Sunday, February 7, 2010



In my outpatient psychology practice, I hear so many questions
about being assertive. What is it? How does it work? When is
it needed or effective? Can you use it at work? What about with
Assertiveness is a skill that transcends environments and
relationships, but with a twist. If we are truly assertive, it does
not matter so much where we are and with whom we communicate.
In theory, it should work anywhere with anyone.
In actual practice, assertiveness is not quite so clean and easy.
Assertiveness works best with intimates even though there is the most
potential fallout from being honest. In theory, intimate
communication works least well with acquaintances.
The quality of the relationship determines whether sharing deeper,
feeling-related experiences with others works or not. Sometimes
it is easier to do so with strangers because they will not be
around long. Because intimates are around longer, sometimes it is
easier to not share. The effectiveness (and consequences) of being
assertive increases the more we share our feelings. This puts as at
risk with intimates because now "they know" how we really feel.
But it also puts us at risk with acquaintances because we might breach
a boundary; that is, say too much that is personal to someone who is
not really a friend.
Usually with acquaintances, assertive communication comes out
more cognitively; that is, intellectually, devoid of too many feelings.
In these types of communications, assertiveness pretty much sticks to
the issues to be discussed, not our visceral reactions or even just our
emotions. With a boss, for example, we can ask for a raise or
complain about the workload, but the communication will be
transactional; that is, centered on a narrow task, expectation or work
experience. If the boss is our friend, which can happen,
assertiveness is easier from the feelings point of view, but then
again more complicated because now this person (who has more power)
also is privy to our feelings, not just our work performance.
The antidote to these dilemmas is to first ask ourselves what is
the level of interpersonal depth of the relationship in question.
How close am I to the boss, really? If the answer is questionable,
assertive communication will tend to be transactional. Stick to the
more intellectual communication. Stay focused on the situation or
event, describe it in literal terms and leave feelings to be
inferred by the listener. Relationships that are more personal do
not need as much filtering (or even censoring) and feelings can be
described using actual feeling words. In more general terms, with
friends there is less of a need to "pre-structure" the communication.
We just "go for it" because with friends we have that tacit permission.
This sounds easy, but what if your listener changes? What if
they are psychologically unstable and change from minute-to-minute?
What if we share feelings that are more intimate with a co-worker who
is more of a friend, and then that person gets promoted? What if they
get promoted to be our boss? What if we share with a girlfriend who
later breaks up with us and dates our best friend? This is the stuff
of psychology practices, which can get quite complicated.
The best we can do is determine who we are talking to in the
moment and make the best decision based upon what we have right in
front of us. Should circumstances change, we then can and probably
will need to be assertive with this person in the new situation.
At that time, we have to make different decisions, but the quality
and depth of each decision, then, now or in the future is the same.

Dr. Griggs

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