Being Assertive does not affect your Statutory Rights

Many individuals are often confused about whether they are acting assertively or aggressively during conflict situations. In the first of two articles on the subject, we explore the subtle difference that often separates the two and reveal the single factor that divides one clearly from the other.

Right, here’s a question for you. Think back to the last confrontation you faced. What was your reaction?

Did you simply bulldoze your way through the other’s argument? Did you eventually resign yourself to the fact that the klutz you were talking to would never have the brainpower to understand your side of things? Or did you immediately ‘clam up’, looking for the first opportunity to release yourself from the exchange?

How you dealt with that confrontation begins to reveal important clues about how you view yourself and how you view those around you.

Do you know the difference?

We’re in a questioning mood, so here’s another. If we were to ask you to describe the difference between an aggressive individual and one who is assertive, what would those differentiating factors be?

When you described an assertive person, did you use words like ‘calm’, ‘strong’ and ‘self-control’? We’ll concede that they are words that are redolent of assertive behaviour but – and here’s the rub – they also can equally describe the mannerisms of an aggressive individual. After all, think Hannibal Lector. Aggressive? Yes. But also calm, strong and, unfortunately for Clarice Starling, in complete control.

In a way, our question was a disingenuous one. It’s not so much the differences in behaviour that draws a line of separation between assertive and non-assertive people, it’s more a difference in attitude: in the way that they view the person they are talking to.

So what is it that colours this difference in attitude? No more than the simple way they view the rights of the other person.

Assertiveness and Rights

We all have rights: rights which have become enshrined in various acts of national and international law; rights which oil normal, day-to-day conversation and help mesh the gears during disagreement and confrontation.

In their excellent book, Working with Assertiveness, Ken and Kate Back held that – in the workplace – you have the right to:

  • Your own opinions, views and ideas (which may or may not be different to other people’s)
  • A fair hearing for these opinions, views and ideas
  • Have needs and wants that may be different from other people’s
  • Ask (not demand) that others respond to your needs and wants
  • Refuse a request without feeling guilty or selfish
  • Have feelings and to express them assertively if you so choose
  • Be ‘human’ (e.g. to be wrong sometimes)
  • Decide not to assert yourself (e.g. to choose not to raise a particular issue)
  • Be your own self; this may be the same as, or different from, what others would like you to be (e.g. choosing friends, interests, etc.)
  • Have others respect your rights

What an aggressive person does is ignore these rights. Perhaps that’s not strong enough, they trample on them or even violate them. How? By taking any individual right that you wish to exercise and denying you access to it.

An easy example could be that of taking your right to express your own reasonable opinion, where the exchange could go something like the following:

“I’m afraid that we’ll have to go with the senior team on this, Nidhi.”

“But I thought we’d agreed to look at all of the other options, Joe.”

“I’ll be the judge of that! Now let’s just get on with the meeting.”

Joe’s not shouting, but still conveniently parking the rights of Nidhi by a deft brush off which firmly tries to put her ‘in her place’.

How much better might it have been if Joe had handled it like this:

“I’m afraid that we’ll have to go with the senior team on this, Nidhi.”

“But I thought we’d agreed to look at all of the other options, Joe.”

“I agree that was the original agreement, Nidhi. However circumstances have changed since that meeting and we have no choice but to go with their strategy on this one.”

Why so different? Because Joe spoke in a way that respected Nidhi’s rights. The outcome was exactly the same – they had to go with the senior team’s decision – but Joe acknowledged that Nidhi had a right to understand ‘why’.

Not a Soft Option

And there is the defining grace that sets an assertive person apart from the rest. They will communicate openly to others – even during difficult conversations – yet retain a sense of respect and consideration for the other individual.

Assertiveness isn’t about being ‘soft’ – it’s too easy to back down in a confrontation – it’s about taking the issue head on and dealing with it in a way that preserves the self-esteem and dignity of the individual you are talking to.

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