“So what does assertive spirituality look like?’ A friend helpfully said when I was telling her about the idea I had for this new blog. “Does it look like a good thwack over the head?”
That’s when it occurred to me that I might want to start things by defining assertiveness for my prospective blog readers.
So here it is, dear friends: “Assertiveness,” say Gloria J. Galanes & Katherine Adams in Effective Group Communication: Theory and Practice, “refers to communication behavior that reflects respect for yourself as well as other group members.”
“Assertive [group] members,” they continue, “Are both clear and direct, and also sensitive to others. In contrast to aggressors and passive members, assertive members disagree openly and explain why. Even more important, they try hard to understand the perspectives and ideas of the other members so they can help find a mutually satisfactory solution” (14th edition, p. 120).
So there it is, at least one definition of assertiveness.
Not that it’s at all that simple.
I know that well. See, I’m a recovering avoider-accommodator when it comes to conflict. On my slow journey in to studying and teaching and writing about stress, trauma, and conflict communication, I’ve spent years unpacking a good many nuances of assertiveness.
But I haven’t just been thinking about assertiveness. I’ve been working hard to live my way into what I think it might really mean. Both planning ahead and adjusting in the moment to apply it to different situations. Those in my teaching. Those in my writing. Those in my relationships. Seeking to live it into my bones until it hopefully finally comes naturally, even when the chips are down and assertiveness is necessary but risky.
I’ve learned that assertiveness is not giving up your own needs or those of others. And it’s not about trying to take full control over others. The goal, as I see it, is to balance your needs, the needs of others, and the needs of the situation at hand as well as possible in a given moment. And I’ve realized that often looks different in different situations.
And here’s where I assertively disagree with Galanes & Adams a bit: I know from my experiences that assertiveness won’t always look clear or direct, or sensitive. Especially not to other parties. Especially not if you’re speaking truth to power. The thing is, that to some others disagreement will always feel like a threat, like aggressiveness. To others, some versions and aspects of it may always look weak and passive. (To be fair, Galanes & Adams do suggest that assertiveness lies on a continuum. They just don’t emphasize the power dynamics as much as I’ve recognized them.)
At any rate, if you’re being assertive, in my view, you recognize that it’s not healthy to think you can control the world entirely. But it’s important to remember you do have a sphere of influence. If you’re assertive, you seek to use that influence as much as is reasonable, ideally for the good of both your needs and those of others. And being appropriately open to the influence of others often makes the best sense, and makes for the best relationships as well (though there are no guarantees with that last part).
Anyway, that’s what I’m defining as assertiveness here. Hang in there for the next part of the series to find out how I connect it to spirituality, as well as some definitions of the type of experience and dialogues I hope to have on this site.
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