This is the third article in a seven-part series of articles on dealing with guilt. Please read the preceding two articles before reading this one. Written by a psychologist.
To be assertive requires that we first choose to be assertive, consciously or unconsciously, and then have handy a vocabulary of our feelings. Then we need to have sufficient awareness of that vocabulary to pick just the right word(s) to express ourselves, out loud, regardless of how we may or may not doubt ourselves. Developing a little confidence helps, even if there may be reservations at first.
“I am who I am... and I am not ashamed of that... even though I should be.”--Unknown
It also requires that we have the ability to confront others, civilly, and bargain for our point of view. Assertiveness does not guarantee success, but it does increase the odds of getting what we want. Regardless, assertiveness is necessary if we want to penetrate ambivalence and ultimately undermine guilt. It means we have to conquer our fears of speaking out. To that end, here are some finer points to consider when speaking assertively:
• Use “I” statements. “I” don’t like this or that is better to say than “You” made me feel this way or that. These work well when paired with feeling words.
• Keep your voice calm. People interpret “volume” accompanying words to be negative. It could be a sign of enthusiasm but it also could be a sign of aggression. Screaming is a bad idea. If volume is interpreted as aggression, your recipient will cease to listen.
• Refrain from using physically aggressive gestures, like pointing. We can frown or smile or “emote” (express normal feelings non-verbally) in any congruent manner. But, don’t stare at the person. This is a “primate” signal of aggression. It’s best to keep our hands in our pockets when we talk. Don’t crowd a person. Give him or her some space. Expressing anger induced by guilt can be verbal without intimidating gestures. Paradoxically, anger, when channeled is very powerful and can be the backbone of successful assertiveness.
• Give the person time to respond before proceeding. If we deliver our message like a verbal machine gun, likely the recipient will put on his or her “bullet proof vest.”
• Use humor. I do this with children. If they make a mess in my office (a many times daily occurrence), I say something like, “Would you like to know how I feel about something? Good, I’m glad you asked.” Of course, they didn’t ask but this works to open up the subject. If they say “no,” I say something like, “Gee, why not?” I have ‘em. I confront them on their avoidance. I do this while gazing at the toys all over the office floor. Kids get the idea right away; usually start laughing and we start picking up.
• Keep the subject simple. Try not to make the discussion about two things. Just say something about one thing and give the person time to deal with that one thing before proceeding. Try to keep the focus on one behavior and one feeling related to guilt.
• Get to the point. Try to cut to the heart of the issue, problem, concern or feeling. If we fail, wait, if that’s OK. Sometimes we have to re-visit a point later. Just because we talked about something does not mean the problem was resolved or communication was finished. Be persistent up to the point of being obnoxious.
• Keep the subject in the present. Try to avoid bringing up historic and probably unrelated issues when communicating the content/process ideas/feelings. Talk about what makes you feel guilty now, even if the event happened earlier.
• Be considerate of the other person’s space and time needs. Don’t bring things up when there’s no time to talk. Bring things up when the person is available, or receptive, or in more rare cases, when it is necessary. This sets the stage for the reasonable resolution of guilt, versus coercion to alleviate or obfuscate the underlying dynamics.
• Listen with empathy without giving up your position. Assertiveness means speaking our minds. Muster some conviction. At the same time, make sure to really hear what is being said. “Joining the resistance” is giving credence to someone else’s point of view. It lowers their resistance and paves the way for greater receptivity to our ideas. This technique is used very effectively by counselors, but also by salesman. We need openness to other’s ideas and feelings to make this work. This does not mean “caving” and therefore continuing to feel guilty.
• Receive criticism without becoming defensive. We can do this even if we disagree with what’s said.
• Learn to say ‘no’ and set limits, but do so realistically, in the context of what is the issue or feeling. Don’t exaggerate or minimize to dramatize the point.
• Stop trying to control things.
• Finally, ask for what you want.