I think most people see assertiveness as a positive thing and we can feel great when we pull out an assertive response to someone crossing a boundary – like changing the goal posts, ignoring a value you consider to be important, saying something offensive or even always leaving us to do a particular chore. But quite often the response is not assertive, it’s either passive: just give in and go along with whatever is going on, or aggressive: a defensive response like snapping or insulting. With passive responses, nothing changes, we feel affronted and will continue to resent the situation and will often go off to others to have a moan. With aggressive responses, we can make the situation far worse and often a while later feel a bit foolish because of our badly managed response.
So being assertive is the response that is most likely to effectively address whatever has happened but to be assertive requires emotional intelligence. Being assertive requires us to be aware of our ‘affronted’ response as it happens and pause so we don’t continue with our usual and often automatic response. If we usually default to a passive response, it will take bravery to be assertive and if our usual response is to be aggressive, it will take control to resist becoming defensive.
And before I explain how to be assertive, I will describe another issue with being assertive that is often overlooked. If you are assertive towards someone who is not particularly emotionally intelligent, that person can have a passive or aggressive response. When this happens even more emotional intelligence is required to prevent yourself from becoming triggered – especially in the light of the fact that you will perceive yourself as being quite reasonable!
So what does being assertive look like? Well it mostly takes the form of using I messages which is emotionally literate in itself. You state…… When (insert problem behaviour/issue), I feel (insert how you feel). You could also add the problems the behaviour brings to you specifically but this is not always necessary. An example would be, ‘when people give me extra jobs to do last minute, I feel overwhelmed’. Nobody can argue with how you feel. However, in response to your assertion, the person you are addressing could respond defensively e.g. by denying that’s what they do, assert that it’s never their fault when they do what they do or in extreme cases actually just becoming aggressive and insulting you. This is where you have to stand your ground. Do not attempt to engage with the defensive response emotionally. Just acknowledge their response. ‘Are you saying it’s not your fault when you have to give me work last minute?’ Once they have agreed, continue with your original assertion. The backlash defensiveness should eventually subside and then a problem solving discussion about the way forward will be possible.
With children, I messages can be easily taught. They can also be taught that some people won’t handle assertiveness from another very well. They can also be told that the aim is to get to a point where you are both understanding each other and agreeing the way forward. These skills can actually be practised – by both adults and children – so that they become automatic.
Assertiveness won’t always work but it is certainly more likely to work than aggression or passivity!