Assertiveness: an important life skill and a balancing act
By Lisa Lawmaster Hess
When it comes to recess, winter is the cruelest season of all — at least in the Northeast, where I live. Endless days of inclement weather trap kids indoors and every small dispute has the potential to become a major upheaval. Tony “steals” the piece Robert was just about to put into the jigsaw puzzle. Jessie won’t play with Lizzy unless she lets Anna play, too. And, worst of all, Zach is looking at Rosie funny.
This wonderful class, so cohesive just weeks ago, is at each other’s throats and the fallout is spilling into instructional time.
There’s no one right way to resolve a conflict because each feuding child brings his or her own personality to the interaction. But if we teach our students the skill of assertiveness, each of them can choose elements of this skill to use when faced with conflicts ranging from funny looks to mercurial friends.
What is assertiveness? To me, it’s standing up for yourself without stepping on anyone else. An important life skill, assertiveness is also a balancing act. Go too far, and the conflict escalates; hold back too much and no one notices that there’s any conflict in the first place.
Some kids are naturally able to choose assertive behavior. Confident, poised and well-spoken, they have no trouble respectfully letting their peers — or anyone else, for that matter — know when they’ve crossed a line.
Other kids take assertiveness too far. Fearless about standing up for themselves, they make their feelings known loudly and clearly, often struggling with the “not stepping on anyone else” part. Through their words, tone and/or actions, they cross over into aggressive behavior
And then there are the kids who are great at not stepping on anyone else, but who are frequently stepped on — literally and figuratively — themselves. Perhaps they’re shy or fearful or simply don’t have the words to defend themselves when someone goes too far. These kids often find themselves trapped in an “offend no one” passive behavior loop.
So often, we think of assertiveness as a personality trait — we either have it or we don’t. But if we look at it as a behavior it becomes something we all can learn and adapt to our individual personalities, choosing the elements that feel most comfortable to us as unique individuals.
Often, the clearest way to teach this concept is by telling our students (or showing them, for those of you with drama skills) what assertive behavior doesn’t look like. Kids (and adults) who practice assertive behavior don’t slouch and stare at their shoes. They stand up straight and make eye contact. They don’t glare or clench their fists and, when it comes time to confront someone, they don’t yell or get physical. Even when they’re angry, those who choose assertiveness stick to the Golden Rule, treating others as they wish to be treated.
Although this sounds simple enough, it is, as anyone who has ever been angry with someone else can attest, much harder than it sounds. Breaking these behaviors down into how they look, how they sound, and how they feel can make it easier for kids to take them on one at a time.
Changing how they look:
- Postural changes: Kids who naturally default to passive behavior often slump, slouch and/or try to make themselves look physically smaller. Simply standing up straight makes a difference; this posture projects an air of confidence and visually levels the playing field. On the other hand, kids who naturally default to aggressive behavior often adopt a fight stance, clench their fists and/or look ready to pounce. Relaxing their hands and standing “at ease” rather than in an intimidating posture dials the aggression back a bit.
- Eye contact: Kids who naturally default to passive behavior avoid eye contact, often looking at the ground instead of at the other person. Kids who naturally default to aggressive behavior can be good at making eye contact but, as with their stance, they may need to dial the aggression back a bit. Eye contact should be a means of getting on the same page with the other person, not a way to inflict terror. Friendly, sustained eye contact is a powerful tool in the human communication toolbox. When we’re speaking, eye contact communicates sincerity and seriousness of purpose; when we’re listening, it tells the speaker he or she has our full attention.
Changing how they sound: Our messages consist of multiple parts: the words we choose, the tone we use and the volume at which the message is delivered. Each of these elements has the power to strengthen or undo the others. No matter how respectful or sincere our words, if we deliver them in a cold or sarcastic tone, we can send a message that’s contradictory at best. If we’re trying to stand up for ourselves but using a voice just above a whisper, we may not be taken seriously, but if we yell, it’s possible that no one will pay any attention to our words at all. The strongest messages consist of words, tone and volume that complement one another.
Changing how they feel: At the heart of an assertive exchange is mutual respect. Each person listens when the other speaks and the goal is for both people to come away feeling as though things are better than they were at the start of the conversation. If we approach a situation with the idea that we can win only at the expense of the other person, we may emerge “victorious,” but at a price. The best exchanges improve both the situation and the relationship and involve listening to what the other person says, not merely to respond, but to understand his or her point of view.
If this seems like a lot of information, remember that even small changes can make a difference. Simply standing up straight, making eye contact, or endeavoring to listen with an open mind can lead to a cooperative approach rather than a confrontational one. In addition, we don’t need to give every single exchange this much consideration. We need assertive behavior most when there is a problem to be solved. Increasing our awareness of the components of assertiveness allows us to choose the behaviors we’re most comfortable with so that we can increase the likelihood of a problematic exchange leading to a peaceful resolution.
If you’re ready to give it a try, perhaps consider giving your students a chance to try on these behaviors via role play. Testing out new choices in the safety of the classroom can prepare them for exchanges where the stakes are higher.
Finally, assertiveness isn’t just for kids. One of the great byproducts of teaching these skills is that we increase our own awareness as well.
After all, you’re never too old to stand up for what you believe in.
For more on Acting Assertively and to download samples from Lisa’s book, go to eBookDestination.com.
Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor.
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