Civility Tip of the Week: Be Assertive

I know what you’re thinking, “Assertive?!?! I thought this was a post about civility?”

Stay with me.

Assertiveness requires a level of honesty and clarity that can feel counter-intuitive to someone seeking to practice civility. So then, what does assertive civility look like?

When you are not afraid to convey what you think and how you feel, when you are firm about boundaries you do not want others to cross, and when you are comfortable asking for help, you are assertive.

When you are not matching rudeness for rudeness, when you are not overreacting to rude or inappropriate words or actions toward you from someone else, or when you are responding to the problem rather than attacking the person, you are civil.

Being assertive involves measured and clear communication establishing boundaries that promote and protect our well-being. And it includes responding to words or actions that have crossed established boundaries or threaten to do so.

In this way, being assertive is about self-respect. Respect for others is a foundational principle of civility, but respect for one’s own health, safety, and flourishing is also important. P.M. Forni, the author of Choosing Civility, writes, “Healthy attention to our needs does not conflict with the principle of respect for persons upon which civility is built. There is no doubt in my mind that assertiveness is part of the set of quiet but powerful interactive skills of civility.”

Practically speaking, assertiveness is about knowing when to say “yes”  to ourselves and when to say “no” to others.

Forni writes again, “This ‘No’ to others is nothing but a ‘Yes’ to ourselves and our needs. We can choose to say no because we are entitled to exercise control over our own expenditures of time and energy. It is our time; it is our energy; it ought to be our choice. By saying no to someone else and yes to ourselves, we aren’t taking something that belongs to others; we are simply keeping something that is right­fully ours. This is commonsensical, and yet it takes practice to transform it into second nature.”

Imagine the following scenario, you have a family member named Ron who is aware that another member of the family has said and done deeply hurtful things to you. However, during Ron’s frequent phone calls to you, he tells you about what’s going on with that hurtful family member including what they’ve done together socially. It makes you feel that your hurt and their harmful actions are unimportant to Ron.

Here is how a strong and effective assertive message might sound: “Ron, I appreciate you calling and generally enjoy our conversations. However, I know that you’re aware of the hurt and tension between me and (family member), so when you bring them into our conversations, it makes me feel that the hurt they’ve caused is unimportant to you. This makes it increasingly difficult to want to answer your calls. When we talk in the future, I’d rather not discuss anything related to (family member).”

This statement contains three essential elements of a good assertion:

  • Describe the behavior you find objectionable,
  • The Disclose the feelings stirred in you by the behavior
  • Name the behavior’s effects.

What To Expect Next

Typically, our first “no” is met with reactions ranging from disbelief to defensiveness to obstinance. This is when guilt trips will be attempted to get you to change your mind. What to do?

Say “no” again. Repeat.

If your “No” doesn’t discourage an obstinate and guilt-inducing boundary crosser the first time you utter it, then repeat it, again and again. It’s called the broken record strategy. It’s honest, it’s civil, and it works!

What other examples of civil assertion have you observed?

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