• janellegsheen

Being Assertive Can Be Dangerous:What assertiveness trainers forget to tell you


I am at work and the office bully is in action again. For this conversation what the bully did is not as important as what the various responses were.

The target was shattered. While her work colleagues demonstrated a range of responses. I suspect some really had no idea what was happening, but they were difficult to separate from those who put there heads down so as to not get involved. Yet some of them were obvious, from the hunched shoulders and eye avoiding behaviors. Others believed the allegations directed at the target and others still joined in the bullying process, hyping it up more.

A lone individual checked in with the target, got the picture, as they were aware of what had been happening and decided it was time to take action. They stood by the target and reported what was happening.

As workplace bullying is so common I have little doubt many of you will relate to this story. Some of you may even think the target was fortunate to have the supportive individual doing the ‘right thing’. Saying no to the bullying, practicing assertive communication. As had the target, on numerous occasions.

However, the incident, (s) as bullying is a pattern of behavior and not a single incident, did not end well for anyone but the bully and her cohort. Indeed the bully and her right hand woman were promoted. While the target and her supporter were forced out of their jobs, jobs they enjoyed and very capably had been doing. The target and supporter lost good jobs; the employer lost a number of quality employees (others also left the organisation due to the incident) and the customers lost a number of quality service providers.

How many of you still relate? Perhaps are angered or confused by this reality.

If so, then you will gain from the distinction around assertiveness and assertive communication that follows.

For the truth is assertiveness, as commonly promoted, can be very dangerous.

Let me be clear what is promoted is valuable and worth learning. At the same time it is incredibly important to understand and develop more skills to manage the distinction about to be revealed. Or risk discovering the harsh realities around being assertive for yourself.



The Distinction

To enable the quality distinction to be made it is first important to consider the definitions. These will then be used to reveal the too often neglected yet critical distinction, before recommendations of more effective assertive practices will be presented.

Being assertive is defined as being able to stand up for your own or other people's rights in a calm and positive way, without being either aggressive, or passively accepting 'wrong'.

While assertive communication is the ability to express positive and negative ideas and feelings in an open, honest and direct way. It recognises our rights whilst still respecting the rights of others. It allows us to take responsibility for our actions, and ourselves without judging or blaming other people.

The keys, in the definitions, for the distinction are 1) ‘passively accepting ‘wrong’’, which often is used to highlight the need to stand up against inappropriate behaviors; as our brave target and supporter did.

However, when we combine this with 2) ‘recognising our rights whilst still respecting the rights of others. It allows us to take responsibility for ourselves… without judging or blaming…’ we have an interesting contradiction. Stand up against ‘wrong’ while ‘being responsible, without judgment.’ This implies acceptance, while taking action against what we see as wrong.

To enable us to do this, we need to embrace the mindset that allows for inclusivity which recognising there are different ways of 'being' and personal responsibility to 'stand by our own' values and ethics. This is about being respectful.

Respectful of what is happening and indeed perhaps is wrong, but also accepting what you can realistically do. One cannot change others, indeed from an inclusive, humane perspective we have no right to attempt to change others. Yet we have the right, even responsibility, to care for and be true to our self.

To do this effectively sometime taking responsibility is not ‘saying’ it is wrong, but taking action that communicates assertively that you will not accept what is happening. This is not always easy. Indeed I would say it is often difficult.

The distinction to make is, sometimes it is ‘in your and others better interest’ to consciously accept what is happening; to step back and re-access; to consider what is the most effective way to manage the situation. Remember being respectful is about paying attention and mutual agreement, never coercion.

‘You need to know when to yield control

in order to maintain it.’

Simon Dowling 2020

It could be said that the hardest aspect of enacting this distinction is knowing when to, I say whenever you encounter resistance. There is a simple, not easy, but simple process for managing resistance when being Respectfully Assertive.

How to practice ‘Respectful Assertiveness’

1) State calmly and clearly your perspective. As is commonly taught in assertiveness training. Ideally things will work out. However, often that is not the case, and the next two steps become critical for safety.

2) If resistance is encounter, step back and consider what is the most appropriate action ‘in the best interest of all’ to take. Remembering your role and responsibility can be very helpful in this process.

3) Enact that action assertively, that is calmly and powerful.

Common assertiveness training gets people to stand up and say what they need to say in a calm, confident, and clear manner. This is wonderful, because it is everyone’s’ right to be heard and considered.

However, too often, this practice backfires and turns into a power struggle, that often leaves the ‘assertive individual’ out in the cold and confused. What did I do wrong? The truth is nothing, ‘in an ideal world’. Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world.

I argue that by accepting the lack of an 'ideal world' and learning how to manage that reality, in an assertive manner will create a safer reality for you.



Simon Dowling 2020 in Get Heard, Get Results, Kindle version Loc 321

While book is regarding ‘buy in’ this quote also related to being respectful, where ‘buy in’ is about gaining full cooperation.

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