I read an article recently that defined Aggressiveness and Passivity as two ends of the Assertiveness Spectrum (Ames, Lee,& Wazlawek, 2017). I wonder, though, if assertiveness could be something altogether different. I believe something important is lost when the concepts of assertiveness and aggressiveness are confused.
While discussing the topic with a colleague at a local coffee house, she remarked on a black coffee mug with a big white ampersand (&) on it: “I really don’t get it, what that means.” She was surprised when I had a ready answer: “Its all about the ‘And.’ The symbol/word connects things like peanut butter & jelly; ideas like Liberty & Justice; and people, like you & me.”
I believe the concept of Assertiveness is like that; it’s not about who wins or loses, it’s not about who gets their way – you or me; rather it is all about how we can connect with others if we are willing to freely share our own thoughts and beliefs; AND if we can be receptive in a way that allows others to feel free to share their selves with us. In other words, if I am not willing to share what I think and want… I am being selfish (passive) – but if I stop there, only focusing on what I want, then I am not being assertive – I’m being aggressive – which is also selfish.
Let me explain.
When I counsel couples this topic comes up often. Many individuals are taught that to be assertive means they must stand up and fight for what they want, otherwise they will be taken advantage of by others – because they have learned “others” are generally selfish. The spouse on the receiving end will generally describe this behavior as “aggressive.” Other individuals have been taught the opposite; that if they ever disclose their desires to another they are being selfish – that making a request somehow represents a selfish act of demanding their own way. The spouse on the receiving end of this behavior generally describes it as “passive.” The theme that both behaviors share is an attempt to protect self. The aggressive communicator wishes to protect their interests and desired outcomes. Since the aggressive person’s focus is on their own needs and desired outcomes, without consideration of the other spouse, their behavior is focused on you OR me – which would be defined here as “selfish.” The passive communicator also wishes to protect self – most often from pain of an anticipated conflict or attack. However, because the passive person’s focus is to protect their own needs and desired outcomes (generally “absence of conflict”), and consideration of the other spouse is limited to how the knowledge can be used to keep the other spouse pacified – the behavior can also be categorized as selfish.
The question becomes – what is assertive?
In both aggressive and passive efforts, the focus is on the “OR.” For the aggressive communicator its “My way ‘Or’ they highway.” For the passive communicator it’s “Whatever you want, as long as we don’t have to fight. If it has to be your idea ‘Or’ mine, I’ll go with yours to keep the peace.”
In a healthy assertive conversation, the focus is on the “&.” Spouse A might say “I want to see an action movie.” And if the statement ended there it might be considered aggressive; but the spouse adds “what do you want to see?” Spouse B might say “I want to see a Comedy.”
In these statements both A and B are being assertive – saying what they want AND looking for common ground. They may end up watching an Action Comedy, or watching a Comedy this week with the sincere agreement to watch an Action film next week. Either way the focus is on the AND rather than the OR. Both learn about each other, respect each other, and then step into the experience of each other.
According to this definition, when spouses don’t share (what they really want or don’t want; their true selves), they would be acting self-ish-ly. What would be even more confusing would be their feelings of being controlled by the other (yes both the passive and aggressive person can feel controlled), when the power to have the life they want is in their own hands.
Please hear me – There ARE times when expressing what you really want is dangerous or even life threatening! Does that mean you are being selfish by keeping yourself safe? Absolutely Not! … as long as you take steps to get yourself into a safe environment.
If you would like more information on how to stop feeling controlled in relationships, and how to employ assertiveness in your life, or if you need information on how to get into a safe environment, contact us here at Spirit Counseling Centers – let us help.
Ames D, Lee A, Wazlawek A. (2017). Interpersonal assertiveness: Inside the balancing act. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2017:11:e12317. https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.1111/spc3.12317
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