When most people think of assertiveness, the image that comes to mind is the “assertive” competitive businessman who relentlessly pushed his ideas on those around him, bullying them into accepting the direction he wants to go and in the process ignoring whatever they might want or need. That image aligns with the distinctly-American vision of the “self-made man,” and it’s reinforced by books like the 1980’s classic, “Looking Out for Number One.”
A person who is focused on getting what they want and need regardless of how it affects others might be revered as an assertive “shark” or “barracuda” on Wall Street. However, assertiveness is in fact something quite different. at least the way we use the term here at The Human Potential Center. True, an assertive person is keenly aware of their own feelings, wants, needs, hopes and desires, but their awareness extends beyond that. They are also tuned into what’s going on with the other people around them, and that allows them to seek a solution to any problem that is truly win-win. They realize that others don’t have to lose in order for them to win, in the same way that they don’t have to lose in order for others to win.
So genuine assertiveness looks and feels vastly different from the aggressive, greedy selfishness that often masquerades as assertive in the American psyche. It also produces a vastly more beneficial result, not only for others, but even for the assertive person as well. That’s right: as counterintuitive as it seems, we are more likely to get what we want by being assertive than we are by being pushy and aggressive. And the fact that most people are unaware of that fact has caused untold suffering, because people often believe that they can’t get what they need in any other way than by being pushy. And when people are pushy, in the long run everybody loses.
Genuine assertiveness has been a decades-long learning process for me, since my tendency is towards acting passively, rather than assertively (or aggressively, for that matter). Assertiveness is such a key component of effective relationships that I developed a workshop series around the topic, “How to be Assertive and Loving Too.”
The next series starts tomorrow night, and I’m looking forward to it because it’s such a great reminder for me: I always seem to surprise myself by realizing that I’ve been acting passively or aggressively in some situation or other, when I could have been acting assertively instead. It reminds me of that old V-8 commercial where somebody slaps their forehead and exclaims, “I could have had a V-8!” I kind of wake up in class and realize, “I could have been assertive!” 🙂