What is assertiveness? Well, most of us have a sense of what assertiveness means, and most of us probably regard it as being a ‘good thing’. Some people believe that they’re very assertive, and others might feel that being assertive is "just not me." So, let’s firstly be clear as to what assertiveness actually is, and then we'll look at how all of us can benefit by using it.
Consider the following. We all have an emotional set of communications, which are based somewhere along a line between aggressive and passive. We can shift between these two points on the line many times a day, depending on how we feel, who we’re talking with and what we’re doing. Given this, where do you think assertiveness might sit on the line?
Well, a lot of people think it sits somewhere near the middle of the line, and perhaps even verging slightly towards the aggressive end. Others think that you can adopt a more passive approach while also being assertive.
At PCA, however, we consider neither of these ways of thinking to be the case. Assertiveness actually sits away from that line – in fact, it’s not on that line at all. It is, however, connected to that line, in what's known as the Assertiveness Triangle.
Now, let's talk through how we approach actually being assertive. Along the line that runs from passive to aggressive, communication is driven by emotion. In other words, you let your emotions dictate the way that you're communicating. Often, doing this will give you some instant gratification. For example, if you shout at someone, this might immediately make you feel good. On the other hand, if you just sit back and adopt a more passive approach, you might feel safe, and effectively in your comfort zone.
However, communicating along this line often also takes you to a place full of regret. Once they've communicated in this way, people might very well subsequently think: "why did I say this, and why didn’t I say that?"
When we talk about assertiveness, therefore, we want you to pull away from that emotional line, and that world of instant reward. Instead, we want you to think about what your long-term outcomes are. We want you to actively choose how you communicate – your words, tone and non-verbals – based on what you want to achieve. So you need to ask yourself this question: is the way I am communicating aligned with my long-term outcomes?
It’s not about ignoring our emotions or pretending we don’t have them – this is impossible for us to do, as human beings. Instead, we want to consider our emotions, and have our choices informed by them. At the same time, however, we want to avoid our communication being blindly driven by them. If you don’t move away from that line, your communication is very likely to be slanted towards the aggressive or passive end of the spectrum.
Assertive communication is clear, concise and direct. Here we can reference Eric Berne’s work around Transactional Analysis, which was developed in the 1950s. Specifically, he talked about communicating in an adult state rather than in a parent or child state, the latter of which tends to be driven by emotion. In this respect, think about some of the emotionally fuelled conversations you have had with your children or your parents!
Essentially, we can go one of two ways, when it comes to communicating. Firstly, we can continue to communicate in a habitual and reactive style, which we have developed throughout our lives. Alternatively, we can actually make conscious choices around the way we communicate, which is what PCA refers to as The Communication of Choice. There is a big difference between these two ways of communicating.
However, we are not saying you should never communicate in an emotional way. Rather, it is about actively choosing that emotional approach IF this will help you to achieve your outcome, rather than just doing it by default.
Another issue, which we notice time and time again when we're training professionals, is that people often confuse being assertive with being aggressive. As a result, people are often reluctant to be assertive, for the fear of appearing aggressive.
To be absolutely clear, the two are entirely separate. I’m sure that we all have a sense of what being aggressive looks like – it makes most people feel uncomfortable, and it's not great for building long-term collaborative relationships.
As we have seen, assertiveness is about choosing an adult state and using clear, concise and direct language. Where necessary, you can deliver your message in a way that’s extremely direct. However, you can do this while still adopting a collaborative tone and approach. This allows us to be firm on an issue, but at the same time always very collaborative and understanding towards the other person in the conversation. Naturally, this is very different to simply being aggressive.
So, in summary, when we are talking about being assertive, we’re talking about making conscious choices around how you communicate, which are driven by your long-term outcomes. You’re being clear, concise and direct, and you're doing so in a collaborative manner.