As a clinical and consulting psychologist, I work with a variety of “presenting problems.” And most of them are ameliorated greatly by further development of two capabilities, assertiveness and honesty. If that sounds simplistic, be assured that each of these capabilities is multifaceted and the work of shaping them to achieve authentic expression in an individual person is anything but simple. Indeed, it’s messy, but more on that soon. First, let’s define these cardinal capabilities.
Assertiveness, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “characterized by bold or confident statements and behavior.” Okay, but this definition does little to distinguish it from aggressiveness, and making that distinction is fundamental to appreciating the cardinal importance of assertiveness as an essential feature of social-emotional maturity. I prefer to define assertiveness as speaking with transparency, as expressing with clarity and accuracy what we are experiencing to others, which we wish to have them hear and understand.
The Dictionary definition emphasizes directness, which could be interpreted to include “telling it like it is” or “giving them what for.” But those messages are different from assertiveness as a transparency. They convey bluntness, take on a scolding tone that makes an issue of others behavior rather than expressing one’s own experience. Even when our assertive message includes mention of what we would like to see change, i.e., “I would like feel more confident that my intentions and actions are properly understood before they are evaluated,” it does not make others the issue.
Here’s the rationale: We cannot reasonably expect to be understood by others if we are not communicating clearly and accurately to them what we are thinking, feeling, perceiving, and intending. To do this we do not need to speak boldly, nor must our display of confidence convey readiness for battle. The tonal qualities of your assertiveness versus mine may vary due to our personalities. Your’s might carry a bit more declarative force than mine, while mine is more softly spoken. But for both of us our primary aim is to communicate in a way that ensures understanding.
An aggressive tone may be appropriate after repeated efforts at being assertive do not produce the change we’re seeking: “Come on now, John, we’ve having this same conversation for two months; it’s time to resolve this issues!” If such an assertion is made after several non-aggressive attempts to reach a resolution, it conveys and understandable impatience that’s more likely to seem warranted. It calls out a pattern of interaction that’s not been working. And it invites parties to acknowledge this failure in communication so that they can address the problem more directly, and more honestly.
Referring again to Merriam-Webster, honesty is defined as “free from fraud or deception, legitimate and truthful, also as forthright and sincere expression.” And it is these qualities, especially truthfulness and sincerity, that I think of when I characterize assertiveness as transparency. But there is more to it. Honesty is also described by the Dictionary to include characteristics such as “direct and uncomplicated,” which are used to convey “simple, innocent, and sincere” motivations. There is an overriding intention to speak frankly, from the heart.
It is true that 2 + 2 = 4. But honesty expresses something beyond a veracity of logic. There are certain truths that may be difficult for us to accept about ourselves or a situation. The difficulty registers in emotions such as fear, anger, embarrassment, or uncertainty. And when these emotional aspects of our honesty-related experience are expressed, we recognize the air of sincerity and struggle involved. Working through difficult truths in all their complexity, and discovering what makes them difficult for us individually and as friends, family, and coworkers, that is a process that deepens trust.
There can be dishonesty of omission and of commission. Sincerity allows no space for either. It implies that our honesty is heartfelt and complete. And if we struggle for the words to express it, and if we come by the whole truth and full honesty only through lengthy dialogue, it is the consistency and earnestness of the intent that allows us to keep faith. We can sense that neither we nor others are trying to spin or conceal the simple truth. Masks and defenses fall away. This honesty is the natural partner of assertiveness.
If assertiveness contains an element of boldness - the strength of truth-telling - then it is a different virtue that distinguishes honesty as defined here. It’s a softer virtue, it’s the patience of truth-seeking and the compassion for those who take risks and reveal vulnerabilities in the process. One might make the case for assertiveness and honesty on prudential grounds - it makes good sense, fulfills our fiduciary duties. That’s fine, but I think these virtues are ultimately grounded in moral considerations, i.e., what is good, right, and proper as it applies to our conduct and our ends.
Joining the Virtues
An assertiveness that is factually grounded and rationally articulated can help get us to the heart of practical issues more quickly. Even when deployed with a restrained expression of emotion, it may produce more transparency and promote effective collaboration. It’s when relational dynamics become a more central part of our considerations - a depth of trust, a belief that we have one another’s back, that we are all in it together - that’s when the more emotionally vulnerable and morally grounded qualities of honesty must rally to the aid of assertiveness.
As I often tell clients about many of the topics I get involved with, these matters are just as important at home as they are at work. And we have more low-risk opportunities to cultivate honest assertiveness practices outside of work. So, seek out some risk-taking in assertiveness and honesty, and practice honest assertiveness in these safe places. Feel the discomfort that arises when we move outside the comfort of safe habits. Welcome this as an indication of productive risk-taking from which much can be learned.