People can often use the word ‘assertive’ as a polite way of describing a person who exhibits aggressive behavior. This is understandable as the label of ‘aggressive’ is not something that we like to give to others. For example, it’s not uncommon to hear people say things like”… just be careful of Bryan, he’s… very assertive.” Well the truth is that if you have to be careful of Bryan it’s because he’s aggressive, not because of his assertiveness.
I make this point at the outset, because over the years of training people in advanced communication and leadership skills, it has become apparent that people often have a genuine misconception of what it means to be assertive. The best way to explain assertiveness is to put it in the context of both aggressiveness and submissiveness.
There are three distinct styles of relationships that we can choose to have;
- Aggressive – Seeking to get your own needs met and rights honored at the expense of or without consideration for the other person’s needs and rights.
- Submissive – The exact opposite of aggressive. Allowing the other person to get their needs/rights met at the expense of yours
- Assertive – Seeking to get your needs/rights met in a way that doesn’t block the other person from meetings their needs and rights.
Assertiveness is non-judgmental, non-blameful and ensures that the relationship is maintained if not strengthened. Yes assertiveness is hard work.
Assertive skills are almost always part of any capability leadership framework for leadership development. To be assertive the leader must firstly know what their purpose is and what their needs are. Sometimes leaders neglect to realize that the organizations needs become their own needs – since they will be held accountable for meeting organizational goals and implementing policy and procedure.
To be assertive the leader needs to appropriately tell others about their thoughts and feelings and initiate action to get their needs met. As such, communicating and acting directly and honestly is essential to being effectively assertive. The key skill in communicating assertively is the effective use of “I” Messages.
“l-Messages” are very different from messages that contain a “You” component such as these:
- “You stop it!”
- “If you don’t stop, then… “
- “What you should do is… “
- “You need to… “
- “You have to… or… “
- “Why don’t you try this?”
- “You are thoughtless!”
- “You are just showing off.”
- “Why would you do that!?”
The “You” part of these messages is likely to cause the receiver to interpret these messages as a judgmental, threatening or interfering. This is unlikely to influence the person to change. In fact it can cause the receiver to resist change more then before. Further to this it can escalate conflicts instead of helping to effectively manage them. You messages are risky, particularly in emotionally charged situations. They tend to have these unfortunate effects;
- They make people feel guilty
- People feel criticized, blamed or ‘put-down’
- They often incite retaliation from the receiver
- They can reduce a person’s self-esteem
- They cause resistance to change
- They may make people feel hurt, embarrassed
“You Messages” are not only damaging to relationships but they are actually very inaccurate messages. You messages come from our own paradigm, not that of the other person. When someone’s behavior is unacceptable to you, it is because it makes you worried, upset, disappointed, afraid, needful, or negatively affected in some other way – these feelings come from your own paradigm… and you own the problem. Therefore the most authentic and integral way of communicating your thoughts and feelings is with I Messages, or what I call “Authentic Messages” such as…
- “I’m worried about… “
- “I am upset… “
- “I need your help with… because… “
- “I will miss my deadline… “
- “I will have to pay more… “
- “I will have to put in more time… “
- “I will lose sales… “
- “I am disappointed… “
- “I need more time… “