The University of Illinois’ Counseling Center has an excellent paper on being assertive, it is entitled “Being Assertive in a Diverse World.” Excellent title and insightful content, weighing the difference between being able to express your opinions (e.g., hold your own) and going too far into aggressive behavior. Their definition of assertiveness, I believe, strikes the right balance:
“Assertiveness is the ability to express yourself openly and honestly while also reflecting a genuine concern for others. It is about having the confidence to speak your values and beliefs, and to be courageous enough to speak up when needed.”
I like that. It is succinct and to the point. Ambiguity is left for those who like to split hairs; attorneys and those elected officials who suddenly find they wished they had voted a different way on a contentious bill.
My wife, Susie, and I are polar opposites. I tend to be too far into the aggressor mode and she hates to walk on grass because she is breaking their little stems as they stretch out to the sun. She comes from a home life where the father was a raging alcoholic and a single peep could be reason enough to go in and destroy all the furniture in your bedroom. In my house, you won the argument by screaming longer and louder than everyone else. I found these debating techniques to be especially beneficial in my early days as drug dealer and as a result honed them to a fine edge.
We have learned after nearly eighteen year of marriage there is wisdom in compromise. The trick is to strike the right balance. We have found this balance originates in the heart. What are your motives? Is compassion driving your words or just the desire to be proven right? What is it you are trying to accomplish?
There is an unbelievable need in our culture for compassionate assertive behavior. Assertiveness falls in between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Be too passive and you feel inhibited and anxious, unable to convey how you truly feel. Going too far the other way can cause a lack of respect from those you are communicating with. The compassionate assertive person will take into account the feelings and beliefs of those they are interacting with, carefully choosing the correct words so as not to offend. They will know what to say and how to say it.
True compassionate assertiveness takes time and practice. I’ve had to radically alter my methods of communication when expressing my beliefs on a subject, more so when those I am in discussion with may not share the same feelings and thoughts. I have also failed more times than is comfortable for me to admit. Susie, as well, has learned to give voice to her feelings and emotions. She has mastered the ability to discuss nearly any situation with others and remain firm, yet gentle, in expressing her ideas. This combination has gone a long way in bring peace and harmony into our marriage.
Learning we have the right to be assertive is difficult. Developing the concept that you have the right to be heard can be extremely troublesome for some. Of course, there are varying reasons for these issues. Some may feel they cannot be themselves because of a lack of self-esteem. Others may not feel safe to “rock the boat,” so to speak, in a corporate setting. Then there is always the societal misperception that men, who are assertive, are take charge leaders, while women who exhibit similar qualities are…ahem, bitches.
As I have studied and written about virtues I continue to be struck by the tension and balance which exists in each aspect. Too little and the virtue is literally of no effect, too much and you border on being perceived as a demigod. Striking that balance is not easy. It requires continual attention to the details, as well as the big picture.
These articles have generated several comments and I hope they continue to do so. All of you have had interesting and insightful thoughts about each virtue and I have enjoyed reading them. More importantly your comments have opened ideas in my mind that I’m sure I would have never discovered on my own. So please, continue to share your thoughts, ideas, theories, recipes, money…whatever. As always I wish you the best.