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Don't Be a Bully or a Doormat

How to stand up for yourself without attacking others.

Communicate without attacking
Source: Pixabay/Pexels

Find yourself frequently getting frustrated with how no one listens to you? Do you get annoyed that no one takes you seriously? Do you feel like your voice doesn't matter, or that your needs often go unmet?

Or maybe you find yourself feeling like others are nervous around you? Does everyone walk on eggshells when they're with you? Do others avoid you, not inviting you to social gatherings? Do you sense subtle inauthenticity in others?

If you have been asking yourself these questions, you may land on one of two interpersonal communication extremes. In order to understand the extremes, it is useful to imagine a continuum. On one end is the continuum are passive people and on the other end are aggressive people. Both groups experience resentment, but the resentment is located in different places.

Passive people tend to carry a lot of resentment within themselves. They resent others for not intuiting what they need, yet they aren't communicating their needs. They resent others for taking advantage of them, yet they aren't standing up for themselves. They resent others for bringing up problems because conflict freaks them out.

Aggressive people tend to create resentment in others. They are very good at getting their needs met—a little too good at getting their needs met. They meet their needs at a cost to others. They're really good at speaking their minds, even if doing so could negatively impact another person. And when it comes to problems, well, an aggressive person never met a problem they didn't like. They aren't afraid of conflict and they don't mind confronting problems head-on.

So, you may be wondering, "Wow! Either option on the continuum sounds kinda awful. Is there another way? Is there a way to navigate problems, meet your needs, and speak your mind without bruising others or silencing your own voice?" Between the two extremes of passive and aggressive is a third option, assertiveness. Assertiveness, as I define it, is the ability to:

  • Address problems
  • Provide feedback
  • Advocate for needs

Yet—and this is a big yet—the above is married with respect and diplomacy. The assertive person can approach problems in a straightforward manner. They don’t shy away from giving feedback, and they are able to advocate for their needs. The assertive person can communicate wants and desires without attacking others. Assertiveness promotes health in individuals and in relationships.

Assertiveness appropriates the strengths of the passive style—such as being mindful of others, being respectful, choosing words carefully, and weighing the benefits of conflict against the possible negative outcomes. The assertive person capitalizes on all the strengths of the passive style without any of its weaknesses.

The same holds true for the aggressive style. The assertive person can speak their mind, address problems in real-time, and bravely give feedback to others, but without railroading them. They leave the downsides of aggressiveness and only take the strengths.

So, let's do some self-analysis. Take a moment and locate yourself on the communication continuum. Do you tend to be passive side? Are you aggressive? Assertive? Or somewhere in-between?

Wherever you locate yourself, in order to find health, you'll need to make moves toward assertiveness. Below are a few suggestions on how you can do that.

Sebatian Voorman/Pexels
Balance your needs with other's needs
Source: Sebatian Voorman/Pexels

Balance of Needs

Simply because someone has a need different than yours does not give you a license to dismiss them—nor does it mean you have to dismiss your own needs.

It’s okay for people to have different needs. However, it doesn’t mean you are always obligated to meet the demands, needs, and wants of others. You can firmly and gently say no. Whatever decision you make, it will be based on fairness, and not from a place that you must always say “yes” to others and “no” to yourself.

Deliver Your Message Without Attacking

Being assertive means you are able to have difficult conversations, give challenging feedback, and address problems, without attacking others. This is a very important point if you want to hold an audience.

Assertive people are often the most influential. Why is that? Because they are able to have difficult conversations without losing composure. They can speak the truth and delicately handle other people's feelings. They don't sacrifice one for the other.

The inability to navigate the emotional and social waters will cost you your audience—no one will want to listen. It may be a cliché, but it's so very very true that "People don't care what you know until they know that you care" (adapted from Theodore Roosevelt's quote). Connecting with someone, showing them empathy, and demonstrating respect before you share your feedback wins you an audience, it wins you influence; people will be open to what you have to say.

It’s Not Mean to Be Assertive

There is a difference between self-interest and selfishness. Self-interest is a healthy and natural prioritization of your own needs and desires. Selfishness is an exaggerated prioritization of your own needs and desires over and above the needs and desires of others. Selfishness is getting what you want at the cost of others.

Assertive people have self-interest. They are able to advocate for their own needs. They can be direct with what they want, and enforce boundaries to protect themselves and others. This is not mean or selfish; this is self-interest. If you tend to be passive, this point may help you in moving towards assertiveness.

Sabine Mondestin/Pixabay
It takes a strong person to be assertive
Source: Sabine Mondestin/Pixabay

It's Not Weak to Be Assertive

Working with someone—flexing and compromising so that a mutually satisfying resolution is reached—is not the move of a weak person. Aggressive people feel as if a winner-take-all is the position of strength. If they are anything but the winner, they've shown weakness and have lost credibility.

This line of thinking is a grave mistake. You can save face and be flexible. You can show strength and empathize with someone else. Firmness and gentleness are not mutually exclusive concepts. Both can be integrated into one approach. If you tend to be aggressive, this point may be useful in moving you towards assertiveness.

Assertiveness is a Preservative for Relationships

Assertiveness is essential in any healthy relationship. It allows partners, friends, family members, and co-workers to address issues that lead to resolution. Aggressive communication leads to defensiveness and combativeness. Passive communication doesn’t address problems at all.

Assertive communication, on the other hand, provides the means for difficult subjects to be addressed in a meaningful way. If the conversation is done with respect, people are more likely to listen, even if they disagree. Assertiveness increases the chances that the other person will be more receptive to what you have to say.

Wherever you land on the continuum, you can always move toward assertiveness. Hopefully, this post helps you locate yourself on the continuum and gives you concrete ideas on how you can take steps towards healthier communication with others.

More from Dan Bates, PhD, LMHC, LPCC, NCC
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