By George Kingsnorth
At the moment, one of the books I am reading is on assertiveness. Which is about looking after one’s self-interests, by respecting those around you but also being respected so that your own voice can be heard. Why is this important? Well, often we can find ourselves in situations were we are challenged by those around use, who can try to dominate use, through their aggressive stance, and we can respond by being either aggressive back, which only creates conflict, or by being passive and unquestioningly doing what is requested of us.
In the first situation, highlighted by current events in the way North Korean and America are reacting and counter-acting towards each other, only seems to escalate the differences between them. Sadly, the potential outcome is North Korea launching an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile at the US mainland, with a nuclear warhead and America responding with enough atomic weaponry to wipe out most of Asian. Not particularly helpful to anyone. In the second situation, of being passive, North Korean could launch a nuclear missile and the USA does nothing, passively accepting the outcome (not very likely).
Assertiveness, encourages each party to listen to the self-interests of other in a respectable manner and looking for a compromise in which both parties can amicably get on with each other without losing face. Thankfully, at this point, the US is looking for a process in which they can discuss terms whereby no-one is hit by a nuclear weapon.
In ordinary, everyday life, we all face situations in which there is the potential to be bullied into submission through being passive, or, because we feel that we can’t get our own way, our pent up frustrations force us to explode in a torrent of angry words that makes the other person feel as though they are being threatened.
What being assertive is about is learning how to develop communication skills that allow your voice to be heard and consider others around you, so that they can also be heard. This helps us to be less defensive in our approach to conversations. Key areas to look out for are in the way we communicate our ideas. Dryden & Constantinou (2004) highlight 8 defensive forms of language used in conversation that can be intimidating to others.
The first is name-calling, where the use of stereotyping belittles the person you are talking to: such “You fool, can’t you do it right?” The second is where you use psychoanalysis to make negative judgments about the way someone behaves: “Your problems is you think you know everything.” ‘Manipulative praise’ (p.71) is when a false compliment forces someone to agree to an action they had not intended: “You’re so good at gardening, can you cut my roses?” Judging others: “You should have...” Using prescriptive advice such as: “If I were you, I would have...” Closed questions forcing a person to respond with ‘yes’ or ‘no’, without allowing them to voice their own opinions: “You must be furious?” ‘Unrealistic reassurances’ (p.72) are used to give quick fixes to a problem to reduce the emotional intensity but often comes across as being patronising: ‘Don’t panic, it’ll be fine.” The last defence trigger used is to change the subject when things get uncomfortable: “Don’t fret about it, let’s discuss something else...” (Dryden & Constantinou, 2004)
Dryden & Constantinou (2004) encourage us to be more objective and to review how we communicate so we can identify when we are using defensive triggers. By changing our style of talking we also help the other person become less defensive in their responses. The idea of being assertive is to bring about equality between the two parties so that lines of communication remain open. So part of the process is also being able to identify when the other person is using defensive triggers against you, to hinder your assertiveness through diversions. Dryden & Constantinou (2004) suggest using ‘agreement and requests’, even negative ones, to provide short but clear responses to the other person, allowing you to remain focused and asserting you point of view without the conversation turning into an argument. If the other person highlights a truth about you, even if it is a weakness, by agreeing to their observation, you demonstrate your self-confidence which also helps to calm any frictions that may have arisen. Conversely, if a statement is made about you seems false, by ‘requesting specific examples’ (p.74) you can assertively clarify whether the other person is being constructive or attempting to aggressively provoke you. If a genuine observation of a negative trait within you, this observation and clarification can help build a better relationship.
Dryden & Constantinou (2004) recommend using ‘self-disclosure’ to provide a brief and honest reflection on your true feelings, demonstrating you can express your emotions and helps build trust between yourself and your listener. Self-disclosure allows the other person to relate to you better, making them more comfortable to open up themselves, providing a very effective assertive skill. Once the other party feels comfortable to use self-disclosure, then you are able to consider their requirements and emotions, with better understanding. This process allows each person to weight up a realistic compromise which is not weighted in one direction or the other. A key factor to achieving this is being prepared before the meeting, so you can identify your own emotions, what you are unhappy with in earlier discussions and what you are prepared to compromise so that there is equality for both parties. You can then actively listen to the other person to take on board their views, enabling you to become more flexible to accommodate their negative traits and build stronger relationships.
Imagine, President Trump and Kim Jong-un shaking hands and agreeing to shelve their nuclear missiles? It’s been done before. Less aggression, more assertiveness.
Dryden, W. Constantinou, D. (2004) Overcoming Common Problems: Assertiveness – Step by Step, Sheldon Press: London.