One of the most significant underlying assumptions that many people internalize is, “I must avoid conflict at all costs; if I let others know what I think and feel, I might get disappointed and hurt.” However, “sweeping things under the rug” tends to eventually magnify unresolved interactions and events. Resentment, which looms on the other side of our passive behavior, clouds our confidence and judgment.
I define assertiveness as expressing one’s needs and wants in a way that does not intentionally hurt others’ feelings. Many of us spend an inordinate amount of energy avoiding the process of telling others what we specifically want from them. As a result, we carry around negative energy as we seethe over what we are missing in our relationships. A friend of mine told me that there is nothing admirable about avoiding hurt. Sometimes emotional pain is an inevitable byproduct of making difficult decisions that involve honest emotional expressiveness. I am amused at couples who proudly proclaim that they never argue or fight but nevertheless find their relationship in jeopardy. Insulating themselves from the inevitability of conflict provides partners with refuge from everyday struggles. However, intimacy requires emotional expressiveness, and many couples either lack the skills or desire to confront life’s problems.
Managing conflict is a process that is uncomfortable for most of us. Many of us have had no role models for understanding how to constructively fight or emerge from conflict to closure. We may have watched our parents suffer in silence and witnessed the resentment that characterized their relationship. Our parents may have used sarcasm, nagging, or open hostility when problems got to the boiling point. They may have danced around issues like two stallions circling each other in a corral. We may have learned to thwart our feelings in response to our parents’ passive-aggressive style of relating.
Many of us are able to confront people and issues in our business life appropriately. We often can assert ourselves with our business colleagues, but feel lost in communicating honestly and openly with those closest to us. We wonder why there is a disconnect between our work persona and our way of communicating at home. The difference exists because it is more frightening to be vulnerable with our loved ones than it is with our business associates. There is more “on the line” with those we care about and therefore we may avoid facing the emotional ramifications of being upfront.
In order to be assertive, we must let go of the power of others’ approval or disapproval. At times, all of us may be afraid to share our deepest needs, wants, and feelings because of the negative reaction we might anticipate from others. We may assume that our friends will judge us for being authentic. In the 1970’s, Father John Powell of Loyola University in Chicago reflected on this dilemma in a book, Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? None of us are comfortable with the feeling of being vulnerable, although it seems that the most confident people are those who can allow themselves to be fragile when necessary.
I often tell people to think of assertiveness the way television detective Colombo responded during his investigations. Occasionally he would respond by saying, “Help me understand something, sir? By the way, can you run that by me once again?” Assertiveness involves respecting and valuing the promotion of understanding. I like to call it non-evaluative exploration. This process involves learning to create dialogue, with true appreciation for differences in opinion. It may also mean learning to say no or setting boundaries that are acceptable and not being manipulated into changing them. It may mean the possibility of getting a negative counter-reaction from others and learning to accept their disapproval. The courage to confront means respecting oneself enough to stand firm on what you want and think without getting caught up in the burden of others’ feelings.
There is a price to pay for discounting one’s emotional feelings. A number of years ago I heard author M. Scott Peck present to a group of mental health professionals in Chicago. He talked about having chronic neck pain and how troublesome the condition was. After many medical tests, and self-reflection, he came to the conclusion that his problem was primarily a metaphor for his life-long pattern of avoidance. Rather than trying to fix everyone else’s problems, he needed to learn to “stick his neck out” and finally face the courage to confront. Appropriately confronting people and events can be accomplished by promoting understanding through non-evaluative exploration. Through this process, individuals and couples can learn to get closure on issues that affect their everyday living.