Assertiveness and Personal Relationships
We all know that assertiveness is a good ability to have.
What is assertiveness? I define it in three stages, beginning,
intermediate and advanced. Beginning assertiveness is simply
sharing with another how we think and feel. Think of it as
playing a hand of cards and we lay our cards on the table,
face up for our opponent to see. The opponent now knows our hand.
We haven't requested to see our opponent's cards. We are just
sharing what we have.
Intermediate assertiveness is asking for something we want.
Once having shared our experience (thoughts and feelings,
metaphorically speaking) it is only natural to request something
based upon sharing this information. For example, we are hungry.
Once having shared that fact, it is only natural to ask for food.
Advanced assertiveness is for professionals, and is not
something most of us will ever have to practice. An example is
when the police negotiate with criminals in banks who hold hostages
for money. An example is when a psychologist talks with a patient
on the phone when they are poised at the top of a building,
considering whether or not to jump. Less extreme examples are
very complicated business deals that involve millions of dollars.
These are scenarios better left to competent, well-trained specialists.
But in personal relationships, we also need assertiveness,
just not the advanced version. The reason assertiveness is so
difficult with personal connections is that we have to continue,
often live with the person after we communicate.
Assertiveness is about being honest, and when we are in
relationships, honesty sometimes comes back to haunt us. We are
increasingly ourselves as our relationships mature. That is, the
novelty wears off over time and we are less prone to be on our best
behavior. The real "us" emerges. We then develop a history with
our partners, and the daily interaction does not always produce
positive memories. These thoughts, memories and feelings back up
unless expressed, which is when assertiveness becomes important.
So, when we communicate something honest with our partners,
there are consequences. I espouse a formula for general
communication called the four-to-one rule, which, simply stated,
means for every one negative thing communicated, there better be
four positive ones, overall. This cushions the impact of the one
communicated thing that may or may not be so positive. Being in
a relationships with emerging honesty requires we communicate more
and more of what is real, hence the need to frame our ideas in more
positive language and examples.
When I communicate assertively with my partner, s/he has to
know I do not mean harm; rather, I am attempting to clear the air,
or balance some tension. It could be in the form of simply sharing
feelings or, if a little further along, asking for something that
I think if important. My intent is to make a difference in the
quality of our interaction without creating a negative experience
that I have to later re-negotiate, or worse, chronically live with.
Does this mean we only communicate positive things and avoid
conflict? No. One, this is impossible. Two, this is not healthy.
Conflict is inevitable; so do not even think of trying to avoid it.
The only course is to deal with conflict and express it honestly,
realistically and directly. (These are the backbone skills
underlying assertiveness.) In relationships, the opportunity to
relate to our partners in this manner occurs more often, even more
still as the relationship goes through its stages (four in my way
of thinking) and even more still when we live together. In the
latter case, avoiding each other takes a deliberate act because of
For more information about learning to become assertive and why
relationships fail, visit my website and review my two ebooks on this