Less Assertive Can Still Work (Part 4 of 4 on bullying) #bully #bullying

Training and observing ourselves can help us to not be so readily passive or aggressive. It can help with adult-adult transactions where both sides can put their ideas forward and reach a constructive agreement.

Some training simply gives the ‘assertiveness is always good’ message. People who have been taught ‘assertiveness is always good’ and have practiced this for many years tend to be happy with their achievements through assertiveness. By clearly stating their case and repeating as many times as necessary in a clear calm voice, a less assertive person will usually back down. However, forcing others to back down is unlikely to have been the purpose of the assertiveness training.

A key point many people miss is: communication is never about just one person. It is of little importance whether we feel our communication style is assertive or not. The important matter is whether the person we are communicating with is experiencing assertiveness or aggression from us.

What observers of your conversation think or might describe afterward as what they saw and heard in the communication styles may or may not be useful. It is only the person who is backing down who really knows how they are feeling as they give up trying to be assertive and fall back to a passive state.

When we know we are right it is easy to start being assertive. When the other person has a point of view and puts this across assertively we have a choice as to whether to listen carefully and respond or to simply repeat what we said in much the same way. With either or both people not listening to the other, there is not going to be a ‘win-win’ outcome. One person has to back down. One person has to stop being assertive and no matter what the last thing is that they say or even the way they say it, they will have a feeling of having backed down. This is assuming no one becomes openly aggressive.

In this situation the person who continued to feel they were communicating assertively will most likely feel they got their way. However they have become the bully, whilst being unaware that the other person had experienced aggression from them. It is possible that if both communicators are good at appearing assertive, an observer will not have noticed any aggression or passive behaviour at all.

On encountering assertive bullies I would end up confused as they would keep repeating their point of view and not listening to mine. Body language plays an important part in assertiveness and they would be able to use this together with a fixed stare at my eyes. This staring they would say was appropriate eye contact. All was done in a way that would not seem aggressive, just extremely assertive, but it would feel extremely aggressive to me.

According to Covey* when two people have different but equally valid opinions it is best to seek a win-win solution, then he points out that win-lose or lose-win are not second best as with those options one person comes off worse. He sees the other option as ‘no deal’ and that is the only way to avoid assertive bullies pressuring us into agreeing to do something we feel is wrong.

On recognising the assertive bullies among health professionals I started to choose the no deal option. Having not coerced me face to face, they would sometimes attempt writing assertively. It is in these writings their bullying becomes more obvious. One thing to watch out for is how often they write, “you”. In speech we know that hearing a phrase that starts with “You will…” can sound aggressive. It can sound aggressive in a letter or email too.

This last paragraph has eleven words starting with “you” – see if you feel any over-assertiveness as you read it >> If you feel you are consistently assertive, now could be a good time to ask yourself how you are achieving this. Are you still able to listen carefully and are you able to compromise or even back down from a potential argument? If you are in doubt have a look at how often you are using the word ‘you’ when you are hoping someone will comply with your wishes.

* The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey

This blog post is 4 of 4 – See first of these: Bullying as one of many influences on bipolar disorder diagnosis?

The Assertive Bully (Part 3 of 4 on bullying)

Prior to setting up my business I worked for a large multi-national for 17 years. The business encouraged employees to attend assertive communication training to more easily recognize passive, assertive and aggressive communication.

The message was clear that being passive or aggressive in a situation where assertiveness is needed would lead to poor communication and that would be bad for business. It made sense to improve communication skills through training.

I went on to study assertiveness as part of my stress advisor training and found that communication styles are more dependent on mood than many people appreciate. It is well documented that in depression people tend to be passive. When anxious or over-active more aggression is likely to be seen. The thinking at the time was that assertive behaviour was always best and steadier moods would allow assertive communication.

When employed in bipolar recovery training our package included help with developing assertive communication. The general message given was:

assertive is good

It is good to be assertive

As a general message this is okay. It is simple and memorable.

There are dangers in this simple message.

1) Passive is not always bad. Humans use passive communication in a similar way to many other animals. When we are threatened or do not have the energy to argue a passive response will often get us through a difficult situation.

2) Aggressive communication is rarely good but sometimes a short sharp response to inappropriate behaviour can be very effective. I found from an early age that when done in the right way bullies always avoided the kids they knew could deliver a short sharp aggressive response. Bullies go for easy targets.

3) A small number of people interpret ‘assertive = good’ as ‘the more assertive the better’. The danger here is that there is a thin line between extremely assertive and powerfully aggressive. When people who strongly believe in and practice assertiveness skills cross this line bullying is probably inevitable.

It is this third point I explain/discuss here: Less Assertive Can Work

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