Tools for Assertion

by Joseph de Rivera


There are tools for assertion that allow us to get what we need without harming others.

Tools for assertion

When we don’t like how another person is acting we tend to judge them. Thus, we may think they are stupid, inconsiderate, a slob, or bossy, etc. If we don’t say anything they will keep behaving in ways that offends us, yet if we tell them that we “feel” they are stupid, inconsiderate, bossy, etc. they will become hurt or defensive. How can we tell them without making them defensive? It is often helpful if we tell them how we actually feel. The “feeling” that they are stupid, etc. is not really our feeling. It is a judgment about how they are behaving. We are really feeling hurt, or angry, or jealous, envious, or some other unpleasant feeling. We don’t want to feel it and we may be afraid to express it. Yet if we can tell how we feel and use what Elliot Aronson’s calls “straight talk”—that is openly stating our own feelings and concerns rather than judging, blaming, or ridiculing the other—we may find that the other will willingly change their behavior so that we feel better. This is particularly true when we are in an intimate relation with a friend or lover who cares about us, and where our failure to share how we actually feel can easily lead to miscommunication and more hurt feelings. In these situations straight talk is obviously cared for. However, straight talk can be much more difficult than making judgments. Because feelings are facts about ourselves so that when we share how we feel we are vulnerable and can be hurt. Although our feelings are not necessarily true in the sense of being called for by the reality of our situation, they require respect and we can be injured when they are ignored or subjected to ridicule. Thus, authenticity requires a vulnerability that is not involved when we judge others and make an untested conjecture about them, so when we share how we feel it can
be a gift instead of a judgmental assault. Although there are a number of situations where genuine straight talk seems inappropriate, Marshal Rosenberg has developed a method of nonviolent communication that is similar to straight talk and may be used in many situations.

Nonviolent communication can help us to say what it is we want instead of withdrawing from a situation we don’t like or behaving in a way that is violent. When a person does something that we don’t like or doesn’t do something we would like, it may be important for us to say something. We may want to tell them to stop, or that we don’t like what they are doing, yet not say anything because we are afraid of being hurt or hurting the other or imposing their ideals on others. Consequently, many people don’t speak up. But if nothing is said the other may not realize they are bothering anyone or think that you approve of what they are doing. What is the best way of saying something? Telling someone them what they should do is probably not a good idea because it is judgmental and provokes resistance. In fact, in Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg argues that the problem lies in our thinking in terms of what people should do rather than asking for what would meet our own needs. When we think about what a person should do we are making a judgment, so Rosenberg suggests that we would be much more effective if we simply ask for what we need from the other person. He suggests that we make an observation rather than a judgment and then try and say how we feel and what we need, followed by a straight forward request rather than a demand.

Of course, this can be difficult to do and he outlines a four step procedure:

1. Make a specific observation rather than a judgment. For example, “You just left the door open” rather than “you shouldn’t leave the door open” or “you always leave the door open”.

2. Say how this makes you feel. For example, “I feel hurt,” rather than “you are being inconsiderate”

3. Share what you need. “I need to be warm” or “I need to be taken care of”

4. Make a specific request for what will satisfy your need. For example, “Would you please remember to shut the door?”

Of course, many of us think that people should do all sorts of things—drive slowly when there are children around, be considerate, etc. We have norms about how people should behave. However, these norms are developed to meet needs and if the norms are imposed they drain the life out of behavior and fail to meet needs. We have ideals, but we know that we cannot force our ideals on others. However, we can ask for what we need. Of course, we may strongly feel that someone should not do something or should do something, and we may become quite angry when they do not. However, our anger or upset is probably stemming from our own needs not being met.

This is not to say that our needs are not important. They are important. But if one realizes that what is involved is about our needs rather than the way everyone should do things one may simply ask for what one needs. One is much more likely to get ones needs met. There are obvious limits to the practicality of nonviolent communication. Sometimes we may decide to abandoning a relationship, or to use the police force. But it certainly seems to be an excellent procedure for many situations.

[Reference: Marshal Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication]