“Forthright, positive, insistence on the recognition of one’s rights” – Oxford English Dictionary
Assertive is a style of communication which contrasts with the passive, aggressive or manipulative styles. It is a way of expressing our needs while at the same time recognising that they are no more important or less important than the needs of others. When we act assertively, we are respectful of others, understanding that both parties are equal and accepting that someone else may say no or disagree with our viewpoint. Assertive people communicate clearly, directly, openly and honestly. And yet the assertive person can recognise in fact when to act assertively and when it may be strategic to lie, to walk away, back down, to be deliberately passive or aggressive.
The training course I’m currently attending at a local branch of Mind (a mental health charity operating across the UK) has been instrumental in helping me to see where my communication falls down and what I’m doing wrong. The reasons why I felt I needed assertiveness training are available in this post:
It has challenged me in quite significant ways which have sometimes felt a little uncomfortable but not as uneasy as some of the exercises on my recent psychodynamic counselling course. That’s because the nature of assertiveness training is essentially forward-looking.
With assertiveness being the goal there is the inbuilt premise that change is possible. One has to believe in change in order to achieve an identifiable goal. We spent the first session understanding the cycle of change adapted from the work of Prochaska and DiClemente. Upheaval brings with it pros as well as cons and can be a painful journey, but as long as the pros outweigh the cons it is a risk worth taking. There was a degree of healthy self-examination in the first couple of sessions as we pause to understand the rights we all have as individuals. This is the basis that must be understood if any lasting changes in our interactions with others can be made. What it calls for is an acceptance of certain rights which are:
- To state our own needs
- To be treated with respect as an intelligent, capable and equal human being.
- To express our feelings
- To express our opinions and values
- To say “yes” or “no” for ourselves
- To make mistakes
- To change our minds
- To say I do not understand
- To ask for what we want
- To decline responsibility for other people’s problems
- To not be dependent on others for approval
- To be unassertive
For many on the course, myself included, this brought a painful realisation of the rights we had denied ourselves over the years, perhaps over entire lifetimes so far. For me the ones I selected as needing the most work were 6. To make mistakes and 7. To change our minds. I was brought up believing that to make mistakes was a sign of weakness – and when I did make a mistake, I certainly didn’t own up to it, because it was so shameful! Similarly with 7, I guess there was an assumption I latched onto as a child that to change your mind was a sign of a weak character. The assumption went unchallenged and was in fact fed by significant others in my life for so many years that reading this Bill of Rights in class made me feel kind of emotional. It was like a great veil had been lifted and finally the unspoken could be said out loud. The great realisation was that I wasn’t weak or stupid if I changed my mind. I am human and it is my right, like it is everyone’s right.
The Bill of Rights is the absolute foundation on which assertiveness is built. If you believe deeply that you are entitled to those fundamentals, then what we call ‘assertiveness’ logically follows.
The first technique learned on the course was the ‘I’ statement. It can be used to ask for what we want or to state when a given situation is not working well for us and we want to change something. We express clearly what we really think and feel. We take responsibility for ourselves. We don’t blame or attack others, and stay calm throughout. We only talk about how something affects us (and what we’d like as an outcome) so there is less to argue about. The ‘I’ statement deals with facts, feelings and expectations.
The format of the ‘I’ statement has three parts to it, namely “I feel”… “When”… “What I would really appreciate is”…. To use it successfully, you must always keep the outcome in mind and be specific and concise about it. Crucially, you do not allow yourself to be dragged in to another discussion. You stick to your own agenda. You simply state your case using repetition if necessary and if that is not getting through, it’s fine to say “I’ve told you what I think, it’s up to you what you do with that.” Body language and tone of voice are key. The assertive way keeps in mind that 70%, or whatever the science says this week, of communication is non-verbal.
When we began to practise ‘I’ statements it soon became apparent that even in the safety of the classroom people found it jarring to say “I feel upset by”. The high value placed on feelings in this mode of communication is somewhat at odds with the culture we live in, in which feelings are not readily talked about. Many environments it’s simply not appropriate to talk of our feelings, such as the workplace or interactions with a stranger. The course leader made a very valid point regarding how we can subtly shift the language we use in accordance with the setting. In our culture at large, feelings are not valued but opinions are king. We reformulate our statement as the opinion, “I think it isn’t fair” instead of emotive language, “I feel upset by”.
After learning about ‘I’ statements we moved on to Saying No. This was something that many in the group struggled with. A cliché abounds of a typically passive, doormat-type person who gets persuaded and manipulated into saying, doing, and buying things they don’t want. A whole industry preys on these kinds of people. Perhaps they ‘don’t’ want to make a fuss’ or their motto is ‘anything for a quiet life’. They feel they will let people down or upset them if they refuse a request. This stereotype has some truth to it.
However we have a right to say no. Saying no doesn’t mean rejecting the person, it simply means refusing the request. When you say no, you must actually use the word ‘no’ – not ‘I’m not sure’, ‘it’s not a good time’, ‘I don’t think so’ ‘I’m too tired’, or any other evasion. The other person will be thinking that your answer is simply a preamble to negotiations.
So, clarity is key when saying no. When you are clear, people are less likely to pressure you because they have already heard your answer. They know where they stand. Also, a convoluted answer full of apologies, justifications and guilt can be uncomfortable for the other person to hear.
It’s really very freeing to know that we do all have the right to say no. Again it comes back to the Bill of Rights that we learned in the first session, and being committed to accepting those rights. If other people feel bad about our refusal of their request or try to make us feel guilty or duty-bound to comply, that’s their problem. Realising this is like a huge weight has been lifted from the shoulders of those whose sense of self comes – strange as it sounds – from compliance with others.
What this course has given me so far is permission to stand up for myself. Yes, we all have the right to state our needs. Yes, we all have the right to decline responsibility for other people’s problems. Yes, we all have the right to be treated with respect as intelligent, capable and equal human beings.
Being aware of our rights is more empowering than any of the individual techniques and exercises that we have learned so far, although they have been very helpful and eye-opening too. The effect of sitting in a room with other human beings who all now share the knowledge of our rights makes it very real. This has been the real surprise of the course. Undoing our disempowered self-image and replacing it with one in which we are allowed to express ourselves. That is the key to assertiveness.