There are three styles that people generally use to handle interpersonal communication; passive, aggressive, and assertive. The former two are self-explanatory and we need not waste time explaining why they are not as effective as the latter.
I want our President to be assertive. What I mean by this is that he will exude strength, but appear relaxed. He will treat others with respect and dignity and expect the same in return. He would never assume another’s motives, but directly ask. During conversation, he will listen and ask questions in order to understand the other person. He will be able to accept criticism and ask for help when needed. He will handle anger in a productive manner. He will understand that mistakes can be made at times and will know what to do about them. He will not allow people to take advantage of him. Things will get done because he will be proactive, make compromises when appropriate, and get needs met.
Assertiveness is roughly defined as “The ability to express feelings and verbalize boundaries and rights, at the same time recognizing the feelings and rights of others.” Assertive communication involves direct, clear and honest (but tactful) language. Assertive communication diminishes interpersonal conflict and reduces stress. Assertiveness is protective. People who are assertive learn to say “no” in diplomatic and appropriate ways, express why they need boundaries.
There are times to temper assertiveness. An example is when a person or situation is so aggressive that assertiveness would only escalate things. In situations like these, it is better to take the “high road” and diffuse the situation, perhaps by saying something like, “You may be right. Let me think about that.” This is not passive behavior as it may appear. I would call it wise, protective or “sometimes I have to swallow my pride” decision making.
A few years ago, I worked with a successful business woman who was stressed and angered by a certain manager. This person would stress all week about the meetings with said manager. She worked on verbalizing her concerns to her supervisor and subsequently the structure of the meetings changed. She immediately felt better. A factor that had interfered with her ability to take action was that she did not want to seem angry or seem to be “a problem”. In other words, she was being passive because she didn’t want to appear aggressive. The line between being assertive or aggressive can be a blurry one.
The distinction can be conceptualized as follows; aggression generally involves unprovoked and powerful anger. An aggressive person crosses another’s personal boundaries and does not demonstrate any attempt at collaboration or reciprocal communication.
Alternatively, assertive people address situations by communicating how the situation affects them or makes them feel. The classic example is the lunch meeting where the other person is late. The lunch can be totally ruined by starting with, “You are late, and you screwed up my whole day! Thanks a lot!” Or it may be salvaged with, “You are 20 minutes late and now we only have 20 minutes for lunch. I am frustrated because I sat around doing nothing and now we have to eat fast.” This example highlights the basic formula for assertive communication. Start with the other person’s actions or the situation (whatever the facts are). Next describe the way you feel. Last, describe how those things affect you.
It is an art to be assertive. It takes practice to be skilled at when to be assertive and how. It is certainly well worth the time to master. When we are passive, we limit ourselves and we are taken advantage of. When we are aggressive, we alienate ourselves, we create conflict and chaos. Being assertive will not solve all situations, but it is protective and works as an anti-depressant and to contain anxiety. It can restore or preserve integrity and dignity.
Mr. President (whoever you will be), please add the following to your platform: “I pledge to be assertive; to be open, communicative and honest. To assert true feelings and actions, even in the face of fear and pessimism. To be confident and to pursue what is best for the people of this country. I will productively face conflict and embrace collaborative problem solving. I solemnly believe that this platform will promote the common goal of security, health and happiness.”
I am Joe Everybody and I approve of this message.
Reference: “Setting boundaries Appropriately: Assertiveness Training” , Dombek, Wells-Moran, MentalHelp.net, July 3, 2006.