Up until this point, I have been focusing on how not to deal with an issue. The problem that always comes with telling people what not to do is that it leads people to believe they are told to do nothing, leaving them helpless and unable to handle the world. That fear is especially relevant to the issue of aggression. Aggressive people assume aggression in everyone. When you challenge their aggressive behaviors they interpret that as being told they need to give up and force themselves to be passive and subservient to people who just can’t handle what it takes to live in the world as they see it. Many may even want to be less aggressive, but they simply don’t know how because the aggression is all that they have ever known, resulting in aggressive and passive mixes. Because of this, the discussion on aggression needs to include a new direction and set of behaviors to replace the aggressive behaviors. This is where we begin to talk about assertiveness.
Assertiveness is the true alternative to aggression. According to Michel and Fursland, assertiveness are the beliefs and behaviors that focus on balancing needs of both yourself and others. Assertiveness is the use of honest self expression, empathy, de-escalation, collaboration, and problem solving to get needs met and handle difficult situations. Assertive people are not passive, they are actively handling situations. Assertive people are also not aggressive, they are looking to respect everyone’s rights, including their own. In extreme cases, they use proactive measures to address situations before they reach a point where violence would become an option.
Assertive people differ from the aggressive and passive people in that they do not assume aggression in others. Assertive people, instead, don’t assume the motives of others, but seek to have people express their needs and then empathize and humanize everyone involved. If there is a set of behaviors the assertive people oppose, the assertive people try to find the need that is driving the behavior and have it met in more productive and less violent ways. The only assumption that is being made is that people are people, and try to build off that common humanity.
Assertive people are problem solving oriented, in contrast to being blame oriented. For the assertive person, it’s not a matter of who is wrong, the issue is to address what is wrong. Even if the problem is due to an individual’s behavior that needs to change, the focus is not on attacking the person at fault, the focus is on helping him or her to correct the behavior at fault. Skills training is an important intervention for the assertive because it provides the tools that allow people to meet their needs through new behaviors. The issue is not one of blame, but one of responsibility and change. Aggressive people don’t make personal attacks or engage in shaming behaviors. They work to identify the reasons why a problem exists, work to apply empathy to motivate people to change, and provide new skills to enable that change.
Assertive people balance internal and external focus. Changing the environment that promotes a negative behavior or restrains a positive behavior is just as important as getting a person to want to change. The assertive person will compromise to make changes on his part as a contributor to the environment if it means getting the desired change from someone else. The assertive person will take responsibility for his or her contributions to a problem while still holding other people responsible for their contributions. The assertive person does not force unilateral change he or she wants, but rather collaborates to be a partner in a change that helps everyone.
Finally, Assertive people understand the differences between fact and opinion. Assertive people know that facts are absolute and externally verifiable, that beliefs and opinions are subjective and malleable, and emotions are based off of subjective experience and beliefs. They know their emotions are real and need to be validated, but that they also know they are the result of a limited perspective and information. As such, emotional reactions are not seen as “wrong” or “bad,” even if they are the result of erroneous information. Rather they are valid reactions to the information that a person has at the time, and can be changed when the beliefs behind them are challenged with more accurate or more inclusive information. Because of this, assertive people will also check their own feelings, and seek out alternative ways of understanding a situation before committing to any belief or feeling on a situation. Assertive people can debate, and defend their arguments confidently. The arguments that are made are based on presenting facts and evidence, and opinions are framed as hypothesis to be tested. Logical fallacies, such as attacking a person’s character (ad hominem) or the use of ridicule or sarcasm (reducto ad absurdum) are rejected because of their aggressive and passive-aggressive characteristics. Assertive people will also report their own feelings and beliefs, because it is a fact that they hold a certain belief or experience a certain emotion, while also understanding their subjective quality. They do not assume the thoughts or feelings of another, because even though those thoughts and feelings can be hypothesized, they cannot be known for certain unless verbalized by the other person. Assertive people will use “I statements,” such as “I feel,” “I would like,” “it is my belief” or “it is my experience that,” when addressing problems instead of statement aimed at the other person like “your feeling of, “ “you did this,” etc.