An Assertive Person is not an Adversary

Speaking up for oneself in an assertive manner sometimes brings to mind the image of two people warily circling each other, fists raised, prepared to strike. Each person wants to get his/her way.

In fact, the most effective assertiveness is not adversarial at all. The most effective way of speaking up involves connecting with or joining in with the other person.

Without engaging in connecting, a person may use perfect assertive language and still be deeply involved in a power struggle. In the book, 'Getting to Yes,' Fisher and Ury call this "positional bargaining."

Imagine two people engaged in a tug of war. If they are equally strong, then neither of them will move as they pull against one another and both of them will grow very tired! Getting into a power struggle uses up a lot of energy and generally does not go anywhere.

Believing that the relationship is the most important aspect in assertive behavior is the cornerstone of joining with another person.

Connecting in the process of assertiveness involves three skills:

Expressing yourself with empathy

Looking for areas of agreement

Staying open to different options for mutual gain

Let's look at each of the above points:

***Expressing yourself with empathy***

Merriam Webster ( gives the following definition of empathy:

"the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this"

If my friend and I are working on a project together and we reach a point at which we need to negotiate about putting outside of work hours on the project, I might say: "We both have so many responsibilities outside of work. I know it must be hard for you to imagine our working past regular hours with children as young as yours."

The above statement represents my putting myself in the other person's shoes. He or she will feel more understood when I am empathic with his/her situation The chances are higher that we will come to an agreement about how to manage the extra work when empathy is expressed between us.

Empathy implies connection. When each of us is thinking about how the other feels, we are connecting to the other person and his/her life situation.

***Looking for areas of agreement***

We go farther in negotiation when we can determine what we agree on rather than get stuck in our disagreements. One way to discover areas of agreement is to listen well to the other person.

"It sounds like both of us agree that this is a high priority project."

Another way to find areas of agreement is to ask defining questions:

"So do you agree with me that there is so much work here that we will have to find a way to do it outside of regular business hours?"

Every time you find an area of agreement, an added bonus happens. The other person feels more connected to you and then is more willing to work with you!

***Staying open to options for mutual gain***

If you can see the other person as a resource and see ways that you can each help the other get to his/her goals, then you have the beginning of a good team.
You begin the process of determining mutual gain the minute this type of negotiation begins.

Brainstorming is the key to finding as many possible options for solving a problem. In brainstorming, each of you throws out ideas. Some may work and some may not be possible. The very act of brainstorming says that there are many options.

Once options are suggested, then the task is to sort out what options will lead to mutual gain. If you can join each other in this decision, then the negotiation has become a Win/Win situation and everyone goes away feeling good.

Leo Lionni wrote a children's book called 'Little Blue and Little Yellow.' The book is the story of two colors, Little Blue and Little Yellow. When they each come out to play together, they discover that they play best when they are connected.

In the joining they are no longer Little Blue and Little Yellow. Instead, their connected part, the part where they are mutually blended is a whole new color: Green!

?Copyright 1999 Linda D. Tillman. All rights reserved.

Author's Bio: 

Linda Tillman holds a Ph.D. in psychology from George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee and is a psychologist in private practice in Atlanta, Georgia. Linda has been teaching assertiveness training at the community education department of Emory University for 15 years.

Linda publishes a monthly newsletter: SpeakUpForYourself and her webpage can be found at

Linda D. Tillman, Ph.D.

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