Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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This is the last article in a series about anger management. Assertiveness is an effective strategy to move beyond anger coping to actively changing your life for the better. The assertive coping style allows you a decent chance to attain your goals without harmful aggression toward others. While aggressive individuals sometimes get their way in life, the aggression creates resentment, opposition and negative feedback from others. Assertiveness is also a useful skill for the passive individual who wants to begin to take more control of life choices. A please-everyone-at-all-costs lifestyle encourages others to take advantage and then fuels resentment as it fails to bring fulfillment. An assertive style will let you deal with disputes without anger or aggression and will allow you an opportunity to meet your needs successfully. Obviously you can't achieve your goals without trying, so assertiveness increases your chances for goal achievement beyond "zero."

A previous article in the Southern Neighbor and also published on my website in the Reading Room provided an introduction to assertiveness and discussed the difference between assertive, aggressive and passive-aggressive orientations. This article will provide more information about how to develop assertiveness. An assertive response is best planned and thought through before execution. Drs. Redford and Virginia Williams have provided us a useful paradigm for thinking through the need for a certain behavior by asking and answering three questions. (The reference is Anger Kills, Harper, 1933.) Three "yes" answers point the way toward using assertiveness as an effective response. You should first ask yourself whether the matter is worth your continued attention. There is little sense in assertive responding to temporary or trivial issues. This question, for example, suggests there is little need for assertive behavior in traffic jams or in response to inconsiderate drivers. Next, ask yourself if you are justified in taking action in the situation. If your position is just and fair, you will have an increased possibility of success with your assertive request or behavior. Your assertive stance will not appear selfish or self-serving. The third question to ask yourself is whether you have an effective response for that particular situation. Even if your request is important and justifiable, you will have zero probability of success if no effective assertive response is possible. Take, for example, the situation in which a customer pushes in front of you in a store. In most cases an effective response is available: politely stating your position in line and pointing out the end of the line. If, however, the aggressive customer appears dangerous, you might choose to allow that person to go ahead of you to avoid the possibility of violence.

When your assertive request or behavior is important to you, justified, fair, specific and doable, delivered without anger and with consideration and respect for alternative positions, the chance for success will be increased. When learning assertiveness, individuals often make the mistake of waiting until they are angry to try out the new behavior. However, when you are truly angry it is difficult to plan and carry out assertive behavior without your anger showing. Assertive communication should open issues for discussion and two-way communication rather than attack-defense. If you are a previously passive individual attempting assertive behavior in situations where others have come to expect compliant behavior, note that others will be discomforted and displeased when they have been used to you always meeting their needs. This should not block your attempts at assertiveness; just realize that you will have to put longer-term effort into redressing the balance of power in your relationships.

An important strategy in developing assertiveness will be to think through the other person's rationale and position before you make your request. You will want to do this in any case when you are determining whether your request is important to you and justifiable. This process will also lead to a useful strategy in implementing your assertive request. That is, begin your assertive response with a discussion of the other person's position on the matter. This will simultaneously validate their position, create empathy toward you in your discussion and also obviate the need for them to state their position as soon as you have made your request. For example, when approaching your boss for a raise you could start by emphasizing the company policy of cost-effectiveness and graduated raises based upon employee productivity, then discuss your request from this perspective. The recipient of the request, in this case your boss, does not need to start his part of the discussion by outlining the company position, but instead will be more likely to engage in a specific discussion of your productivity and your requests. When you begin with this strategy, in most cases the discussion will focus on the details of your assertive request instead of a defensive or resistant response.

Another topic in this introduction to assertiveness is a consideration whether to set consequences as a part of your assertive request. If your request is not granted willingly, you can consider whether to add positive or negative consequences to your request. Praise and rewards work best of course. In the example about the raise, you might promise to work extra hard for the boss or even promise to exceed your work quotas. Alternatively, you may need to threaten to pursue other job offers if you do not receive the raise. (Be careful what you wish for, you may get your wish.)

Assertive behavior takes courage, skill and practice. If this discussion is not sufficient, an excellent resource is the Assertiveness Workbook by Randy Paterson, New Harbinger, 2000. The workbook analyzes in exhaustive detail various skills involved in developing assertiveness. A therapist or life coach can also be extremely helpful in assisting individuals in developing an individual plan for assertiveness.