Inspiration for my blogs can come from anywhere. This time, inspiration came unexpectedly from my eight-year old daughter. We had been discussing a situation in the playground that had not gone so well for her and I said that it was really important to be assertive; to ask for what you want with respect for the other person and for yourself, or words to that effect; so when I casually asked my family what I should write my next blog about, my daughter instantly said “Why don’t you write about being assertive?” So here we are!
Assertiveness is the cornerstone of positive, healthy communication, where everyone gets to state their needs, have positive self-esteem, and have respect for themselves and for other people. So far so good. The problem is that for various reasons we don’t always find it that easy to ask for what we want and so may be defensive, passive-aggressive (more on this later) or just plain aggressive, paving the way for resentment and negative confrontation.
So in this blog we are going to:
Define what assertiveness means,
Explore why passive-aggressive behaviour holds us back from being assertive,
Look at ways to develop your own assertiveness and foster a culture of assertiveness at work
“I’m OK, You’re OK”
In order to define what assertiveness is, let’s first look at what it isn’t. Have you ever noticed how some people seem to find it easy to ask for things and state their needs in a way that nobody loses face? Whereas other people might get what they want, but in a way where they seem to be imposing their will on others? That is the difference between assertiveness and non-assertiveness.
Like Emotional Intelligence (see my previous blog here), assertiveness starts with self-awareness of who one is and how our behavior impacts on others (self-responsibility). While aggression leads to either defensiveness or more aggression, assertiveness leads to clear communication and often, resolution. Assertive people possess good self-awareness, good self-respect and respect for others. They also take responsibility for their actions.
At the heart of assertiveness lies the theory of transactional analysis (TA), developed by Psychiatrist Eric Berne, and in particular the concept of “life positions”. Berne’s philosophy of TA and life positions posits that all people are born “OK” and that in childhood people make decisions based about themselves based on how they are regarded and treated by significant others such a parents, family, teachers and so on. For many, they make a decision that they are “not OK” and therefore this becomes their “life position”, so they may unconsciously say, "I'm OK, You're not OK" (bullying behaviour) or "You're OK, I'm not OK" (victim, passive position) neither of which leads to assertiveness.
Fortunately, Berne believed that whatever our life position, given time and with the right support we might choose to make new decisions about our self-beliefs, and therefore our beliefs about others. We can choose to adopt an assertive life position where we can be our authentic assertive selves, and allow others to do the same.
Assertiveness is naturally tied up with self-esteem. When our self-esteem is low and we are being held back by negative thoughts about ourselves ("I'm no good at X", "I always mess things up", "I'm such a failure" etc) we can often slip in to treating others badly, reflecting our feelings about ourselves.
In Dr Nathaniel Branden's wonderful book "The Seven Pillars of Self-Esteem" he states that throughout life we attract people with a similar level of self-esteem to us because it makes us feel comfortable. And that's fine as long as we feel good about ourselves, but if we don't then it's easy to see what a slippery emotional slope this can be. When we develop our self-awareness and therefore our emotional intelligence, we are more likely to catch ourselves falling in to this self-esteem 'trap'. Dr Branden's solution to this is to ask yourself every day "Are my actions supporting or sabotaging my self-esteem? Am I treating myself and others with the care and respect they deserve?"
I am not suggesting it is easy to develop this approach to assertiveness and it won’t happen overnight, but I know from the work I have done with my clients, and my own journey with assertiveness that it is possible.
So let’s look at what else holds us back from being our authentic, assertive selves
Why passive-aggressive behavior kills assertiveness
Just like aggressive communication, passive-aggressive communication is apposite to assertiveness. When someone is passive-aggressive they avoid being directly aggressive and instead engage in indirect, or passive aggression. Typically people who operate from a passive-aggressive place may deliberately procrastinate, avoid certain people or situations that they do not like, say they are ok, when actually they are seething with anger. [Dr Scott Wetzler calls it “Sugar-coated hostility.”] They may also shutdown and refuse to discuss the issue at hand, making progress of any kind impossible.
At work this kind of behaviour may exhibit itself as not doing a task they have been charged with, putting something off until the very last minute, or completing it late in order to punish the person who asked them to do it.
If it is so negative and potentially destructive, then why is this kind of behavior so common?
Early life experiences: As Berne says, our upbringing has a powerful effect on how we see ourselves in relation to the world and others. For many people direct expressions of emotion were discouraged or not allowed. Therefore many people learn that it is too scary to express their real feelings openly so they find passive ways to process their anger and frustration instead.
Fear: Being assertive takes courage and is not always easy, so sometimes we all find it easier to deal with anger and frustration in covert ways, and this is fine. None of us will manage to be assertive all of the time.
Settings and situations: Even if you did grow up in a household where you could freely express emotion, you might have found that at school, and later at work, that this was frowned upon so you adapted your behavior accordingly depending on the situation and the setting.
While I would love to see assertiveness adopted as the norm for how human beings treat each other, realistically it is unlikely to happen. However, there is much we can do to change our own behaviour to positively influence those around us, particularly at work.
So how do we develop a culture of assertiveness in ourselves and at work?
It is easy to assume that if people think well of us and treat us accordingly then we will naturally feel good about ourselves. However, the truth is that, like any shift in consciousness, the change has to come from us. This is where self-esteem comes in. The reason Dr Branden’s book was so revelatory for me, is that it was the first time I had made the connection with treating myself well and having good self-esteem. For all this time I had been waiting to find people who treated me with respect when in actual fact I didn’t value myself, or feel comfortable with positive feedback and recognition.
It might sound simple, but I really hadn’t made that connection before, so I was always in a passive or victim position, rather than in an assertive, creative position.
3 steps to adopting an “I’m OK, You’re OK” life position
1. Develop emotional intelligence through self-awareness:
Always, always acknowledge people’s feelings, and don’t belittle or talk down to them. If they sound angry, then acknowledge their anger or frustration for what it is. Equally acknowledge your own feelings and emotions, and be aware of how they impact on others.
2. Accept praise and positive feedback
Here’s an exercise to try out the next time someone gives you some positive feedback or praises you for something; instead of dismissing it or diminishing it, just thank them and tell them you appreciate their feedback. If you already find this easy and like receiving praise then you are probably already using assertive communication in your life. But if you find it difficult to hear or are quick to say something like, “it was no big deal”, or “oh you don’t need to say that”, then just check in with yourself and see how it feels when you do something different. Simply say “thank you” and smile!
3. Listen to some negative feedback without taking it personally:
Equally, try and hear some difficult feedback and see how that feels. This of course might be much harder but as assertiveness is also wrapped up with emotional intelligence and taking responsibility for your actions, you also need to learn to hear negative feedback from a position of assertiveness.
Remember, people rarely criticize us for who we inherently are. They criticize us for how we acted and how our behavior affected them. Once you can listen to some feedback about how your behavior affected someone else, without taking it personally, then you are on the road to using assertive communication.
If you would like to find out how business coaching and mentoring can help you be more assertive, then book a 30-minute phone call here. Let’s talk!
[For further reading on the subject of assertiveness go to Anni Townend, Scott Wetzler, Eric Berne]