felt
    • Enthusiasm
    • Well being
    • Even tempered
  9. Effects
    • Increased self-esteem and self-confidence
    • Increased self-esteem of others
    • Feels motivated and understood
    • Others know where they stand

People who are habitually aggressive tend to fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be assertive. Specifically, they tend to confuse assertiveness with aggression, and think they already are acting assertively. This is frequently a mistaken impression however. Both aggressive and assertive communications postures can involve fierce and persuasive communication. They are fundamentally different things, however, in that aggressive communication tends to go on the offense – it attacks and berates the other – while assertive communication uses anger and fierceness only in defense. Assertive people stand up for themselves and their rights and do not take crap from others. However, they manage to do this without crossing the line into aggressiveness; they do not attack the person they are communicating with unnecessarily. Assertiveness is “anger in self-defense” whereas aggressiveness is “anger because I feel like it”.

People who have difficulty being assertive often also have difficulty making requests. Angry people can be particularly bad at making effective requests. Because they feel entitled to being treated in a particular way they may never make requests in the first place, instead assuming (falsely) that others around them should know what to do and how and when to do it. When angry people do make requests, they may make them in the form of demands, which provoke angry feelings in others and are not likely to be happily carried out.

An effective request should have the following qualities:

  • Clarity. A well-formed request should state clearly what it is that you want, feel or need. Requests that lack clarity are difficult to meet and can provoke stress, frustration, and anger. This is especially true when requests are interpreted as demands. An effective request needs to be stated explicitly, and must provide clear answers to three questions:
    • Who? – To whom is the request being made?
    • What? – What must be done to fulfill the request?
    • When? – When should it be done?
  • Respectfulness. A well-formed request should be respectful. The reason for this is simple: If people feel respected, they are more likely to want to comply, and you are more likely to get what you want.

Respectful requests begin with phrases such as:

  • “Would you be so kind as to…”
  • “If it is not too much trouble, could you…”
  • “I would very much appreciate it if you would …”

Emotional Transparency. Consider the following angry request:

“You insensitive bastard! You stupid forgetful idiot! What’s wrong with you?! Why did you forget the milk I asked for?!”

How does it feel to read that request? Probably, you feel just a little defensive while reading that request, which is less a request and more of an accusation or demand. Such an angry, judgmental request is unlikely to get a sympathetic audience.

The example request (above) fails in part because it lacks in emotional transparency. To be emotionally transparent is to be willing to share real feelings. The speaker in the example request doesn’t share feelings at all – he or she simply makes accusations. If we try to put ourselves into the speaker’s state of mind, however, we can guess at what his or her real feelings are. The speaker probably feels neglected or forgotten, and hurt.

Requests that are emotionally transparent – that share with the listener the true reasons for the request – are more likely to motivate the listener to act than accusatory requests. Consider this variation on the example request, rephrased so that it is more emotionally transparent.

“I feel like you don’t care about me when you forget to purchase the milk. Please remember me next time!

Making the fact that your feelings have been hurt clear in your request does two good things. First, it makes your motivation for making your request clear, and second, it doesn’t put your listener on the defensive. Requests that are emotionally transparent, clear, and respectful in tone are most likely to be taken to heart. We here at Anger Solutions Atlanta aim to get to the heart of the matter…

Whether you are passive, passive-aggressive or aggressive we have designed a curriculum to meet your needs and put you on a path of an assertive lifestyle change; our Anderson & Anderson based program of communication & assertiveness facilitation will give you the tools necessary to live a more productive, happy, and stress-free existence.

Anger Management communication wheel.

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Anger Solutions Atlanta