By Susan Walker July 2001 Assertiveness is the ability to say yes or no when you want to; it's the freedom to be yourself in all circumstances. Here's how you develop this invaluable skill An assertive manner certainly means that we'll feel more empowered, and more in control of circumstances. However, it is definitely not a strategy to get our own way more frequently. Assertiveness is the courage to be ourselves and show the world who we really are: our likes and dislikes, our thoughts, feelings, and shortcomings. It's about communicating honestly with family, friends and colleagues. As we become more assertive, we drop the mask and show our true selves. We proclaim: 'This is who I am, this is what I feel, and these are my needs.' Assertiveness skills are not easy to learn. Many of us grow up without learning how to use them effectively. And even when we do, we're tempted to use seemingly easier ways of communicating. We want to push others into behaving in ways that suit us, or we may be so afraid of conflict or disapproval that we feel it isn't safe to speak honestly. Being assertive means learning new ways of communicating that may initially seem uncomfortable. Assertiveness offers many benefits: We create healthy, meaningful relationships There is less friction and conflict There is increased self-respect as well as respect from others Our self-esteem is enhanced, and we always feel in control Our productivity at work and the home increases There's less stress, and an overall sense of well-being In expressing ourselves appropriately, we needn't hold grudges, or store pent-up emotions . Our emotional and physical health improves. So what prevents us from being honest with others? As children we had very direct ways of making our needs known with no compunction in telling trusted people how we felt and what we thought. What happened later? For starters, we grew up in a complex society. Many things may infringe on our ability, or willingness, to be honestly expressive. We receive messages about how we should 'be' from our culture, society, and family. Generally, these messages discourage us from making waves. To varying degrees, we are taught that our needs should be put to one side. As we grow, we face enormous pressures to conform and who we really are gets suppressed in the process. Eventually, we begin to feel frustrated, out of control and overlooked. We may develop a fear that a hostile world is 'out to get us'. We create beliefs about the world that influence the way we relate to others. We develop styles of communication that reflect how we view the world internally. Often, these views are distorted and based on messages received in childhood. Consider these examples, and see if any are similar to your beliefs: Only beautiful and intelligent people are allowed to express their view People are unreliable, eventually abusing your trust A woman's main role in life is to cater to the needs of others People only take you seriously if you are more powerful than they are. Gradually, these beliefs may become automatic and we are hardly aware that we hold them, yet we live our lives as though they were true. We willingly obey imaginary rules that dictate what we are and are not allowed to be. The frightening thing is that if we relate to others through these distorted beliefs, we may create the very circumstances we fear. For example, a fear of rejection may influence you to behave in a possessive manner to control a partner. Or you may be aloof in your relationships to convince others (and yourself) that you do not need them. Both these ways will ultimately drive people away, resulting in the very situation you feared. We become shadows of our true selves, denying our dreams and desires. Then how can we become more open, honest and assertive? Begin by recognizing distorted beliefs. Honestly put down your beliefs about yourself and the world. Then objectively decide whether they are reasonable or not, and helpful or not. A healthy belief system looks at the world from the point of view that you are a valuable, worthwhile person, and accepts the fact that others are too. Replace old beliefs with positive self-statements: 'I am a strong and worthwhile person.' 'I love my job, but I am not defined by it. It is okay to take time out to do other things.' 'The world can be a friendly and supportive place.' Now that we are aware of some things that were blocking us from being assertive, let's look at how we communicate at present. The belief system you hold influences your communication style. Psychologists recognize four main styles, and although we tend to switch from style to style, we generally favor one. THE PASSIVE PERSON Finds it hard to say 'no' Has difficulty in expressing opinions Feels others' needs are more justified than one's own Tends to avoid conflict at all costs, even if personally detrimental Finds it hard to maintain eye contact, and often tries to occupy the smallest possible space. Example: 'Yes, of course. I'll drop you at the airport, at 3.00 a.m., just before my morning exam.' THE AGGRESSIVE PERSON Expresses point of view arrogantly, as if no other is possible Tends to dismiss or ignore the opinions and feelings of others Believes one's own needs are most important Feels powerful when dominating others, later guilty or remorseful as people draw away. Example: 'Anyone with any sense would know that's a ridiculous point of view.' THE PASSIVE/AGGRESSIVE PERSON Agrees to others' demands, then avoids by making excuses, forgetting and being late Denies personal responsibility for their actions, uses accusatory statements Tries to get his/her own way by being manipulative Fears rejection and confrontation. Example: 'Yes, I know I promised to meet you at 9.00, but Anthony kept me talking. I'm really sorry.' THE ASSERTIVE PERSON Expresses needs, wants and feelings directly and honestly Allows others to hold different views without dismissing or deprecating them Respects the fact that others' needs are as important as one's own Realizes that no one controls anyone else. Example: 'I understand that you're busy, but I'd like to see the manager as soon as possible, please.' Realizing that we are not tied to old viewpoints about the world, and the awareness that we cannot control others can be a very liberating feeling. We are free to tentatively practice new ways of relating to others. How do we move into this new style? Basically, through practice. Draw up a list of situations where you can be assertive. Like refusing a request made at work or taking a faulty item back to the shop. Notice the way you decline or make requests. Register your expression and posture. Assertive postures are open and non-threatening, with friendly eye contact. Practice asking others' opinions. This creates an opportunity to express yours directly and without being apologetic. Notice whether you listen attentively to what others are saying. People are more likely to listen to you if they feel that you are attentive. Remember to use 'I' statements wherever possible. This makes the tone of the communication direct, but unchallenging. Making requests, or having needs met is often difficult, especially if our level of self-esteem is fragile. One useful technique is the Describe, Express, Specify and Outcome script used by Bower and Bower in their book, Asserting Yourself. These four steps can be used when learning to make an assertive request. The intent is to frame the situation, say what's wrong, make your request and predict an outcome. Notice the difference between the assertive style of person #1, and the passive, and passive/aggressive style of person #2. DESCRIBE Before making a request, define the situation. What's going on? Helpful description: #1. 'It's been a long time since we went out for dinner together.' Unhelpful description: #2. 'Why don't you ever take me out to dinner any more?' EXPRESS Here and now, express how you are feeling in this particular situation: #1. 'I miss you ' #2. 'You don't love me any more.' SPECIFY Indicate what you would like to happen: #1. 'I would love to go out on Saturday.' #2. 'I don't suppose you're free on Saturday, either ' OUTCOME Describe the outcome you'd like to achieve if the other person went along with your request: #1. 'It would be a great chance for us to catch up and spend some time together.' #2. 'Like always, you're letting me down.' These scripts clearly show the difference an assertive style makes to the tone of a conversation. The person seems more open, less threatening and dominating, and yet is making his needs known. It's very helpful to practice making requests using these scripts, perhaps by writing down examples first. Now begin the journey towards coming out of the shadows and being more assertive. Remember, though, that things may not be easy at first. Changing the way we communicate takes time, courage and practice. It means asserting some control, and others may resist this initially. The wonderful thing about being assertive is that we open a space around us for others to be themselves. When we drop our masks, others feel safe doing likewise.
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