Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Are You Assertive?

The way you approach someone, the way you speak to them, and how you treat them says quite a bit about your attitudes about that person and about yourself. There is a continuum representing the amount of respect a person has for themselves versus respect for they have for others. This continuum ranges from aggressive to submissive, with assertive in between.

Aggressiveness: saying and getting what you want at the expense of others. [See my previous post on violence and aggression for a more extensive discussion of physical aggression.] Aggressive communication is bullying. When someone pushes around another person so that they get what they want while squashing the other person, they are being aggressive. Respect and concern for self is very high. Respect and concern for others is very low. An aggressive person frequently oversteps their rights, infringing upon the rights of others.

Submissiveness: consistently giving in to others, especially on points of possible contention. A truly submissive person has very low concern and/or respect for themselves and very high concern and/or respect for others. They either don't like to make decisions for themselves or they may be too afraid to confront the other person. This is especially the case when a submissive person faces an aggressive person. An interesting point to make here is that both submissiveness and aggressiveness can be situation-specific. While there are some individuals who are almost always submissive and some people who are almost always aggressive, more individuals select their communication style based on the person or circumstance they face at the time. A person may start off submissive, for example, but tire of the overstepping of another and push back.

Mixed somewhere in between aggressiveness and submissiveness is passive aggressiveness. This occurs when an individual appears to be submissive, but uses their martyrdom or victim status to manipulate others. Many individuals who use this style of communication feel bad about being "pushovers," but they do not want to deal with the guilt or negative backlash of being openly aggressive. Due to its manipulative nature, many individuals consider this style to indicate even less respect for the other person than open aggression.

Assertiveness: standing up for your rights when someone is about to infringe upon them without overstepping or infringing upon another person's rights. Assertiveness means acting in your own best interests by expressing your thoughts and feelings openly and honestly. It also means a willingness to hear out the other person's thoughts and feelings. For an assertive individual, one person's rights end where another person's rights begin. This communication style shows an equally high amount of respect for one's self and for others. You aren't going to push around others, nor will you let others push you around.

If it helps to illustrate the differences, let's apply these ideas to a popular set of characters--My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Although the main characters all skew to the nice and friendly range, they have their moments when they exhibit either passive, aggressive, or passive aggressive behaviors. The obvious illustration for passive behavior is Fluttershy. There are many episode in which her friends try to get her to stand up for herself and stop being such a pushover. The most aggressive of the main characters is Rainbow Dash. Many times she believes that her way is the best or only way; she sometimes refuses to budge on her opinions until it's almost too late. The most talented at passive aggressive behavior, the master of the guilt trip, is Rarity. Sometimes her use of overly dramatic expression is meant to appear that she is willing to "suffer" for her friends, but it is presented in such a way that they give in to her desires. Of course, as a kid's show about friendship, Rarity often suffers from a lot of guilt after her manipulation. The most balanced and assertive of the main characters is probably Apple Jack. While she does express her own ideas and opinions, she also invites her friends to contribute theirs.

The bad news is that many people, especially if they have been told that they are too submissive, often confuse aggression for assertiveness. They swing the pendulum in the opposite direction, taking revenge for being oppressed by oppressing others in turn. Assertiveness doesn't work that way. The good news is that real assertiveness can be learned. Good quality assertiveness training programs include the following basic steps.

1) Understand what assertive communication really is. This means focusing on behaviors instead of personality characteristics. In a confrontational situation, an assertive individual will describe the other person's unwanted behaviors, express their feelings about the behaviors to the others person, specify desired or needed behavioral changes, and offer rewarding consequences for the changes.

2) Monitor your communication style. Identify when you are not assertive. Figure out who intimidates you, which topics lead to discomfort, and which situations lend themselves to either aggressive or submissive responses from you.

3) Observe a model's assertive communication. Often real examples help us identify the behaviors we want to emulate.

4) Practice assertive communication. Start with friends and family who are the most supportive of you, then work your way toward general interactions.

5) Adopt an assertive attitude. You're not going to let others push you around and you will respect the rights of others, as well.

My rights end where another person's begins. Mutual respect and care keeps relationships balanced, equal.