Three Times When It Doesn’t Make Sense to Be Assertive

Assertiveness is seen as the golden mean of communication. But it's not always.

Posted Oct 08, 2020

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Assertiveness is generally seen as the golden mean of communication. It stops well short of bullying aggressiveness and it’s not so hesitant that it mirrors withdrawal or passivity. And done with tact and restraint, it’s not offensive to whoever might be on the receiving end.

Yet there are circumstances where it won’t work and, realistically speaking, can’t work. It’s therefore essential that before you attempt to communicate with the candor and directness you believe the situation requires that the three exceptions below be kept in mind. In reviewing four types of what she pictures as “empathic assertiveness” devised to neutralize the other’s resistance, M. Selig (2018, Mar 15, Psychology Today, adds that “no communication technique works all the time. [And that at times even] empathic assertions may not change the other person, but at least becoming more tuned into others will change you.”

Here are these occasions, and their particular caveats:

1. The other person is almost certain to respond negatively; defensively.

Ask yourself whether you genuinely grasp the other’s hot buttons? What regularly ticks them off? Where are their areas of special sensitivity?

If this is someone who so far has been unable to appreciate your point of view, which differs considerably from their own, trying more fervently to get them to do so is futile—or quite possibly worse than futile. For you could end up antagonizing them all the more.

In situations like these, you need (at least temporarily) to suspend your desire to straightforwardly enunciate your perspective. Rather, focus on their own. That is, they doubtless have their own reasons for thinking as they do. And until you can demonstrate that their viewpoint makes some sense to you, that you can appreciate and respect it, they’ll turn off from you. After all, your perspective may feel invalidating to them, threatening what they believe—or have been “programmed” to believe—for many years, if not since childhood.

It’s in your willingness (and many people lack the ability to do this) to positively evaluate viewpoints other than yours that can offer you the opportunity to connect with a person who otherwise would feel alienated from you because they don’t feel understood by you. Overcoming this obstacle to effective communication is crucial. And it can’t happen until they feel you’re motivated to understand them better. Only then might they be willing to return the favor.

2. The other person lacks the emotional capacity or self-regulation to handle your assertive communication.

In these situations, you won’t be heard because your listener has already become too upset to continue tracking you. Also threatened by your uttering a point of view appearing to disconfirm their own long-held position, inwardly they’re obsessed with shutting you out. Through dissociation and other methods of emotional distancing, they’re deaf to the message you’re trying to deliver to them.

Here again, in the moment the remedy is to give up talking and ask them questions to better uncover how they’re experiencing you as endangering something of primary importance to them. They need to understand that you’re not competing with them, or trying to change them into what they’re not.

All you want is for them to see that, subjectively, the two of you aren’t on the same page—and that that’s okay with you. You want to be closer to them and that can’t take place without their recognizing that your differences are in fact acceptable to you. Finally, it’s in mutual tolerance, forbearance, and respect that opens the doors to your both knowing what makes each of you unique. And such uniqueness won’t hinder the growth and development of your relationship but actually enhance it.

3. The other person just can’t get it, can’t grasp where you’re coming from or what you’re needing to share with them.

Their reaction explains why you’re feeling so much anger or hurt toward them. It’s because subliminally they see you as a threat to their welfare that they feel compelled to block you. And when they react this way, your efforts to communicate assertively with them will go nowhere. For in a sense they’re not even there. Despite their surface presence, they’ve already abandoned you and left the scene.

Can you think of a time when another individual seemed just plain dumb because no matter how you approached them or what words you used, their reaction clearly indicated they weren’t understanding you? I think we all can. To be perfectly honest, there may also have been situations in which you were the guilty one, times when you weren’t ready to accept the other person’s assertiveness. Not to mention that there may have been occasions when you failed to be assertive because of your own fears of sounding too aggressive (e.g, see D. Grande, Jun 27, 2018, Psychology Today,  “Coping with Three Common Blocks to Assertive Behavior”).

To conclude, regardless of the overall appropriateness of being assertive, we must acknowledge that there are times when there’s simply no way that another person can absorb what you so much wish to convey to them. While it makes sense to try in various ways to get your message across to them, don’t blame yourself if you can’t.

What’s most important is that you don’t throw up your hands and let them know how frustrated they’re making you. That’s not their intention, so there’s not much reason to take their resistance personally. Rather, their supposed thick-headedness is about reducing their sense of vulnerability, shame, guilt, or fear, which we can only guess at as we witness their (surprisingly) defensive reaction.  

      © 2020 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.