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Assertion Skills

Three Approaches to Relationships

Experts in communication skills estimate that less than five per cent of the population can be expected to communicate assertively. This means that nothing much of personal or interpersonal importance is being communicated in most conversations.

One of the primary appeals of assertion training is its effectiveness. Here we will distinguish assertion from both submission and aggression and note the payoffs and penalties of each of these approaches to living, highlighting the importance of responsible choice as a desired outcome.

We all have a unique personal space - a physical, psychological and values territory which is ours. To learn to defend our space is important, but if that is all we do we will have a bleak, narrow and dismal existence. The assertive person will make an impact by using constructive ways to meet their needs, to exercise their abilities, to use their creativity, to develop powerful relationships of equals.

One way of understanding assertion is to see it as a way of defending one's space and impacting on other people and society in non-destructive ways. A useful and more common way of defining assertion is to place it on a continuum between submission and aggression.

Submissive Behaviour

When we are submissive we do not express our honest feelings, needs, values and concerns. We allow others to violate our space, deny our rights and ignore our needs. We don't say what we want when, in many instances, that is probably all it would take to get it! Or, we may say what we want, but in such an apologetic and diffident manner that we are not taken seriously.

To be submissive is to lack self-respect, but it also shows a lack of respect for other people as well. It implies that they are unable to cope with us confronting them, unable to take on their share of responsibility.

If we allow our rights to be persistently trampled on and our needs to go consistently unmet, we will build up resentment and anger. This will usually spill over, often over a trivial incident. Following the outburst, if we are submissive, we will feel very guilty and return to our submissive behaviour pattern.

Submissive behaviour has a certain appeal as a means of avoiding conflict. If we behave submissively, we also have the comfort and security of maintaining a familiar pattern of behaviour. Most parents, schools and agencies in our society attempt to train us to be submissive. Submission is often a way of trying to win the approval of others, even as a means of controlling others. When we are submissive we are much less likely to be given responsibility; we may seem so helpless that other people want to look after us and protect us. To break these learned patterns of behaviour is often quite stressful.

To submit is to lead an unlived life. We do not take the lead, we go along with others; we follow. Relationships are less satisfying and less intimate than we would like: The affection others have for a submissive person soon grows cold; a submissive person's affection for others also tends to wane over time. It is ironic that when we give up being ourselves, give up living our own lives in order to be loved, we find that the ultimate consequence of our sacrifice is an inability to have the fulfilling relationships we sought. Other consequences may include an inability to control our emotions and poor mental and physical health. In general, the more submissive our behaviour and the more covert our communication, the less healthy people we will be.

Aggressive Behaviour

If we are aggressive, we express our feelings, needs and ideas at the expense of others. We may win our arguments, but we will be heard as loud, abusive, rude or sarcastic. It will seem that we have a "chip on our shoulder". People who are primarily aggressive are apt to become submissive when they reach a certain level of inner stress and tension.

An advantage of being aggressive is that it often secures for us the material needs and objects we desire. We tend to be able to protect ourselves and our own space. We retain control over our lives and seek to control the lives of others.

The disadvantages of aggression include fear, the provocation of counter aggression, loss of control, guilt, dehumanization, alienation from people, ill health, and the creation of a society that is too dangerous even for the aggressive to live in comfortably and safely.

Assertive Behaviour

If we are assertive we will use methods of communication that enable us to maintain self-respect, pursue happiness and the satisfaction of our needs and defend our rights and personal space without abusing or dominating other people. True assertiveness is a way of being in the world which confirms our own individual worth and dignity while simultaneously confirming and maintaining the worth of others.

In being assertive, we stand up for our own rights and express our personal needs, values, concerns and ideas in direct and appropriate ways. In meeting our own needs we do not intrude on the rights of others or trespass on their personal space.

People sometimes say that somebody has become "too assertive". However, by definition, that is not possible. If assertive behaviour considers the rights of ourselves and other and is appropriate to the situation, there is no such thing as behaviour that is too assertive.

One of the most striking things about being assertive is that we like ourselves. This is because we are in a much better position to feel good about ourselves than if we are being submissive or aggressive. We know we are living our own lives. Our chances of getting what we want out of life greatly improve when we let others know what we want and when we are prepared to stand up for our own rights and needs.

More of our needs will be satisfied by being consistently assertive than through submissive or aggressive behaviour.

Being assertive fosters fulfilling relationships. It releases positive energy towards others. Less preoccupied by self-consciousness and anxiety and less driven by the need for self protection and control, we can, when we are assertive, see, hear and love others more easily. We feel more comfortable with ourselves and therefore others find it more comfortable to be with us. The richest and most wholesome intimate relationships are between two assertive people. As we become skilled at assertion, human relations tend to improve and we become more successful and have a greater impact in our work.

Assertive behaviour greatly reduces our fear and anxiety. Learning to make assertive responses definitely weaken the anxiety and tension previously experienced in specific situations. As we assert, we increasingly realise that we can and will gain our needs and defend ourselves. We can approach others without fear of being hurt or controlled.

Of course there will be a downside to assertion. There will be disruption in our lives; the pain associated with honest and caring confrontation; and the arduous personal struggle involved in altering our previously habitual behaviour (as we summon up the willpower to change from submissive or aggressive lifestyles and develop new and effective ways of relating).

Being authentically ourselves can sometimes be a painful experience. Our authenticity will bring joy and intimacy to a relationship, but it can also lead to conflict. To be assertive involves a willingness to risk dissension knowing that some conflict is necessary to build a significant relationship of equals. We need to become vulnerable in significant relationships because without that vulnerability we will not be able to experience the joy of enduring love.

Our Choice

At its best assertion helps us to develop the power of choice over our actions. The proper goal would be to be able to choose our behaviours effectively, not necessarily to become assertive in every situation.

Though we may choose to be submissive on some occasions and aggressive at other times, behaviour in the assertion range of the continuum will be most appropriate most of the time.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Acknowledgement: The content of this page is based on
Chapter 8 of People Skills by Robert Bolton, PhD
(Simon & Schuster's Touchstone, 1986 paperback)