Ever try being assertive, but feel like you’re ineffectively going in circles? Some struggle with being more assertive because what they believe is assertiveness is accompanied with guilt. And so they avoid being assertive until they “just can’t take it any more.” The pressure cooker releases and the argument with their (spouse, friend, mother, father, boss, whatever) is ugly. Sometimes they walk away from these interactions feeling indignant, determined to no longer be the victim of other people’s offenses, while also experiencing that nagging feeling of guilt… It is common to secretly wonder, “Was I justified?”
Over thirty years ago, Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann developed a model, from which my own assertiveness training program stems. They essentially suggested that assertiveness has two main ingredients: Directive behaviors and Cooperative behaviors. Unassertive people tend to find themselves in situations where they are working really hard to appease other people. They think they are transparent in seeking compromise, but in actuality, they are felt as passive. Sometimes when this passive behavior is ignored, their resentment leads to passive-aggressive behaviors. A spouse “forgets” to do the dishes, or an employee arrives late and leaves early. There’s a good excuse for the behavior, and the nature of passive-aggressive tactics is that it is legitimately unintentional (or “unconscious”), albeit fantastically annoying or aggravating to the recipient. Certainly too, passive-aggressive behaviors can move in two directions. And resentment can boil somewhere deep below the surface.
When resentment boils over, the unassertive person can seem incredibly self-righteous as he or she become enraged or alternatively- may seem disproportionately calm and exacting. And after the waves of indignation fade to ripples, and moments of guilt lead to old patterns of passivity… the whole cycle begins again. While I’m labeling “the unassertive person,” these behaviors are on a continuum and we can all fall into the traps I describe.
So how can you avoid having the pendulum swing between being over-directive and over-cooperative yourself? How can you be more consistently in the middle, engaging in interactions that are both directive AND cooperative?
1) Do some self-reflection: How might old wounds be festering now?
2) Notice your triggers: What are you inclined to try ignoring? What really gets you?
3) Breathe: There is no better way to keep your wits, than good breaths. Around 3 seconds inhaling, and 6 seconds exhaling is ideal.
4) Internally validate your needs, without portraying the other person as a villain (which would put them on the defensive).
5) State the problem and invite them to join your team in devising a solution: For instance, “I’m feeling overwhelmed with our to-do list. What can we do to make it more manageable?”
These simple steps can lead to a much more effective style of communication. Try them consistently for a while. And don’t be afraid to ask a therapist or consultant to join your team.