What's It Made Of: Assertiveness
In a previous post, I describe different priorities one might have in interpersonal situations. One of those priorities is Objectives Effectiveness, or getting your goals and needs met from a situation.
The psychological concept that describes how to approach other people to promote objectives effectiveness is called assertiveness. Situations where assertiveness is beneficial include:
Getting other people to do what you ask them to do
Saying “no” to unwanted requests
Resolving interpersonal conflict
Having your rights respected
Getting your beliefs or point of view taken seriously by others
Assertiveness is about asserting your rights and wishes in a healthy way. When we are passive, we do what others want without asserting our own desires. When we are aggressive, we force or intimidate others into doing what we want without respecting their wishes and desires. When we are assertive, we express our own wishes and rights without disrespecting others.
A Guide to Assertiveness
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) offers a helpful guide to practicing assertiveness that follows the acronym DEAR MAN:
Let’s go through these one by one:
Describe the situation
When raising a request or issue for someone else to respond to, it is helpful to start with a description of the situation, sticking to just the facts. This helps by offering an objective starting point that both people are more likely to agree on, instead of starting with a judgment that invites refutation. Here are a few examples of what this might sound like:
“I have been working for this company for over 5 years, and I have not received a raise in that time, despite having very positive performance reviews.”
“My phone battery died, and I unfortunately left my phone charger at home.”
“I have noticed the dishwasher often doesn’t get run over night even when I ask you to do it.”
Express your feelings clearly
Here, you express clearly how you feel or what you believe about the situation. Doing this recognizes that the other person is not able to read your mind or know how you feel. The purpose of doing this is to help alert the other person to what makes the situation important or impactful for you. This does involve some vulnerability. However, when the other person understands this more clearly, it is easier to have an effective discussion about the request. Examples of this include:
“I believe that I deserve a raise.”
“I am feeling anxious about not having a working phone.”
“I feel frustrated when I go to get a plate out of the dishwasher for breakfast, and it’s still dirty.”
Asserting wishes means to ask for what you want directly, or say no to a request directly. This goes beyond expressing your feelings clearly. Your request may seem like a natural conclusion of this expression, but it is very common for people uncomfortable with assertiveness to not actually ask for what they want directly. Examples of this include:
“I would like a raise. Can you give me one?”
“Can I borrow your phone charger for 30 minutes?”
“Can you try to find a system that works for you remembering to run the dishwasher consistently?”
This skill involves reinforcing the positives of the person complying with your request. There is recognition in this that people tend to respond most strongly to the consequences of things. Reinforcing is about making those positive consequences of complying clear. While truly selfless acts can happen, people generally will not do things unless they understand how it may benefit them in some way.
The idea of reinforcing the positives can feel uncomfortable to people – it can feel a bit like a racketeering mafia boss, going, “It’s a nice restaurant you’ve got here, shame if anything were to happen to it.” But the thing to keep in mind is that you’re not a mafia boss (I hope). Examples of reinforcing include:
“I know that I would feel a lot more loyal to this company if I felt recognized for my work through a raise.”
“I think I’d be able to better listen to what you’re telling me if I wasn’t feeling so anxious about my phone.”
“I know I would be a lot less irritable and pleasant to be around in the morning if the dishes were clean.”
Mindful of goals
This skill involves staying mindful of your goals in the situation. That is, you stay focused on what it is you want to gain out of the interaction instead of being led off course. It can be very easy to begin arguing about a different topic, or respond to an insult that the person makes, or another point they raise in which you were in the wrong.
The two techniques of this skill are
1) being a “broken record” (not feeling like you need to say anything new if your point is not being responded to), and
2) ignoring attacks and diversions – don’t take the bait that the other person gives you.
An example of getting off track would be:
If you request that your partner run the dishwasher more consistently and they say
“I can’t believe you’re asking me that! You’re a total hypocrite. I cleaned the bathroom twice this month and didn’t see you complimenting me.”
And then you say:
“I’m not a hypocrite. I DID complement you on it, you just don’t remember because you’re so self-involved.”
At this point you are getting thrown off course by responding to the point the other person raised, rather than sticking to one point you really want to make, which is that:
“I still would like you to find a system where you consistently run the dishwasher at night.”
This one has as much to do with your non-verbal cues as it does your phrasing. That is, looking away, not making eye contact, slouching, speaking quietly are all ways of reducing the effectiveness of your message. Similarly, going back on your requests indicates a lack of your own confidence in them. This skill is phrased “appearing confident” rather than “being confident.” This is because you cannot directly force yourself to feel differently, while there are things you can work on to appear confident even when you may not be.
The final DEAR MAN skill is to negotiate – to be willing to give to get. This requires some flexibility on your part. If the DEAR MA part is all about respecting your own rights/wishes, the Negotiate part is about respecting the other person’s rights/wishes. This skill may include
1) asking the other person for alternative solutions, consider those alternatives
2) reducing your request to make it more doable for the other person
3) maintaining your no, but offering to help them with the problem in another way
“As my boss, do you have any other ideas for helping me feel adequately valued by the company?”
“If I could just charge my phone long for a few minutes to get it going again, I can look up directions on how to get home.”
“I would be willing to do the cat litter, which I know you hate, if you could find a way to make running the dishwasher a consistent habit.”
Barriers to Assertiveness
There are often certain barriers we experience to being assertive. Perhaps it’s being taught growing up that other people’s wishes/desires are more important than our own, or that it is selfish and wrong to ask for what you want/need. There is also the barrier of uncomfortable emotions that show up in our bodies when we practice assertiveness, feelings like vulnerability and fear.
Each of these barriers can be addressed through effective psychotherapy, with the therapist serving as a helpful guide through changing one’s approach to other people. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.