A friend doesn’t return your email. You wonder if she is angry with you but don’t know what to do about it. Your sister asks you to take care of her children for a long weekend, and although you dread the thought, you don’t want to let her down. Your boss asks you to take on a project that you fear will be overwhelming but you worry about the consequences of saying no. These—or similar situations–are just a few examples of times when you might want to be assertive but find yourself holding back because you are afraid of negative outcomes.
If you are like most people, it may be difficult to know when it is appropriate to speak up and when it is best to be quiet and let things go. Your parents and pastor may tell you to forgive and forget and to respect your elders, but you may also hear comments from coworkers or friends that it’s a dog eat dog world out there, so you’d better take what you want before someone else gets it. Some people find it easy to be assertive in a nice way, but most of us struggle to find a healthy alternative to being neither aggressive nor a doormat. Fortunately, there is a new approach—one I refer to as “compassionate assertiveness”–that can help you speak up in a wise and caring manner. It involves cultivating a variety of skills and mind-sets from cognitive behavioral psychology, Eastern cultures, and religious and other wisdom traditions throughout the world. You might find some of the following compassionate assertiveness lessons useful the next time an interpersonal problem stresses you out.
Calm Your Mind and Your Body. When we feel frustrated, threatened, or angry the “fight or flight” functions of our nervous system can take over, shifting into an automatic reactive and self-protective mode that bypasses the thinking, reasoning, and planning part of our brain. It’s understandable that we would have that inclination because in ancient history human beings often had to have an immediate physical response in order to survive day-to-day life-threatening situations. Fortunately, this physical response is rarely needed anymore, but our nervous system hasn’t evolved fast enough to keep up with modern times. So, when you are upset with someone it is best to avoid giving into that primitive “emergency responder” impulse to fight it out– verbally or physically–or run away. Instead, try to give yourself some time to come up with better options.
You can begin by taking a few slow, deep breathes or go for a brisk walk to help you to cool down. This might be hard to for you to do now, but perhaps you can try learning some mind-body exercises—such as breathing exercises, yoga, mindfulness, or meditation—that can be practiced on a regular basis when you are not upset. That way, when you are in stressful situations you will be better able to relax your body, which in turn will help your emotions and thoughts to calm down as well. When you are in a calmer mental and emotional state, you are then in a better position to solve the problem in a caring and rational manner. For example, if you remind yourself that you may not know the whole story about what is going on you may be better able to suspend judgment and refrain from making negative assumptions. Another useful technique is to remember that—just like you–no one is perfect, and that while we all have flaws we all have positive qualities that deserve to be taken into account even when we are not at our best. And finally, let’s not forget that it is not wise or fruitful to look for, jump on, or get upset about every little mistake that we or others are bound to make from time to time.
Let the Golden Rule be Your Guide. If someone were upset with you because of something significant that you said or did, would you want to know about it? Most of us would want the other person to let us know about the problem so we could improve our relationship with them, if they could do so in a caring and non-judgmental manner. After all, wouldn’t you rather have the person bring the issue to you instead of gossiping with others, harboring silent resentments, or walking away from the relationship? Turning the situation around, if someone in your life doesn’t know that you have a significant concern about something he has said or done, he will assume that everything is fine. This is not good for him, for you, or for your relationship. The trick, though, is to go to the person keeping in mind the Golden Rule. So before you pick up the phone or knock on the door, ask yourself, “Can I address this problem in a caring way, just as I would want him to do if he were upset with me?”
Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. You have probably heard about friendships that have ended because of misunderstandings or miscommunications, and (whether you know it or not) it is possible that this has happened to you, too, in the past. There are ways, however, to avoid having this happen in the future. For example, if you are upset with someone, try to wait until you are calm and ready to express your concerns in a friendly and reasonable manner. Then find a private time and place to approach the other person–again with the Golden Rule in mind. Sometimes it’s helpful to begin by communicating, in an open-hearted way, a need to share or obtain information by making a neutral statement or asking a question without making assumptions. These might include a statement, “I need to talk to you about something that’s been on my mind”, or a question, such as “Did you receive the email I wrote you last week?” or “I can’t find my beach towel; have you seen it?” These kinds of openings will probably get the conversation off to a better start than an accusatory question such as “Why didn’t you return my email?” or “What did you do with my beach towel?”
Negotiate With a Win-Win Solution as Your Goal. Sometimes, but not always, clear communication solves the problem. If a potential conflict arises even when communication is clear—such as when your goals or needs are different from those of the other person–try to communicate concern for the other person’s point of view and well-being, as well as your own. This may include acknowledging the valid aspects of the other person’s perspective as well as ways that you could have handled things better yourself. When your sister asks you to take care of her kids for a long weekend and you really don’t think you can handle it, try to own up to any potential contributions to the problem that you might have made. “I know I told you that I’d like to help out with your kids, but I confess that I think a long weekend is more than I can manage” is both an honest and assertive response. It would be even better, though, if you followed up with, “Shall we see if Mom and Dad can take care of the kids for a day or two and I’ll take care of them for the rest of the time?” A similar approach can be used if your boss asks you to commit to a project that would be over your head to handle alone. Responding to the request by saying that the project is a big one and asking if it’s possible to share the responsibility with someone else would be assertive in a way that doesn’t come across as irresponsible.
Life teaches us that interpersonal stress is inevitable. But rather than blow up, run away, or shut down, if you address relationship problems using compassionate assertiveness you may find that your confidence, as well as your relationships, will flourish.