How To Be Assertive Without Being Offensive?
I have to start this Hub with a preface.
When you are assertive, you are, by definition, not "offensive". But even when you are prefectly assertive and not in the least offensive, people are sometimes offended anyway.
If someone is bound and determined to be offended, there is nothing you can do to prevent them from being offended.
If you have spent your life dancing around the easily-upset feelings of others, trying to smooth waters, making sacrifices for the sake of keeping the peace, and wondering why you don't seem to get enough appreciation and acknowledgement for playing that vital role ... congratulations! You just scored a "get out of jail free" card.
Keeping everyone else happy is NOT YOUR JOB.
Treating them with respect, yes. Considering their feelings, sure. Listening sensitively, absolutely. Negotiating in a mature and win/win manner, definitely.
Making sure they are not offended?
I am assuming here that you are the sort of person who follows the accepted social norms with regard to using cutlery at a dinner party, saying "please" and "thank you", and adapting your ratio of swear words to suit your listening audience. If you are currently offending against widely-accepted rules of polite social interaction, the rest of this Hub is probably beyond your circle of concern.
What most of us need to understand is that when we assert ourselves, we become inconvenient.
People resist inconvenience, and some people have discovered that becoming all hurt and offended works a treat to get inconvenient people to drop their inconvenient assertions and switch to "there, there, I didn't mean it like that ..."
So if you wish to be assertive, you will have to learn how to compassionately bear the wounded and offended suffering of the people who will have to do something different as a result of whatever you are being assertive about - without folding up and taking it all back.
Assertive Is Not Aggressive
Now, I am not giving you carte blache to go trampling all over everyone else's feelings with no regard for the consequences. That's not assertiveness; that's aggression. Or at the very least discourtesy.
Assertiveness does not involve raised voices and slamming doors - at least not on the part of the person being assertive. Some people have learned that displays of anger make inconvenient people and the inconvenient demands give up and go away. If you're in a relationship with someone who learned that lesson as a child, your experiments with assertiveness may involve tolerating some childish displays of temper.
There is no need to match temper with temper. In fact, it's much, much better if you don't.
Assertive Is Not Nice
We have a crippling concept in our culture called "being nice". As children, we are told that it's "nice" to let other kids do what they want, and "not nice" to say we don't want to share our toys. It's "nice" to give hurt and offended people whatever they want, and it's "not nice" to be angry. It's "nice" to watch people and anticipate their needs, and it's "not nice" to ask for another piece of cake at a party.
Pretty soon, we're feeling guilty for even having wants and needs, let alone voicing them.
So, to get around this, nice people don't ask directly for things. They say things like "if it's not too much trouble" and "If you have time" and "some time it would be nice if" and "wouldn't it be nice of somebody did ..."
This is not being assertive.
In fact, to some listeners this actually sounds like you are being manipulative.
If you are trying to get other people to do things for you, or to do things the way you want them done, and you are trying to have them do it "of their own accord", then - sorry to break it to you - there is a good chance that you are actually being manipulative.
The truth of the matter is that some of your requests, indirect as they are, will be inconvenient. Sometimes, people will be willing to inconvenience themselves to meet your request, and sometimes they won't.
If you don't make a direct request, then they can't directly say "no" to you - and they also don't get the opportunity to say "yes". Which means they miss out on the brownie points and appreciation due when someone puts themselves out for someone else.
What Is Being Assertive, Then?
If it's not being aggressive and it's not being nice, and it's not being rude or discourteous, then what is it?
Being assertive means being clear.
"Will you please do X?" is clear.
"I will not tolerate Y, or "Y is unacceptable" is clear.
A particularly useful formula to use for clarity is the three-step formula:
When you (behavior),
I feel (emotion),
And the result is (consequence).
You can use this for small things - when you leave the cap off the toothpaste I feel disgusted and unloved and the result is I feel less like doing the things that I know you like.
You can use this for big things - when you gamble away the rent money I feel frightened and sad and the result is I don't want to have a joint bank account any more.
This technique is a conversation opener, not the whole conversation. It puts the issue on the table is reasonably clear language.
It is especially effective if you spend some time thinking about the wording, and you can even try it out on people you know will give good feedback, and make revisions until it is clear and non-judgemental.
Being assertive means being flexible.
You are not God. You can't think of everything. You might have worked out the best possible solution to the problem, and when you go to discuss it with the other parties involved, they can't live with your solution. But they may come up with a whole raft of things that you hadn't thought of, or are willing to consider things that you had written off as impossible.
To be assertive you need to hold on to your authentic needs, but be able to flow with the needs of others, especially since you might not really have known what their needs were before you have this conversation.
As the saying goes, "set your goals in concrete and your plans in sand". So, for example, your goal is to have germ-free toothpaste to use, and your plan is to train him or her to replace the cap each time they use the toothpaste.
But your goal is not to get him/her to put the cap back on the toothpaste. That's just your plan. A creative solution might involve separate toothpaste tubes, with the icky one kept in a place where you never see it, and yours kept just for you. Different plan, but it still achieves your goal.
A good technique here is to ask yourself "what am I trying to achieve here?"
Answer the question, and then ask yourself "what am I trying to achieve with that?"
Take that answer, and ask yourself again, "what am I trying to achieve with that?"
Three times is usually the charm. You will usually get to the core of something in three goes. For some people, this process works better if they use the question "why is that important?"
At this point, you have a good idea of your goal.
But to be flexible, you need to understand the goals of the other parties. After you have been clear about the issue, you will need to do some listening and asking of questions, until you understand the other person's goal the same way you understand your own.
Being assertive means thinking win/win.
Once you are clear about your goal, and clear about the goals of the other parties, you can move on to discussing the options for accomplishing everyone's goals.
If you have done the early parts of the conversation effectively, this is the shortest and easiest part of the whole thing!
But It's Not All Beer And Skittles
Being assertive also means being willing to walk away if you can't get a solution that works for you.
If the issue is the cap on the toothpaste, then walking away won't mean filing for divorce. Usually.
You need to think this through in advance - what will you do if the person simply won't negotiate? Just continues to do something you find intolerable?
Think about what you would need to do to live with this situation, or this behaviour continuing indefinitely.
In the case of the toothpaste, it might be as simple as hiding a tube for your own use, and then you know it has always had its cap on.
In the case of something larger, like gambling away the rent, it might be that if you can't be confident of the rent being paid, you will move somewhere else. Only say this if it's true - you can't go on living with the uncertainty - and you are willing to follow through. Threats you don't carry out are not assertiveness, they are manipulation.
Whatever it is that you ar going to do if this negotiation doesn't work out, you have to be mentally prepared to do it.
The other person will be able to tell, instantly, from your subconscious signals, whether you are going to follow through. If you have already called around, know which friend you are going to stay with, have the forms to apply for government assistance, and have advice from legal aid as to your rights, you won't have to tell the other person you've done your homework. Your posture, tone of voice and aura will do the telling for you.
It's best NOT to talk about what you will do if the conversation doesn't work out, because it can sound like threats or blackmail. You don't need to say it, just know it.
Six Ways To Go Wrong With Attempts At Assertiveness
Here's how to do assertiveness all wrong and fail to get your needs met:
1. Avoid thinking about the issue in advance so you can be unclear on the issue, and have no plan for what you will do if the negotiation fails.
2. Be angry, blaming, critical or judgemental when presenting the issue.
3. Be rigid and demanding about the solution to the issue.
4. Refuse to listen to or have compassion for the other person's feelings.
5. Fold up and back down when the other person gets emotional.
6. Don't follow through with the consequences when the other person keeps on doing (or not doing) the thing.
Bonus "going wrong" points if you then refer back to their continued doing (or not doing) of this issue when attempting to be assertive about other issues in the future!
In Summary ...
Listen and be flexible.