The way we communicate with others and with ourselves ultimately determines the quality of our lives, Anthony Robbins.
Assertiveness is not what you do, it’s who you are!, Shakti Gawain.
We need an assertive style so that an effective interpersonal communication can take place. It is the middle path between aggressive and passive behaviour. It is “a form of behaviour characterized by a confident declaration or affirmation of a statement without the 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,” Dorland’s Medical Dictionary.
It is about feeling free to express our thoughts, and ideas. It is about being able to control anger, communicate effectively with others, compromise (it is not always possible to have things our own way), and maintain meaningful relationships.
How to be assertive?
- Reflect on the problem or conflict (What is it? How does the problem affect you and others who are involved?), your ideas, goals (What do you want to achieve?), and priorities, as well as on problem solving strategies and solutions (What are the options and alternatives?, What is the most suitable solution?)
- Observe your mood. When you are in distress, angry, annoyed, irritated, etc. shut up! This is not the best moment for communication. Delay communication until you have calmed down.
Good communication requires: the proper mood (what you say is as important as the way you say it); honesty and trust (Say what you mean, and mean what you say); the ability to listen, connect with others (empathy), and express yourself (keep things simple).
Let me illustrate this with an example, a meeting in which someone arrives late.
Man A: “The traffic was absolutely horrendous! There were absolutely no parking spaces anywhere. A parking space is almost impossible to find. It’s like going through an obstacle course. It is a nightmare! I have lost my temper and yelled a good number of times.”
Man B: “What time do you call this to arrive!”
Man A: “Do not preach to me! I am facing way too many problems and the last thing I need is you giving me a lecture about meetings and customer relationship management. I’m going through a rough time right now. I’m very stressed out because I have many things to do, more than I can handle.”
Man B: “Do not talk about your life. Your problems do not interest me at all. I also have problems of my own. What do you think you’re the only one with a busy schedule and suffering from stress? Let me tell you something clear and straight: That’s the last time you arrive late! Otherwise, I will inform your boss because you’re an irresponsible employee!”
If we analyse this conversation, ‘Man A’ started on the wrong foot by arriving late and not apologising. Besides, his partner, ‘Man B’, has been affected by this negativity and his talk was more a litany of reproaches and recriminations than a real conversation. Furthermore, he did not ask him to change, but demanded punctuality (“That’s the last time you arrive late!”), and even worse, he threatened him (“Otherwise, I will inform your boss because you’re an irresponsible employee!”)
It is important to understand that this communication style is not likely to achieve anything. Its results will be poor, if any. If the threat is serious and credible, ‘Man A’ may reconsider and change his behaviour. However, the relationship has become so strained and conflictual that both of them will not be able to work together in an effective manner.
If you feel angry or upset, take a deep breath and delay your response. Wait for a moment when things are not heated, but calm and relaxed.
- Control non-verbal communication. Talk clearly and keep eye contact, but without exaggerating. Adopt a comfortable posture, and a firm but relaxed voice.
It is important to avoid extremes. For example, if your eyes look down with an elusive gaze, you keep a stooped posture or sit on the edge of a chair, speak in a low voice and with a hesitant tone, you are clearly showing many doubts, fear, and low self-confidence. On the other hand, if your tone of voice is loud, rude, and bossy, your talk is very fast, you are leaning forward with closed arms and/or hands, your whole communication is being very aggressive.
- When you start a conversation with someone, you should always try to find a common ground, a positive statement to begin with: “I’ve noticed that you were arriving on time last month…”, “I realise that you are attempting to do something more positive and constructive.” It is very important to open with a positive remark!
There is a story that fits in with this like a glove. There was a young man, who quite unknowingly, entered a cloistered convent. He was very surprised when he was told that no-one was ever allowed to talk about anything at all. Just pray and work (“ora et labora”) except on patron day when everyone was allowed to express their views and experiences taking turns in a large assembly.
Our friend prayed long hours and worked very hard, day after day, until the patron day arrived. Prior father Matthews began the meeting by saying: “Blessed be the Lord.” After him, the most senior monk stated: “We must glorify, praise, and give thanks to the Lord our God.” The third monk was also pretty brief: “Praise his holy name!” and thus, under the watchful and incredulous eyes of the young man, all monks delivered their speeches in similar terms. Finally, when his turn came, he just said: “The food is crap.”
Then, another year of silence, work, and pray passed. The big day arrived, and yet again prior father Matthews affirmed: “Blessed be the Lord.” After him, the most senior monk added: “Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God.” And so on, and so forth. The young man was really annoyed because nobody was saying anything about practical matters. When he could talk, he exclaimed: “The beds are really uncomfortable! I can’t sleep well at night.”
You guessed it! Another year of silence, work, and pray passed. As usual the meeting started with the prior father speech: “Blessed be the Lord.” The rest of the monks all followed the same script, they praised and thanked God for his goodness and mercy. The young man could not understand why nobody was talking about normal stuff, such as food, drink, bed, etc. So he announced his resignation: “I’m leaving now!” But this time, someone else replied to him: “I’m glad because you have not stopped protesting since you have been here!”
The moral is clear: Our days are numbered. We need to be happy with what we have and where we are. If you are constantly complaining about everything, people will label you as a difficult or grumpy guy, and therefore, your chances of getting anything done will be quite small even though you may be right.