by Michael Weuffen,
Business Analysts Pty Ltd Consultant
In part one of this assertiveness blog we explored the concept that assertiveness is a communication style with the goal to keep two-way communication open. This improves outcomes for our employer, our clients and ourselves. We learnt that limiting self-beliefs and learned and cultural behaviours prevent many of us from improving our assertive communication skills. We also began to consider that cultural context is an important factor in determining assertive behaviours.
Self-refection was described as the first step to thinking differently – challenging or disputing our thoughts to distinguish facts from beliefs and emotional reactions. It was recommended that we spend some time deconstructing negative interactions and rehearsing different behaviours to improve the quality of communication with others.
Now that we have established the right mind-set, we are ready to develop practical skills.
1) Assertiveness Techniques
In this section, you will be introduced to some assertiveness techniques. These techniques can be used across a wide range of situations. It can be useful to begin practising these techniques in a neutral situation. Then, as you become more skilled, you can begin using them in more difficult or emotional situations.
Basic assertion is when we make a statement that clearly expresses our needs, wants, beliefs, opinions or feelings. This type of assertion can be used every day to make our needs known. Typically, basic assertion uses “I” statements. An example of an “I” statement is: “I feel pleased with the way the issue has been resolved.”
You can also use basic assertion to give praise or compliments, information or facts, or when raising an issue with someone for the first time. For example: “I haven’t thought about that before, I’d like time to think about your idea.”
It is important to remember to be specific when making your statement. Decide what it is you want or feel and say so specifically or directly. Avoid unnecessary padding and keep your statement simple and brief. This skill will help you to be clear about what exactly it is you want to communicate.
Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s feelings, needs or wants. This type of assertion contains an element of recognition of the other person’s feelings, needs or wants, as well as a statement of our own needs and wants. This type of assertion can be used when the other person is involved in a situation that may not fit with your needs, and you want to indicate that you are aware of and are sensitive to their position.
Example of an empathic assertion: “I know you’re busy at the moment, but I need your help.”
Empathic assertion is useful in avoiding over-reacting with aggression as it causes you to give yourself time to imagine the other person’s position and therefore slow down your response.
It is possible to over-use certain phrases in empathic assertion and it can start to sound insincere. It can also be used to mask aggression. For example, if someone says, “I appreciate your feelings, but…” then the empathic statement “I appreciate your feelings” is devalued by the word “but” and the phrase becomes aggression masked as assertion.
This is the strongest form of assertion and is seen as a last resort when working with clients. It is usually used in a situation where someone has not been considering the rights of others and you want to get their behaviour to change without becoming aggressive yourself. In a work situation, it may be used when standard procedures or guidelines are not being followed. When you use consequence assertion, you inform the other person of the consequences for them of not changing their behaviour. It can easily be seen as threatening and therefore aggressive. Only use this form of assertion when you have sanctions to apply, and only when you are prepared to apply them.
Example of consequence assertion: “If you continue to withhold information, I am left with no option but to inform the Project Manager.”
As this type of assertion can easily be seen as aggressive, you need to be very careful of the non-verbal signals you use. Keep your voice calm and at an even pitch and volume, keep good eye contact, and try and keep your body and face relaxed.
Discrepancy assertion works by pointing out a discrepancy between what has previously been agreed and what is actually happening. This is useful for clarifying whether there is a misunderstanding or a contradiction, and when a person’s request does not match an agreement.
Example of discrepancy assertion: “As I understand it, we agreed that Project A was top priority. Can you please confirm that Project B is now the highest priority?”
Negative feelings assertion
Negative feelings assertion is used when you are experiencing very negative feelings towards another person – anger, resentment, hurt and so on. In a controlled and calm way, you draw attention to the undesirable affect another person’s behaviour is having on you. This allows you to deal with the feelings without making an uncontrolled outburst and alerts the other person to the effects of their actions on you.
There are four steps to negative feeling assertion:
- Describe the other person’s behaviour objectively. Be careful to do this without interpreting or judging. “You leave it too late to produce your report…”
- Describe the impact of the person’s behaviour on you. Be specific and clear. Don’t overgeneralise. “When you produce the report late, I have to work over the weekend”
- Describe your feelings. ‘I feel disappointed about this”.
- State what behaviour you would prefer to happen in the future. “In future, I’d like to receive the report by Friday lunch time”.
Example of negative feeling assertion: “Each time you interrupt me while I’m working on this balance sheet, it causes me to have to start all over again. I’m feeling irritated by this, so I would prefer you to wait until I have finished.”
It is important to remember nonverbal communication as well as the verbal when practicing these methods. You may think you are being assertive because you are using an assertiveness technique; however, it is possible to use all of these in an aggressive or a passive way if you are not careful with your nonverbal communication. To ensure you are using assertive non-verbal communication, keep your voice calm, the volume normal, the pace even, keep good eye contact and try and keep your physical tension low.
2) Responding to criticism
We all need to accept that we will receive criticism from others at times. The challenge is be able to accept constructive criticism. Depending on the way the criticism is presented, we can respond in different ways.
If criticism is valid then just accept it without expressing guilt or other negative emotions. Accept that you are not perfect and that the only way we can learn is to make mistakes, see what we need to change and move on. Thank the person for the feedback if appropriate. See the criticism as a gift.
This technique involves not only accepting the criticism but openly agreeing with the criticism. This is used when a true criticism is made to you. The skill involves calmly agreeing with the criticism of your negative qualities, and not apologising or letting yourself feel demolished. For example
Criticism: “Your desk is very messy. You are very disorganised”. Response: “Yes, I agree my desk is untidy, and looks disorganised”.
The key to using negative assertion is self-confidence and a belief that you have the ability to change if you wish to. By agreeing with and accepting criticism, if it is appropriate, you need not feel demolished. This type of response can also diffuse situations. If an aggressive person is making the criticism, they may expect you to become defensive or aggressive back. By agreeing with them, the tension in the situation is diffused.
Another way of using negative assertion is to own up to your mistakes before they are pointed out. For example, if you arrive late say: “Hi, I’m late. Sorry”.
Negative inquiry consists of requesting further, more specific criticism. If someone criticises you but you are not sure if the criticism is valid or constructive, you ask for more details. For example:
Criticism: “You’ll find that difficult won’t you, because you are shy?” Response: “In what ways do you think I’m shy?”
If the criticism is constructive, that information can be used constructively, and the general channel of communication will be improved. If the criticism is manipulative or destructive then the critic will be put on the spot.
3) Giving feedback
Giving criticism constructively is an important skill to learn, so that the recipient is more receptive to what you are saying. You have a right to request a change in someone’s behaviour if it is hurtful, inefficient or irritating in some way. Remember that requesting change doesn’t mean that the person will change. However, if you don’t express the issue, problems with the relationship/interaction will most certainly continue.
Giving direct feedback to others about their behaviour should be constructive, caring and helpful. This feedback can be negative or positive. It shows you value the other person and your relationship with them.
Endeavour to follow the guidelines below when giving constructive criticism.
- Time and place. Make sure you choose a good time and place. If you are giving constructive criticism about something that has led to you having a strong emotional reaction, wait until you are away from the situation and have calmed down before criticising. This is equally applicable if you are responding in person or via email. If you feel you are at risk of responding during a state of high emotion, hold off on replying until you have calmed. You may be able to see the situation with more clarity.
- Describe the behaviour you are criticising rather than labelling the person. For example: “You made a mistake in the report” rather than: “What are you, an idiot?”
- Describe your feelings (using “I” statements) without blaming the other person. For example: “I feel the client was disappointed when…” rather than: “You made the client angry”.
- Ask for a specific change. If you just make a complaint without giving alternative suggestions, you don’t give the person any help in knowing how to change the behaviour. For example, rather than saying: “I can’t stand your constant complaining”, it would be more effective to say: “It sounds like you have a number of issues. Would you please write them down for me? Then we can work together to find solutions.”
- Specify both the positive consequences if the person does meet your request for change and negative consequences if they don’t make the changes.
- Be realistic in the changes you are suggesting and the consequences if they do not. Do not make empty threats. For example, you wouldn’t say: “I will kill you if you don’t get that done on time this time!”.
- Ask the other person how they feel about what you have just said. Being assertive is about having an equal interaction. Be careful this doesn’t end up as an exchange of criticisms.
- Try to end on a positive note. If appropriate, add a positive statement of your feelings towards the other person.
Cultivating assertive skills takes time and patience. For most of us, this will mean changing a lifetime of learned behaviours, so be kind to yourself and improve in small ways with every interaction. Cognitively rehearse problematic communications you experienced during the day and reflect on which assertion technique you could have employed. Remember we are not machines, so emotions can cloud our thinking.
Most importantly, explore all feedback for a grain of truth. Look beyond the delivery style and remember that constructive criticism comes from caring, whether we are giving or receiving feedback.
So far, we have explored how to assertively respond to positive criticism, but how do we respond to ‘destructive criticism’.
In the third and final part of this blog, we will explore how to respond assertively to destructive criticism and how to refuse requests.
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