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Assertiveness: Choosing The Right Battles

If you need help getting something done, you have a few options: you can request it, you can demand it, or you can simply sit back and hope that it happens. The first behavior is an example of assertion, or standing up for your own rights without violating the rights of others. The second is aggression; you are standing up for your rights, but violating another's right to voluntary action. The third choice is submission; a failure to stand up for your own rights. Certainly you recognize all of these behaviors, in your colleagues if not in yourself. And, you probably recognize assertive behavior as the most effective route. Although they may accomplish the intended ends, the alternatives imperil our own rights or those of others, creating conflict and building mistrust within relationships. One of the keys to effectiveness is learning how to communicate thoughts and feelings without jeopardizing yourself or others, an ability which elevates both morale and productivity in the workplace. Being assertive, however, is not always easy.

Like any other expression of emotion, being assertive involves risk-taking, since feelings handled inappropriately in the workplace are a well-known source of anger or conflict. However, letting a fear of conflict inhibit expression only increases stress and anxiety. Until one is comfortable with, and proficient in, expressing themselves and their feelings in a productive manner, it is difficult to learn which battles to fight. In a conscious effort to avoid confrontation, they may end up giving ground on issues of paramount importance or taking an aggressive stand on a trivial issue. The first step on the road to assertive action is to overcome your fear of risk-taking by examining your situation as objectively as possible. Remember the following:

  1. You control your feelings and by being assertive you can change the situation that is creating a problem.
  2. Ask yourself what is being lost, and how difficult it will be to regain if you avoid a situation instead of confronting it.
  3. Learn to be rational: Ask yourself, "do I know all the facts? Am I overreacting? Am I worrying about nothing? Am I the cause of the conflict?
  4. Delay causes damage! The longer you avoid meeting a situation head-on and resolving issues, the greater the damage that can be done. Pent up resentment eventually leads to explosions at those around you, or to implosions in the form of a negative self-image or tension-related physical ailments.

Self-Presentation in Assertiveness: By taking things personally, people assume the role of target in situations that are not in fact directed against them. It is safer to assume that almost all problems are professional and to respond to them that way. The minute you start taking things personally, you diminish your ability to be rational and therefore assertive. Be sure the risk of assertiveness is worth taking by determining whether or not you have something to gain. Failing to be assertive in such a situation can set a precedent for others to use or abuse you.

Learning to be assertive takes time, courage, and the ability to recognize a situation for what is really is. There are several steps which may help you to avoid engaging in superfluous battles and to deal with situations confidently and assertively:

  1. Develop a personal belief system by clarifying your rights and identifying your responsibilities. Acknowledge your power to refuse requests and to suggest alternatives. This will help you determine how assertive you are by observing your own behavior in various situations. Are you satisfied with your effectiveness with other people? How do you feel about yourself and your behavior? Make a log, recording your responses in situations in which you were or were not assertive. Be honest!
  2. Distinguish for yourself what is submissive, assertive, and aggressive behavior in different situations. Consider your non-verbal behavior as well. Pick a situation and imagine how you would handle it. Write down your usual responses in posture, eye contact, voice, tone, facial expression, and physical contact. Then analyze whether or not your automatic response is assertive and effective. This way you will become more aware of your natural tendencies and how to overcome those which undermine your rights.
  3. Pinpoint your own blocks to assertiveness: fear of disapproval, need to please others, fear of being too masculine or feminine, or the dread of making mistakes.
  4. Visualize yourself dealing effectively with a problem situation by considering alternative responses. Do not act hastily or in anger--calm yourself before the confrontation--take a deep breath with eyes closed and concentrate on controlling your temper. Practice remaining calm, collected, and courteous. Be prepared to present yourself rationally and factually without emotion or conjecture. Avoid making mountains out of molehills; pursuing an issue that is small will discredit you when an important issue needs to be faced and resolved.
    Repeat this step as often as necessary until you can comfortably imagine yourself dealing with the situation.
  5. Practice using assertive behavior by role playing with someone. Make careful observations of your behavior, taping it if possible.
  6. Give yourself feedback by reviewing your verbal and physical responses. Pay special added attention to the strengths of your actions, working towards developing the weaker areas. Repeat steps 4 & 5 until you feel comfortable dealing with the problem situation effectively.

Following these simple suggestions will help you present yourself as someone optimistic, rather than someone who is hostile and angry.

Points to Consider Assertiveness: cannot always get you everything you want or force others to change. It is, however, far more effective than being either submissive or aggressive. Assertiveness interacts with other communication and relationship skills. You need not always be assertive, but it is necessary to know how to be assertive when you wish to be. Build your changes in behavior gradually by choosing small problems prior to tackling more central areas of your life. Allow others time to acclimate themselves to hearing from you in your new voice. Once you have begun to function more assertively in your interactions, you are in a position to encourage that behavior in others.

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