One of the more familiar ways of characterizing assertiveness is by differentiating it from aggressiveness and passivity (table below). Assertiveness is also described in terms of its proper uses in self-advocacy and the resolution of conflict. In those discussions of assertiveness, we hear about how inhibitions or defensiveness can interfere with assertive styles of expression. That’s all important and valuable information. But I’ll forgo those treatments of the subject in favor of painting a positive picture of how the proper expression of emotions, values, and authenticity can generate a kind of transparency essential to assertiveness. It’s an approach that makes the task of assertive communications easier, more natural.
Quite simply, the most direct path to uninhibited assertion of our true experience is the free expression of our feelings. Because we first know what is important – what we are attracted to, offended by, and care most about – through our feelings. They’re intuitive feelings, felt ways of knowing, less abstract, more immediate. The meaning of this experience arises and registers in a context.
It’s not yet articulate conceptual knowledge. Still, it’s potential to become such can be recognized by others. For they too have had such feelings that compel their attention and demand to be examined. But it’s incumbent upon us to articulate the meaning of this intuitively felt experience if we are to share it and make it known to others. That, of course, is the function of dialogue, to coax expression of intuitive knowledge.
Of course, some situations are more consequential than others, so when is it most critical to express our felt sense of things? It’s when we feel that something important is at stake. It’s when we feel the presence of a value. And that takes us to the next step toward asserting felt meaning.
I define values for our present purposes quite simply and by reference to the Oxford Dictionary: In singular form value means, “The regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something;” and in plural usage, values signify values, “principles or standards of behavior one's judgement of what is important in life.”
Recent philosophical treatment of values,[i] in this sense, suggests that people (not things) are the bearers of value through our beliefs and actions. Our values are historically shaped by culture and experience, but some values, like the “sacredness of the person,” dignity, and basic human rights seem universal in their claims upon us, even as we enact them differently across cultures.
Reflectively clarifying the values that underlie our feelings, sometimes first individually, but also together in dialogue helps us understand the “why” and power of our “strong evaluations,”[ii], those that arouse our emotions. Often the words to express our feelings and values come slowly – it requires patience.
Revealing our experience, even as we’re seeking to understand what it’s telling us (it’s meaning) takes courage. For in the process of disclosing our experience more freely, we reveal that we do not have all the answers, or the justifications and explanations, for feeling as we do. Nevertheless, we are able to trust that by attempting to express the meaning of our experience – the what and why of it – we are being real.
Of course, we’re more likely to take this risk when we are interested in sharing our experience to advance dialogue and foster mutual understanding. And if that is reciprocated in the response of others, they will be seeking to understand, not through argument or challenge, but initially by helping coax forth the words to adequately express our experience. So, we initiate this approach to assertiveness with faith.
It’s not a religious faith per se. Rather, it’s a belief that more often than not timely sharing and openness of this kind will be seen as the courage to be vulnerable in the service of some greater good. And when that intention is seen, it tends to soften hearts and open minds.
The courage to pursue this transparent style of expression makes more timely communication possible. And it does not compromise our freedom to arrive at a strategic position or present a rational argument at some point. But by not rushing to a position, and by sharing our impressions and experience in a more spontaneous way, it helps separate meaning-seeking from decision-making.
When our meaning-seeking actions are shared it opens rather than closes our access to insights and ideas. If we are confident enough to share these “raw” data freely, we’ll usually be rewarded with a better ability to assert a well-considered position when it’s time for arguments and decision-making. As we practice this approach, we become less guarded and learn to speak more directly.
In some political negotiations or business negotiations “clever” and covert strategies may seem attractive. But if the assertiveness you seek concerns how to work well together in an ongoing effort and in ongoing relationships of collaboration, “clever” can often inspire mistrust and backfire.
[i] See Hans Joas, The Genesis of Values (2000): University of Chicago Press. Also by Joas, The Sacredness of the Person (2013): Georgetown University Press.
[ii] See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989): Cambridge University Press. Also by Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (1991): Harvard University Press.