Be Yourself by Being Assertive

At the suggestion of a friend, I picked up The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and in Relationships by Randy J. Paterson, Ph.D. The book describes four different communication styles and argues that assertiveness tends to be the most effective style in terms of clarity and mutual respect. Through a series of exercises and inventories, the reader can determine his/her primary communication style and practice being more assertive.

Paterson writes, “Assertiveness is not a strategy for getting your own way. Instead, it recognizes that you are in charge of your own behavior and that you decide what you will and will not do. Similarly, the assertive style involves recognizing that other people are in charge of their own behavior and does not attempt to take that control from them. When we behave assertively, we are able to acknowledge our own thoughts and wishes honestly, without the expectation that others will automatically give in to us. We express respect for the feelings and opinions of others without necessarily adopting their opinions or doing what they expect or demand,” (pp. 19).

This struck a chord with me. In recent years, I had started to realize that my tendency to be good-natured sometimes made me feel compromised or taken advantage of. At times, in the name of being “nice,” I agreed to do things I did not want to do and left interactions with others feeling frustrated and annoyed. I blamed these others for how I felt because I did not realize that it was my responsibility to be a better communicator.

When I shared these concerns with my friend, she recommended Paterson’s book, which helped me realize I had to reframe my beliefs about appropriate communication. I had apparently decided long ago that being assertive was unacceptable, because I equated it with selfishness or inconsiderateness. However, Paterson argues that assertiveness means being honest with oneself and others and maintaining healthy boundaries. In my opinion, these are good things.

So, the benefits of being assertive seem clear. Yet, the fact that there is an entire book devoted to helping people improve at being assertive suggests there are lots of people in addition to me who find it difficult. Paterson describes three other types of communication that people use as well: passiveness, aggressiveness, and passive-aggressiveness, commenting that these may yield some benefits but that the benefits may come at a cost.

Passive communication is a style that is “designed to avoid conflict at all costs,” (pp 12). After reading about it, I realized this has historically been my primary communication style. In my case, avoiding conflict has involved doing things I would rather not and keeping silent instead of offering a dissenting opinion. I told myself I was just being agreeable, but this was not true every time, probably not even most of the time. It was an avoidance tactic.

Aggressive communication “is the flip side of the passive style.” When we communicate aggressively, “we try to get others to submit to us…Our aim is to control the behavior of others through intimidation” (pp. 15). I rarely use this communication style, though I know many people who do. In the past, I have tried to avoid them, precisely because I am a passive communicator. More and more, though, I call them on it when they use it on me.

Finally, people who communicate in a passive-aggressive style combine “elements of both the passive and the aggressive styles. The anger (of the aggressive style) makes you want to ‘get’ the other person, but the fear (of the passive style) holds you back from doing it directly. When we are passive-aggressive, we disguise our aggression so that we can avoid taking responsibility for it” (pp. 18). I am sure I use this style of communication at times too, though I do not like to admit it. I am learning how to be assertive in these situations as well.

One of the most useful things about the book is its capacity to increase our awareness of how we and others communicate. Once we are aware of these different styles of communication, we can actively choose which one(s) to use. Of course, even awareness requires personal responsibility. While being assertive enables us to be clear and in control of our own actions and boundaries, who among us does not employ one or more of the other communication styles from time to time? The difference is that awareness enables us to own the consequences, which is a responsible and empowering response.

What communication style do you generally use? How is it working for you?

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