Assertiveness is a widely misunderstood term. Many people use it to mean being stroppy or difficult, unaware that this is a significant distortion of the philosophy underpinning the idea of assertiveness. For example, on training courses I have been running I have many times come across comments to the effect of: ‘If I were assertive, I would be disciplined’ or ‘If I were assertive people would give me a really hard time’.
To a certain extent I can understand where the confusion stems from. Part of the idea of assertiveness is the recognition that you need to stand up for your rights and not let people exploit you. But standing up for your rights by being combative or aggressive is certainly not what assertiveness is about – quite the opposite in fact.
Being assertive is about attempting to negotiate win-win outcomes. It involves having the interpersonal skills to move forward without pushing people into a corner, while also not allowing them to push you into a corner. Some people develop these skills in growing up, it is part of their upbringing. Other people develop them through training and/or professional experience in the field. Yet others go through their life without ever learning these skills, and can lose out significantly because of that.
Some people oversimplify assertiveness by assuming that it is just a matter of compromise, of ‘meeting in the middle’. Compromise is certainly one potentially useful assertiveness technique, but it is just one amongst many. Another important one is what is known as ‘principled negotiation’. This differs from the traditional idea of ‘positional negotiation’ where the parties involved adopt their own negotiating position and try to coerce the other party into accepting it or at least moving towards it (pay negotiations have traditionally taken this form). Principled negotiation, by contrast, is a process whereby those involved identify their differences and explore possible ways of achieving an outcome that everyone is happy with (or is at least prepared to accept). This can often be done without generating any unnecessary tension or bad feeling (as opposed to positional negotiation which has a tendency to generate a lot of tension and ill feeling).
So, the philosophy of assertiveness is certainly not about getting into trouble, being disciplined or getting a hard time. Who would want to discipline someone who has the skills to create solutions that re acceptable to everybody concerned? That’s more likely to lead to promotion than to disciplinary proceedings!
However, there are two important caveats to be aware of. First, it is possible to get yourself into trouble if you misunderstand assertiveness and think of it simply as insisting on having your own way and possibly doing that in a combative, hostile or unprofessional way. Sadly, quite a few people have told me of situations where they ‘stood up for themselves’, but they did it in such a way as to alienate other people. They have lost sight of the fact that it is all about trying to get your needs met, but without preventing other people from getting their needs met, where possible. In more straightforward terms; don’t let other people do the dirty on you, but make sure you don’t do the dirty on them either.
Second, we have to recognise that some people will not play ball. No matter how skilled you are they will hold on to their position, their territory and may even resent your efforts to move forward constructively. Assertiveness is very useful, but as with all tools or techniques, it has its limitations. However, even when assertiveness doesn’t work, it has one very significant advantage: it helps you to identify people who may be ruthless and unprepared to give an inch. Knowing who those people are can help you to make sure that you are, as far as possible, safe from them. If you are unaware of the dangers they pose you can find yourself in a vulnerable position and unprepared.
So, assertiveness is not a magic answer, but it is a very important tool that can be highly effective most of the time, warn you of dangers on those occasions when it is not effective, while also helping to boost your confidence and your credibility in your interactions with others.