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Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Can you be too Assertive?

A question I am ofen asked during training or coaching sessions is whether a person can be too assertive... I suppose the immediate answer is "Yes, definitely!" It is a common worry of my course participants that they will learn to be too assertive and will become a pain by being constantly "in the faces" of their friends and colleagues.

I have to admit that the idea of anyone, including myself becoming so clear about their "rights" and their "needs" that it scares other people off. Nobody likes to be bombarded with "me, me, me" do they?

However, I feel that the problem lies not with the model of communication we call "Assertiveness", but with our commonly held misunderstanding of the term. I remember on several occasions in the early days of my career as an employee, that a manager or a colleague would return from training all psyched up to be "more assertive". The problem was that the transformation was actually quite laughable. They would strut their stuff around the office, tell people in no uncertain terms what they wanted of them, and would have no problem in expressing their discontent about important issues such as washing up the tea mugs.... oh dear, it was truly a forerunner for the brilliant TV classic "The Office". If if wasn't so funny, it would be tragic!

So... what has been going wrong? Is it because people are so fed up of not being heard, of being a doormat and of not being appreciated that one word of permission to be assertive, and they swing to the other extreme? Or is it that they just haven't understood the true meaning of the assertiveness model, or how to put it into practice? I think it is probably a bit of both. Nobody likes to feel out of control of their own situations, and yet so many people find themselves unhappy with the impact of other people's power and control over them. Whether it's a domineering boss, or a pushy customer, or an insistant colleague... it's just so much easier to let them get away with it, than causing a scene or upsetting the equilibrium. The trouble is that when these issues are left to continue, resentment builds up. And a build up of resentment can often lead to either a spontaneous and embarrassing outbust, or (not so) subtle signs of irritation. Clearly, an unhappy situation. The solution? Learn to become more assertive of course! Oh dear - you can imagine another David or Davina Brent is born...

In my opinion, the real solution is definitely to become more assertive - but to learn how to do it effectively. The first step is in understanding that assertiveness is not just about knowing and asserting your rights. It is also about knowing and fulfilling your responsibilities. These being: to assert your own ideas and seek to get your own needs met, whilst valuing and respecting the rights and needs of others. Without these important responsibilites, any attempt to be assertive immediately becomes aggressive. For example, you may wish to take time off from work at short notice... previously you may have worried about it all day, and gone to your manager apologising profusely for the inconvenience and telling them that you understand if it's not possible. This is clearly an example of passive behaviour. Nothing wrong per se with passive behaviour, but the consequences are probably that you don't get your needs met. So the next time, you have a go at being more assertive. You go into your manager's office first thing and tell them that you'll be leaving early today. OK?... That's definitely more direct, and less grovelling, but without giving any option for the manager to have an opinion, or any recognition of the consequences is actually quite disrespectful and therefore aggressive. Imagine if you were that manager and had someone come into your office and speak to you like that! I wouldn't blame them for thinking that the assertivenss training was a bit of a mistake!

My point is that the second scenario is not a person being too assertive. It is actually a person trying to be assertive, but in fact being aggressive. True assertiveness is highly respectful, it involves clear and direct communication about needs, but it also includes empathy, and helpful suggestions, as well as leaving room for negotiation. In this example, a person behaving assertively would choose a convenient time for the manager to have a quick chat. They would briefly explain their reason for wanting time off, and would suggest how they could minimise any impact on the team.

So... can you be too assertive? I don't think so. In the same way that you can't be too respectful, or too balanced, or too reasonable. It is definitely time to understand the true nature of assertive communication, and to stop giving it a bad name, by mistakenly aggressing others in the name of assertiveness!

I'd be interested to hear your views and experiences of working with people who are naturally assertive, or who have really mastered the art of putting the theory into practice. Or perhaps you have a story to share about someone who transformed themselves overnight into a real life Mr or Ms Brent!