Have we become too assertive?

The Shrink

Have you ever been in the quiet zone of a train, forced to listen to someone’s loud conversation? Should you try not to notice or draw this to the attention of the offender? And if the latter, how? If you’ve been there, you know that no matter how politely you make your point, you risk facing an aggressive, sneering reaction, or even making someone feel bullied.

We often feel that we should deal with such situations by standing up for ourselves, but the question of how to do so remains as problematic as ever. There are things we still need to learn about being assertive. As it happens, Anne Dickson’s influential A Woman in Your Own Right, which addressed women’s assertiveness, has just been reissued on its 30th anniversary.

The life issues that call for assertiveness are all too human, and still relevant, whether you’re a man or a woman. Many of us struggle with the confrontations that come up in our lives – at work, at home and on trains. We don’t always know how to deal with them, without either letting people walk all over us or giving free rein to anger.

One problem is that we have absorbed a corrupted stereotype of the assertive person as someone who demands that their rights be met, always set on getting their own way regardless of what everyone else thinks. As Dickson says: “the preoccupation with individual rights and entitlements has fuelled a determination not to be passive: the pendulum seems to have bypassed assertiveness and settled on the opposite pole of aggressive communication as a norm.”

Assertiveness shouldn’t be primarily about winning. Fighting our corner does not always trump other considerations and it is not necessarily a sign of passivity to choose to let things go sometimes. At its most fundamental, being assertive requires genuinely listening to another person’s perspective and clearly – unapologetically but undogmatically – stating our own. It is about honest communication, and that will be needed as long as we live among humans.

The Sage

In philosophy as in science, “mere assertion” is the lower than lowest form of argument, being not more than baseless pontification. Yet in much of everyday life, assertion is king. Much of what passes for discussion of serious issues, for example, is actually little more than people taking it in turns to state their opinions and dismiss those of others. Instead of trying to understand each other, they merely stay quiet and listen for as short a time as is decent before simply resuming their own monologue.

For all its good intentions, this seems to be exactly what assertiveness training sometimes appears to promote. One technique, for example, is known as the “broken record”. This means refusing to get involved in a discussion about your own position and simply responding to challenges by reiterating exactly what you said before, perhaps prefaced by a polite but dismissive “I hear what you’re saying.” That may at times be exactly the right strategy but as a habit it is inimical to rational dialogue.

Not only do people wilfully put assertion in the place of argument, sometimes they also appear to confuse the former for the latter. People will often say that they “refute” a claim, for example, even when all they have done is say that they disagree with it. But a refutation requires evidence and argument. You can no more refute by decree than you can prove innocence simply by pronouncing a not-guilty verdict.

The trouble is that all this groundless assertion seems to work. Psychologists have known for decades that the people who are most likely to be believed are not those with the most cogent arguments or decisive evidence, but those who assert what they think with the greatest confidence.

What I think we need is a form of unassertiveness training. Speakers should be taught never simply to put forward opinions as truths without providing some sort of justification, and listeners should learn how to resist a natural predisposition to correlate credibility with confidence. And that’s not an assertion: it’s a reasoned proposal I’d happily defend.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, please comment below, or email shrinkandsage@ft.com.

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