IS IT WISE TO BE ASSERTIVE?
When I first started to teach a graduate course at the University of Minnesota on conflict resolution, from time to time a student would ask me to compare what I was teaching to assertiveness training.
“From what I know about assertiveness training,” I explained, “it teaches a very narrow skill that can be helpful at times, particularly for very shy people. But it doesn’t adequately explain that for different situations alternatives to assertiveness may be the wiser course of action. The DIG Conflict Model that I am teaching provides students a toolbox with several tools that they can choose from. Depending on the situation, one tool can be better than another to increase personal power and wisely resolve conflicts.
“For example, when I was twelve years old, I was playing some basketball in a Brooklyn playground during summer vacation. After the first game, I was very thirsty and I thought about getting a drink at the fountain on the far end of the playground. But while I was playing, I had noticed a couple of bullies over by the fountain giving a hard time to kids smaller than they were. The bullies were clearly bigger than I was.
“Assertiveness trainers, it seems to me, would have me go over to the fountain. If the bullies got in my way, I should just stand up to them, perhaps asserting over and over again that I want to get a drink until they let me have a turn at the fountain.
“Although that is certainly one option that I could have chosen to use, before risking having the cookies pounded out of me, I first considered other options. Perhaps I could come up with an approach that would achieve my goal of getting a drink in a less risky manner (see post titled The ABCs OF Power: The Letter B). It quickly occurred to me that my apartment is just a block and a half away. In those days I could run like the wind. So, in two minutes I was back home safely drinking all the water that I wanted. I then filled up a 36-ounce bottle with water and took it with me to the playground so I ended up having plenty of water after the next few games.
“The next day that I played at the playground, I noticed that the bullies were gone. When I went to get a drink at the fountain, I asked some of the kids who were playing there what happened to the bullies. A couple of them told me how they had gotten their big brothers to tell the bullies to cut their crap out. In terms of the DIG Conflict Model, they had formed a coalition with their big brothers to achieve their goal and it worked. For the rest of the summer we all got our drinks at the fountain without any more conflicts. And so, here is an example in which I believe a conflict was resolved in a satisfactory manner with less danger than assertiveness.
“Let’s look at another example of how the DIG Conflict Model’s approach differs from assertiveness training. If you are at a movie theater and you want to buy some candy, as long as you manage to go up to the candy counter and purchase what you want, you have pretty much fulfilled all the requirements of being assertive. But when I was a teenager, I worked at a candy counter. I found that some of my customers treated me in a way that was distinctly more pleasant than others who used a cold, impersonal style. As I thought about this, I noticed that the pleasant customers, when it was their turn on line, took a brief moment to look me in the eye and give me a respectful nod of the head. Rather than using a demanding voice that ordered me to get what they wanted, they said in a pleasant voice, ‘Can I have some…’ or ‘I would like some…’ After I got them what they wanted, they again looked me in the eye while thanking me.
“Both styles—the cold impersonal demanding style and the more pleasant respectful style—took the same amount of time and both approaches led to customers always getting the items that they wanted. Nevertheless, the DIG Conflict Model advocates that when we choose an approach to achieve what we want, we consider the golden rule—‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Since I preferred the more pleasant respectful style when I was serving others behind a candy counter, I began to use a similar approach whenever I went up to a candy counter as a customer. I don’t think assertiveness training encourages people to think in this way.”
The first few times that I responded to the question that asked me to compare what I was teaching to assertiveness training, the questioners seemed satisfied with my answer, and I then went on with the rest of my lesson. But one day, a woman replied to my answer by voicing an objection. “I have taken an assertiveness training class,” she said, “and your description of assertiveness training doesn’t match my experience at all. For example, my instructor advocated being respectful while being assertive.”
Now, I could have asserted over and over again that I was right and she was wrong until she either stopped disagreeing with me or sat down and remained quiet, but I responded quite differently. First, I summarized what I heard her say. After she indicated that she was satisfied that I understood her position, I paused to think about it for a few moments. I then replied, as follows:
“My views about assertiveness training are based, admittedly, on very little experience. I have never actually taken an assertiveness class and learned about it from a couple of professors who both discussed the approach very briefly, maybe in five or ten minutes. One of the professors, for an assignment, had the class read a chapter in a book about the topic and when we met for class afterwards, we discussed what we had read for a few minutes. Therefore, I think it does makes sense that I learn some more about assertiveness so I can give a fairer reply to these types of questions. Thanks for raising this concern.”
The questioner seemed satisfied with my reply, and afterwards, I did take the time to look more carefully at the assertiveness approach. Here’s some of what I found out.
According to a Wikipedia article:
“Assertiveness is the quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive…. Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defines assertiveness as: “a form of behavior characterized by a confident declaration or affirmation of a statement without need of proof; this affirms the person’s rights or point of view without either aggressively threatening the rights of another (assuming a position of dominance) or submissively permitting another to ignore or deny one’s rights or point of view”.”
Wikipedia’s section on assertiveness training states:
“The goals of assertiveness training include:
- increased awareness of personal rights
- differentiation between non-assertiveness and assertiveness
- differentiation between passive–aggressiveness and aggressiveness
- learning both verbal and non-verbal assertiveness skills.
As a communication style and strategy, assertiveness is thus distinguished from both aggression and passivity. How people deal with personal boundaries, their own and those of other people, helps to distinguish between these three concepts. Passive communicators do not defend their own personal boundaries and thus allow aggressive people to abuse or manipulate them through fear. Passive communicators are also typically not likely to risk trying to influence anyone else. Aggressive people do not respect the personal boundaries of others and thus are liable to harm others while trying to influence them. A person communicates assertively by overcoming fear of speaking his or her mind or trying to influence others, but doing so in a way that respects the personal boundaries of others. Assertive people are also willing to defend themselves against aggressive people.”
This article also has a section titled “Communication.” Among the descriptions that are provided is, “Assertive communication involves respect for the boundaries of oneself and others. It also presumes an interest in the fulfillment of needs and wants through cooperation.”
When I began to flip through a few of the many books on assertiveness, I found that there were numerous approaches offered under this umbrella. Some like, Too Nice for Your Own Good: How to Stop Making 9 Self-Sabotaging Mistakes by Duke Robinson, seem to approach the topic from a no-nonsense position. Others, like The Guide to Compassionate Assertiveness: How to Express Your Needs and Deal with Conflict While Keeping a Kind Heart, by Sherrie Mansfield Vavrichek, appear to teach techniques that take into account a genuine concern for all involved parties.
And so, in the end, I came to realize that my original description that contrasted my approach with assertiveness was far too simplistic. And when answering the question, Is it wise to be assertive?, my answer is, “Often there are some helpful ideas that fall under that umbrella. It is hard to be clear about this because there are simply way too many approaches that are referred to as assertiveness training to give a more definitive answer.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.