Assertiveness is a learned behavior defined as “clear, honest, authentic communication about oneself, while preserving respect for the other person.”
Assertive individuals know how to express their views, wants and needs openly with confidence. They have no need to force their ideas on others, nor do they fear offering their opinions. Assertive persons are self-assured enough not to be threatened by others, which allows them to be open and receptive, willing to hear all viewpoints. Assertiveness is neither passivity nor aggressiveness; it is a healthy way of communicating.
What prevents one from being assertive? The source of poor communication skills most often originates in the family. If children are ridiculed, ignored or abused verbally or otherwise they do not feel safe to honestly express themselves. They will find ways to “play it safe” in order to survive.
Another scenario is found in a family where the loudest voice is the only one heard. Survival depends on being loud, demanding and aggressive. Unfortunately, while that style of communication may be somewhat effective it also pushes people away, intimidates or forces unwilling compliance.
A hypothetical situation might clarify the differences between passivity, aggression and assertiveness. You are at a fine restaurant with friends. Your meal arrives; it is cold. Do you eat it and grumble, snap at the wait person and demand another meal, or firmly but politely explain the food is cold and you would like it heated? To eat a cold dinner is unnecessarily passive. We deserve to have what we request and pay for. Angry demands are aggressive and uncomfortable for others in the party. By now you know that requesting a reheat or replacement is the assertive route.
How does lack of assertiveness affect relationships? A passive person fails to speak up, follows rather than initiates, and seldom makes a decision. Eventually resentment surfaces and tends to be expressed in manipulative ways. It is not unusual for a passive individual to pout, make snide comments or express resentments in the form of “jokes.” Friends and family of a passive individual have to guess at their preferences, so are put in a position to make mistakes. Everyone has the ability and responsibility to make their desires known; we cannot expect others to read our minds.
Aggressiveness on the other hand, automatically sets the stage for power struggles. Aggressive partners tend to be inconsiderate and controlling. Life with such a person is peaceful only when no one opposes him/her.
We always express our feelings in some way, consciously or unconsciously. Unconscious emotion appears in facial expressions, body language, tone of voice or perhaps in sullen silence. Conscious voicing of feelings and desires goes hand in hand with assertive communication. To be assertive we must fully realize what we want and be willing to ask for it. It is not the responsibility of friends, family or spouses to obtain for us what we want.
We each have our unique set of wants and needs, which are essential to our individuality. We need not apologize for these; we need only learn to make them known through communicating assertively.
Elinor Stanton is a psychiatric nurse practitioner on Marco Island. She has 30 years of experience as a therapist in private practice and with a large health maintenance organization in Boston. Send comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 394-2861. Visit her Web site at http://www.etseven.net.