Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Finding Your Voice: Assertiveness

In nearly 25 years of practice, I have not met or known anyone who did not need to improve their communication skills, including yours truly. All people struggle in expressing themselves and in deciphering the meaning of others' expressions. A vast body of psychological research has repeatedly demonstrated how communication is hampered by limits in perception including biases. We can spend the rest of our lives working on this and still not achieve perfection.

But we should try anyway. One simple way to begin is to classify our speech patterns in one of four types, aiming for the most effective one of the four: assertiveness. Here are the four types:
  1. Passive: failing to express one's needs or preferences, or expressing them in such an indirect manner, such that one's rights are easily overlooked or violated.
  2. Aggressive: expressing one's needs or preferences in a hostile manner such that other's rights are easily overlooked or violated.
  3. Passive-aggressive: Communicating in a passive manner in another's presence and an aggressive manner in their absence. (Most of what we call drama originates with this pattern.)
  4. Assertive: expressing one's needs and preferences in a calm, direct, clear, and often brief manner such that others respect them and theirs are respected at the same time.
Here's the thing. All of us are capable of using all of four types of communication. That is part of what makes us human. Additionally, we tend to use each type in specific circumstances and also with specific people. Some of us are assertive at home, but not at work. Or vice versa. Some of us are assertive with a partner, but not our friends. Or with women but not men. And so on. These patterns usually derive from negative or stressful experiences and the emotional injuries or traumas that go with them, resulting in fears and anxieties arising when we are confronted by similar situations. But as with any fear or anxiety these can be overcome if you work hard enough..


We can begin this work by learning to reliably identify the patterns we use, and when and with whom we use them. This takes a lot of focus and time, so patience is needed. Once these patterns have been identified, the next task is to identify the history behind the preference; we once had good reasons for avoiding assertive communications in some scenarios, but now we have to realize that those reasons are probably no longer valid.

Now the real work begins...we must increasingly employ assertive language across all situations and all people. As you can imagine, this takes a lot of work and it progresses slowly at first. But it tends to pick up pace once you have even minor successes, and at times moves very rapidly once you get the hang of it. The quality of our lives, including the overwhelming majority of successful stress management, is then enhanced accordingly.

If you'd like a resource to accompany you on this path, try Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships (2001), by Michael L. Emmons and Robert E. Alberti, Impact Publishers.