Whatever happened to assertiveness?

Recently someone said to me that she thought some people in her team were being too assertive and they needed to modify their behaviour.

I thought we wanted people to be assertive, as opposed to passive or aggressive or even worse, passive aggressive. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were all sorts of training programs on how to be assertive. I facilitated quite a few and watched participants put into practice strategies that enabled them to communicate clearly and confidently and better manage aggressive bosses. I dug around in my files and found these notes about assertiveness and suggest that we re-acquaint ourselves with exactly what it means.

Assertiveness is about

  • Open honest communication
  • Feeling at ease in social situations
  • Having the social skills that help you form closer personal relationships
  • Being able to express your feelings, thoughts and emotions without experiencing a lot of anxiety or guilt and without violating the rights and dignity of others
  • Taking responsibility for what happens to you in life, making your own decisions and free choices
  • Being a friend to yourself and maintaining your own dignity and self respect
  • Recognising that you have certain rights that need not be sacrificed
  • Being able to protect yourself from being taken advantage of by others.

I remember an exercise that trained people how to be precise, succinct and direct about what they wanted. It was called “Basic Stance”. Rather than saying something like “Um, is anybody else in here feeling hot?” you say, “I am feeling hot. I would like the window opened, please”. Clear. Succinct. Precise.

Or my favourite assertiveness technique – the level statement. The purpose of a level statement is to make a clear, open statement about your experience of an event, incident or behaviour in a way that another person can understand and respond to. The structure of a level statement is as follows.

When you ……

(make a neutral and precise description of behaviour)

I feel ……

(state your emotional response clearly and succinctly)

What I’d like is that you ……….

(state what you would like to happen or how exactly you want the other person to behave)

For example

When you stand up and lean forward over the desk towards me I feel intimidated and I’d like you to be seated while you are speaking to me.

When you interrupt what I am saying, I feel frustrated and I’d like you to listen without interruption until I have finished.

When you listen carefully to what I’m saying without interrupting, I feel really pleased so I would like you to do the same thing next time we talk.

In my experience they work a treat! I watched people make significant changes to relationships using these techniques.

Of course it is equally important to know when to be assertive and when it is best to do nothing, at least for the time being. Participants in my workshops had no trouble in describing such situations and called it common sense.

I wonder how often these skills are taught in schools, universities and TAFEs these days as part of essential employability and life skills?

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Active listening and the blocks

Some years ago  in my early days of facilitation I found myself drifting out of focus in a workshop. Yes, one that I was facilitating! This list of blocks to effective listening helped me realise what I was doing.

Identify what blocks you from listening effectively

We do not always listen effectively. Sometimes we become distracted or our minds wander. How true! We allow our own interests or concerns to get in the way of concentrating on what the other person is saying. And then we can’t respond appropriately!

Typical blocks to effective listening are:

Pre-planning: working out in your own mind what you are going to say next and even mentally rehearsing this.

Second-guessing: anticipating what the other person is going to say next rather than focusing on what they are presently saying (and sometimes even finishing their sentences for them!).

Daydreaming: allowing what you hear to trigger your own thoughts, imaginings or daydreams and therefore not listening.

Pre-judging the person as not worth listening to or having certain feelings or ideas that you assume they have.

Comparing what the other person is saying with your own similar experience, sometimes filtering their experience through yours (and then telling them about it – “That reminds me of the time I…)

Sabotaging: changing the subject so that you talk about what you are interested in (and sometimes interrupting to do this!).

Interrupting: listening for a short time, then cutting in with advice, solutions, or ‘yes, but…’.

Being aware of my listening blocks was the first step in overcoming them. I could pull myself up when I found myself doing this and sometimes admit to the speaker that this was the case, apologise and ask them to repeat what they said. And then I listened totally.

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