The Disease To Please

One of my clients, Joe, recently confessed to me that he told a cousin who was visiting from out of town, that he had plans to be in Alaska. A little “white lie” in order to avoid the obligatory “let’s get together”. Instead of coming clean and sharing the truth (that Joe didn’t feel like meeting up while his relative was in town), he hid behind this elaborately drawn fiction. Another of my clients, Kim, shared that she is scared to ask for a raise because she thinks her boss will fire her. Kim even refused to inquire about her annual review, as she feels that she is bound to fail.

Are there times when you want to speak up, but don’t? Do you often say “yes” when you mean “no”? Are you embarrassed by praise or crushed by criticism? Does it often feel as though you live your life for other people?

Why is assertive communication difficult for so many people? For starters, it’s not something that is formally taught in school, and we often pick up ways of handling certain situations from those we observed (who also received no formal training). In addition, a combination of fear and lack of experience can prevent us from dealing with the world in a mature and responsible fashion.

Yet, assertiveness is an essential skill in adult conversation. Assertive behavior is the act of expressing one’s thoughts, feelings, and needs in a clear, honest and respectful way to others. The ability to choose and make tactful statements or requests vs. less desirable forms of communication (aggressive, passive, and passive-aggressive) can be developed. With some practice, we can make our lives more manageable and rewarding.

In order to sharpen my own abilities, this week I enlisted in a 3 day AMA Assertiveness Training program. Finding the right balance, and knowing how and when to communicate our thoughts was the focus of the class. Another objective was to assess our individual assertiveness style and gauge its effectiveness.

I often find it difficult to say “no” to requests at times without justifying my reasons, so, one of the most refreshing lessons I learned from the course was the “The right to offer neither reason nor excuse for what I do.” This was one many Assertive Rights. Others included:

– The right to judge my own behaviors and emotions, and take responsibility for them.
– The right to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.”
– The right to be treated with dignity and respect.
– The right to decide what is best for me.
– The right to say “no” without feeling guilty.
– The right to be listened to and taken seriously.
– The right to change my mind.
– The right to make mistakes.
Equally valuable, I was reintroduced to various assertiveness strategies, starting with the very basic skill of persistence (AKA the “broken record” technique). You say what you want over and over again, to ignore argumentative baiting while sticking to your desired point. In his book, When I Say No I Feel Guilty, Manuel J. Smith, Ph.D. offers several other strategies including “negative inquiry” and “fogging”. For each of these, our group worked through a short role-play exercise to help us better understand ways to apply the technique to real life. By changing our actions, we managed to change our attitudes and feelings. The question of how to deliver messages effectively without worrying about what people think, or second guessing ourselves, is a skill that many of us lack. If you are an unhappy, inhibited person, fearful of rejections, and unsure how to stand up for yourself, know that there is hope. Assertiveness Training teaches you to respect yourself and communicate what you think with people on all levels.

How we make an impression on people, whether a first or lasting one, is a choice- situation by situation. By clearly stating what we want, directly and honestly, we can begin to get things done and earn the respect of ourselves and others.