Have you wondered why some people are more effective in getting what they want than other people? What are they doing that makes them effective? What distinguishes them from people who walk over others or who get walked on?
Assertiveness is an expression of self-control. It involves knowing what we want, believing in our right to want it, and asking for it without requiring that we have our way. Likewise, when we do not want something, we can say “no,” protect ourselves, and detach from over- involvement in the situation.
While saying “no” and “yes” are essential skills, most of us live in a context in which others’ needs may conflict or compete with our own. So, while it is important to assert ourselves and maintain our personal boundaries, we need to find ways to blend these actions with respect for others. Empathy skills are crucial in this regard, as they permit us to put ourselves in another person’s shoes.
Two Skills Underlying Assertion
Once we believe we have the “right” to behave in our own interest, the skills of detachment and empathy make it possible to act assertively.
Detachment involves the ability to separate oneself emotionally from others. Detaching represents an ongoing recognition of the difference between “I” and “you,” the willingness and ability to say “no” when others intrude on our personal space, and to recognize our unique needs, which may differ from others with whom we are personally involved.
Detaching from others requires:
- Appreciating that our experience of events differs from that of others;
- Accepting these differences;
- Knowing our limits and maintaining our boundaries against the abuse of others as well as our own self-abuse;
- Knowing our own needs and acting responsibly to meet them by pleasing ourselves;
- Maintaining clarity about how we are different from others by understanding that, when others talk about us, they are telling us about themselves, and what we especially dislike about others we fear in ourselves;
- Valuing learning over perfection in behavior; and
- Understanding that we all make a contribution to all the situations in which we are involved, allowing learning instead of blaming.
Empathy involves the ability to view situations from the vantage point of another person. We are comfortable detaching ourselves momentarily from our own needs and listening carefully to what the other person says (and does not say). We observe relevant body language and the surroundings (for example, other people, prior remarks, noise, light, background, etc.). When we listen so well that we can report back to the speaker the sense of what he or she has said without interpretation or distortion, we are conveying empathy.
The greatest barrier to good listening is thinking we already are good listeners. Good listening requires practice and feedback. People learn that listening requires attentiveness to others and putting on the back burner thoughts of how to respond. The act of listening puts us in the position of knowing where the other person is “coming from.” When we share such understanding, the other person feels heard and respected.
By knowing when to detach and when to empathize, we are in a much better position to assert ourselves appropriately and more likely to get what we want.
This article was adapted from Growing Ourselves Up: A Guide to Recovery and Self-Esteem, with permission of the author, Stanley J. Gross, Ed.D.