Feeling Drained? Manage Your Energy by Being More Assertive
Rachel: Good afternoon everyone and welcome to today’s webinar titled ‘Feeling Drained? Manage Your Energy by Being More Assertive’! We are very fortunate to have Marjorie Nichols as our presenter.
Ms. Nichols is a licensed clinical social worker and she has provided behavioral health care for over 30 years. She graduated from Eastern Illinois University with an Undergraduate Major in Psychology and Health Education. She holds a Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Illinois, and has served as a field instructor for the University of Texas at Arlington for Social Work Interns.
In her capacity as an Employee Assistance Program counselor, Corporate Director of EAP Systems and Director of Provider Networks, she has written and facilitated seminars and workshops for numerous organizations.
So without further delay, Marjorie, I will turn things over to you.
Marjorie Nichols: Thank you Rachel! And thank you all for attending this webinar today on assertiveness!
So I work with many people in my private practice that really struggle with being effective as a communicator, and so often when I discuss with a patient a conversation that they had that went south, I ask them, how did you feel about the way you managed it? And they respond in usually one or two ways. The first is, oh, I wish I had spoken up for myself; or conversely, secondly, they say I regret what I said and now I wonder if I have lost that friendship, or I am worried my boss might fire me.
Well, then I begin to discuss how to become a more effective communicator. The goal of which is to be more assertive. The results being, having more manageability of their life, less stress, more calm.
Most people want those outcomes, but often they are more inclined to avoid confrontation. Many people believe that the word confrontation equals pain, arguments, fights. So many people I work with are leery of changing, often because they believe that they will come off as harsh, difficult or abrasive. Others, the ones that regret what they have said respond to me by saying, I thought I was being assertive and then that other person got mad at me, what's wrong?
Well, can you relate to anything I have said so far? If so, stay with us, because I am going to move you through a similar process that I do with my clients. You see, I understand my clients’ confusion, so towards the goal of clearing up any confusion as to what the differences are between those communication styles, I will do that for you, as I do with the people that I work with in my private practice.
I will explain the disparity between the three forms of communication. I will begin to tell you some of the outcomes of becoming more assertive, the benefits if you will. And I will go into more depth for you all. And as with my patients, I then begin to teach them strategies to become more assertive, and in turn restore energy.
Now, communication ranges from one end of a continuum to another. So when I am working with people often what I do is I turn an 8x10.5 inch piece of paper horizontally, and I draw a line on the page, and I mark one end as passive, and at the other end aggressive, and there in the center, between passivity and aggression lies assertiveness; that enviable trait that encompasses personal integrity, honesty, and communicating in a direct, honest style, where both parties feel respected and listened to.
So still hold on to that image of the line that I have drawn through the center of the page from left to far right. Those ends again representing passivity and aggressiveness, and in the middle is assertiveness. When I label assertiveness in the center I often draw a circle and I explain the circle gives an opportunity to choose.
There are times when we need to be more assertiveness and times that we just avoid or we let go of being assertive because it just doesn't matter. When we choose not to be assertive, we are able to let go of any regret we might have had in the past of, oh, I wish I had said this or that. We have made a decision to just let go and that is also part of being assertive.
Now, some of my clients say, once I have explained this to them they say, oh, it's sort of like choosing your battles, right? Well, I might argue that becoming more assertive is not about battling; it's about saying what you mean and respecting others while expressing yourself. No real battle there, but for some speaking up can be a battle.
So then I explain to people who are working at becoming more assertive that people who are assertive are attracted to others, because they know where they stand with that assertive person, that there is no hidden agenda. They are the real deal.
In contrast is the person that is aggressive. They want what they want. They express their feelings and their beliefs in a style that leaves the listener feeling bullied, badgered, steamrolled. In contrast to the assertive style that takes into account the rights of others, the aggressive person violates the rights of others.
Now, at the other end of the continuum from the aggressive person is the passive communicator. Whereas we might use steamroller to describe the aggressive communicator, we might use a doormat as a metaphor to describe the passive person, one that does not express themselves in an effective manner. They are not expressing honest feelings, thoughts or beliefs.
Passive communication is ineffective, therefore this style allows others to violate someone who acts and communicates passively. People who use this form of communication are conflict averse. Because of this apprehension they seldom get their wishes or needs met, which can, and often does result in feelings of anger, agitation, anxiety, helplessness, and sometimes depression.
Now, a more subtle form of this style is the person that uses tentative language. And I often catch my clients struggling with this form of tentative language, and I point it out to them and they begin to understand what they are doing that is sending a message that they are not standing on sound ground, if you will.
So let me give you a couple of examples of tentative language. One would be, well, if you think it would be okay maybe we could -- maybe, if you like, we could do it this way perhaps, or, and this is often what I hear from couples in my practice, and usually it's one person complaining to the other that the other person is not clear as to what he or she really wants, and so sometimes I hear something like this. Well, I wish the house was tidier for our guests. And the person that hears that says it feels like I am being guilted. I don't know really what is being asked of me. So listen to what you hear in these examples.
And we move on to the comparison between assertive and aggressive behavior. We thought this would be helpful to aid in clearing up some confusion for any of you that want more clarity.
So an example of an assertive communicator who is asking for help from their partner might sound like this. “Steve, I want you to know how much I appreciate your hard work in getting the house picked up for my parents the last time they were here. They will be coming back into town next week on Tuesday. I would like to ask your help in making the house presentable. It's always a stressful time when they come because I worry about their comfort. I love it when we work together to get the house done”.
Now, let's consider how an aggressive person might sound. “My parents will be here soon. You can’t pick up after yourself. You are a slob. I don’t want them to know the kinds of living conditions that you are willing to live in”.
Okay, so you can hear the difference between the two, right? The one, the assertive person, begins with complimenting the other, letting them know that they are appreciated, loved and respected. Then gives facts, dates, times, as mentioned, as well as an end goal, which is clearly stated, and lastly, what is wanted, a clean house in which they both work towards the goal of making that happen, maybe enjoying themselves while they are doing it and reducing the stress level.
Well then, we have the aggressive person who was, what, disrespectful, biting, abrasive, unkind. In other words, nothing gets accomplished for both parties, because they leave the situation feeling a level of anger.
Now let's take the same scenario and consider how the passive person might communicate in the same situation. So that would perhaps sound something like this. Oh Steve, I meant to mention this to you but I forgot. My parents are coming and I am so very sorry I didn't tell you. I guess I will just put off sleep tonight and pick up, because you know how angry they get when the house looks as bad as it does right now.
Okay, if I was facing all of you the first question I would ask you is, how did that feel to you? I would assume some of you felt pretty manipulated by that. Passive people put things off. They avoid taking on discussions where they believe there might be a conflict or they are concerned that the other person might have bad feelings. So in this case this person might feel as though Steve may not want the parents there and so it’s an imposition for Steve and so they didn’t let Steve know ahead of time and then are going to run around on the ninth hour to get things done.
The passive person seldom reaches their own goals, in part because they do not know what really matters to them; often because they are too busy trying to please other people.
Well, moving on to the enviable traits of assertiveness. I want to list the benefits and first I want to highlight the most rewarding benefit of moving toward and becoming more assertive, that of increased self-esteem, moving towards greater empowerment.
If you are not able to assert yourself in an appropriate situation, people often feel diminished. Long-term outcomes of that can be, and I think I have mentioned some of those to you; anxiety, resentment, feeling it over and over and over again, and sometimes depression.
Second benefit is that of garnering greater respect from others and then respect for yourself. Overall, as we increase our assertiveness skills, we improve our communication skills, because we are more direct. We don't beat around the bush. We are direct in what we want.
Now, in my work as a couple’s counselor we work at becoming more effective with communicating what we want, what we need, and how we can be in a collaborative partnership. Being in a long-term relationship is challenging, right? Its challenges mount when one or both people in the relationship are not honest. You might think of yourself as an honest person; it’s just that you don't want to hurt your partner’s feelings so you stay quiet when there is a mess, when you are not feeling supported, when you are not being helped.
Healthy relationships grow when we can resolve conflict. It’s when those conflicts don't get discussed, managed, resolved that we become more unhappy, more stressed or anxious and depleted. Embracing the tenets of actions at becoming more assertive give us back our time, manageability and energy.
So what happens when we don't direct our lives, when we are victims to silence as a passive communicator or bullies, if we are reactive, when we react in aggressive ways? Well, either form, passive or aggressive, renders people in a struggle of disliking themselves, questioning their competencies and their confidence. When our self-esteem is shaken the results, as I mentioned before, are losses; losses of intimacy, friendships and energies.
Behind most mood disorders, that of anxiety and depression, I find a poor communicator, one who is either fearful of saying what they mean or one that bulldozes over others. The outcome is often the same, no friends, end of relationships, loss.
Now, when working with people I ask them, what gets in the way of you becoming more assertive, and I receive the following answers; I am not sure what I want is legitimate. Maybe what I want isn’t as important as what someone else wants.
Now, what I find is stress plays a very big role in this functional communication. Often for the person that ends up sounding aggressive, it arises from unmanaged stress.
Think of it this way, let’s talk about Joan. Joan is working hard on several deadlines, gets a call from her mother who wants to chat about the neighbor’s barking dog. And as her mother continues with her story, Joan gets two IMs asking for more information on one of the three projects she is working on. And then gets a ping on her cellphone from the daycare center, calling her that her son is running a fever and must be picked up.
Joan then hears her mom’s voice asking, well, what do you think I should do? And Joan, well, Joan could have taken a deep breath or maybe three. She could have reminded herself that she loves her mother and that her mother is lonely and just wants to talk. But that's not what Joan does.
Joan shrieks into the phone, mother, I have no time for stupid dog stories and hangs up. Joan gathers up her work, jumps into the car and picks up her son, and finds herself drenched in sweat, feeling awful for talking to her mother like that.
That’s a fairly common story that I hear in working with people that tend to not manage their stress and then react in what we might refer to as an aggressive matter.
Now, stress also impairs the use of our executive functioning, and it can cause us to become speechless, unable to take care, or rather take on our cause, rendering us at a loss of words, thoughts, decision making ability.
Many of you listening can remember a time when you wished you had said something at the time. You leave the situation and regret. In fact, you begin to review the situation and begin to think of all the things you could have said if you hadn’t been so stressed out, so panicked, so tongue-tied, so intimidated, fill in the blank.
For others, the fear of losing a friend, defending a supervisor, being rejected by a coworker keeps someone from expressing a feeling, an opinion.
Examine your belief systems; have you emerged from a belief that others matter more than you, that you are not worthy enough to assert yourself? Once you determine what your obstacles are, then what I do with people is we start to roll up our sleeves and begin to apply strategies to becoming more assertive.
Because many people avoid addressing concerns, desires, needs and wants directly, the only way we can become assertive is to practice saying what you mean and mean what you say, and say it in a way that reflects your own personal integrity, while respecting the other person.
Additionally, set boundaries; when we set a boundary we demonstrate to others how we wish to be treated. It’s a line we draw which reflects our integrity. Included in setting a boundary is learning to say no and letting go of the associated guilt that saying no might cause us.
Guilt steals our time, it wreaks havoc on our self-esteem and causes us to feel depleted and diminished. So when practicing, practice saying no and practice saying no to guilt. Becoming assertive does not necessarily mean that you are going to get what you want. I so often explain this to people in my practice, but what I do say to them if you don't get what you want you have the ability to put your voice on your thoughts, on your feelings, which is in itself empowering. So sometimes the best we can get is to agree to disagree.
So challenge number 1 of 3: The challenge that I have for you all, the first one, is over the next couple of weeks, make a note when you speak up, when you address a concern that you’ve had, when you take on a conflict instead of avoiding it. The reason I ask you to do this is when we start anything new, like walking for instance, we mark our progress, we might walk one mile a day, three days a week for the first couple of months but after a year we might be celebrating walking 10 miles a day. When you pay attention to the changes you are making in your communication, you increase your self-esteem, you see your progress, and in turn you feel better about yourself.
Also, make note of when you decide not to assert yourself. That too is your assertive right that of letting go. What I want you to do in these cases is just to do that and let go and not beat yourself up for not taking it on, not dealing with the conflict, because there are some times with some situations, events, and people that I too choose not to be assertive, but the difference is I don’t guilt myself afterwards, with the – oh, I wish I had said that phenomenon.
The three As will be an effective tool for you as well. They are Alter, Avoid, or Accept certain circumstances. So what do we mean by that? Now, sometimes we are not able to comply with somebody’s request completely. What we do have is an opportunity to offer an alternative, an adjustment. So for example, if somebody says, I would like you to help me on this all day on Saturday, but you know you can’t. You may be able to respond by saying, I can't give you eight hours on Saturday, but I could give you four. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that the other person is going to be happy about it, but you’ve altered the situation and you basically offered them an alternative.
If someone asks you to do something on Tuesday and you can't do it, you could say, well, Tuesday I am not available but I do have some time on Wednesday. Look at ways that you can alter situations, have both parties feel involved and pretty good about it. Sometimes we have to avoid things. I will use myself as an example. I've been asked to speak intermittently at local professional groups which do take hours of my time to prep and deliver with no remuneration. Since I'm pretty sure about what my priorities are which includes time to do my work, time to be with my family and also rest and relaxation. It’s easy for me to decline these offers because the time and the effort that I would have to put into it does not support my goals or values at this time.
Finally, we have to accept things in life that we cannot change. The simple aspect we obviously have to accept our own aging process. Sometimes we have to go to a meeting that we don't want to go to. Sometimes we have to finish a report that we really don't like working on. The reality is in our life we have to accept certain things as inevitable and not fight everything.
So challenge number two, the next challenge. Go for the next couple of weeks. Determine which situations you need to accept and change the way you will look at it, when we change the way we look at things and things we look at change.
So by that I mean that rather than being angry that you have to attend a meeting that you believe is a waste of time, choose a different way of interpreting that. An example might be, well, while attending this meeting I'll challenge myself to find two ideas in the discussion that I can learn from. I will listen and I'll include my thoughts when it's relevant, and I will be thankful for the meeting invite because it suggests that I am a value to this process. Hope that's helpful. Hope that explains about a different way of interpreting a situation.
So, we have challenged you to practice to let go, to say no to eliminate your guilt, to use the three As, let's move to the language of assertiveness.
Often we tend to use “you” statements. John, you're always late for meeting. Sofia, you are always complaining, whining, backstabbing or Millie, your room is always a mess.
When we will use a “you” statement, it tends to create defensiveness in other people. Can you think of a relationship with a parent to child, your partner and can you hear yourself using some of these statements? No, again, if I was facing you all, I might ask you, what happens when you use those “you” statements? And I would expect some of you to say, well, an argument usually ensues.
If we use “I” statements or even “we” statements, we increase the chances that communication will go more smoothly because if we use “you” statements, people often feel threatened.
Secondly, I want you to consider avoiding all exaggerations or absolute statements such as, you will never do anything around here. You will never help out, or as the one I used earlier. Millie, your room is always a mess. Absolutes or exaggerations are real conversation stoppers. Absolutes and exaggerations do not invite collaboration.
Examples of engaging in solutions and in effective communication might go something like this.
John, when you are late for a meeting I have to repeat what has been said. Additionally, I missed your valuable inputs. In the future I would like you to be here on time.
Or another example, Samantha, when you help me clear the table, rinse the dishes and load the dishwasher. We both have more time to spend together reading, playing a board game, watching a movie, let's make this happen.
Much is said through our body language. In fact, it's estimated that over 80% of the way that we communicate is done through eye contact, both voice tone, our body, our facial expressions, nodding our head and so on; pay attention to what your body says, is it congruent with your words?
Examples of this might be saying, yes, yes, I understand when you just told me. But you are gritting your teeth, your shoulders are tense and they are up to your ears and your body is turned to the door exhibiting. I am angry at your request, and I have no intention of doing what it is you’ve just asked me and I'm halfway out the door.
So, toward that goal of becoming more assertive, look at the state of your body language, make and maintain eye contact, stand erectly, use a calm even tone. If we deescalate, then the other person naturally deescalates; if we escalate, the other person does escalate, be firm and hold your ground.
Your third challenge is to make a list of responses you can use to situations of people that have caused you to either clam up or explode in the past. An example of this when something asked you to do something and you don’t have time instead of responding and declining we react either with frustration and therefore we get angry or we shut down and become passive. So it's important to script some of your responses. I would write them down and save them for when you need them.
An example of this might be, if someone asks you to do something you could say, hey, you called me at a bad time. I will need to check my other commitments and deadline, so can I get back to you later today or tomorrow? Another example would be, yes, I can do that, but I am working on something else now, and this will delay me on another project. That would be a good example to use with your supervisor. If you want to put it like this, I would love to, but my time is already committed.
So what I would suggest is that you do write down a go-to list of some sayings that you want to practice, so that you are not caught off guard when someone asks you to do something and you don't have time to do it. You might be saying to yourself, no, I don’t want to do that. I am going to remember a couple of the tips and strategies she gave me on that webinar but that might be going to take time to script this.
Well, let me tell you something, you are far more likely to forget what I have said at a time in which you fail in a stressful situation in which you would normally clam up or become aggressive. Secondly, if you do write down a go-to list, you are far more likely to use it in the future rather than to default into old behavior.
So I hope you will use the tools I have reviewed with you, which in turn will help you lower your stress level and increase your self-esteem.
In summary, you now should be able to determine the differences between all three forms of communication. You know that using assertiveness is a tool that will improve your well-being and will deliver to you more time and energy because you will no longer be putting out fires caused by your own and old ineffective communication styles. Give yourself the gift of time in practicing these enviable traits, practice and chart your progress.