Assertiveness – Cancelling Oscillations

by Karl von Buddenbrock


As is stated in the first paragraph of the Sci-Fi novel Dune (and in David Lynch’s not so successful movie rendition in the 70’s), the narrator says, “A beginning is a very delicate time.” Park that thought; it’s an amazingly helpful thought in times of heated debate or argument in the office.

I’ve been privileged to run assertiveness courses for a couple of decades and having faced all strata of the workforce ranging from secretarial to directorship, I have found a few common principles that apply to all levels. After the initial metrics, we present an axis between passivity on the one side and aggression on the other. We make it clear that these are the kneejerk, natural reactions to confrontation. These are seldom, if ever, successful.

Like most things in life, there are shortcuts that work for the here and now but they can create long term damage. Think about current conflicts in the world. There may be quick solutions but long-term wounds and scars remain. This brings me to the problem of oscillations.

What is true for the physical world also applies to the realm of relationships. I’m referring to oscillation. Oscillation is “a familiar phenomenon in our daily lives, such as a swinging pendulum or alternating current”. A quick fix by “lording it over” someone in the classic “aggression settles all” approach will deepen resentment, and the payback will come, sooner or later. The revenge will be sweet, as they say. This, of course, creates a carbon copy of the initial situation, although not quite an exact copy. This time, the revenge is even sweeter, and harder. The stakes are higher, and so is the damage.

However, not only the aggressive approach creates problems. The overtly passive approach creates problems of its own. As I explain to many in the workplace: apply the passive approach incorrectly and they will eat you up in the workplace. Be very, very careful. It never ends well, with a winner and a loser. Even the winner loses, although it might feel great. It’s the old “last man standing” syndrome.

Once we establish the flaws in the overtly aggressive and passive approaches, we discover what I call the “third planet” – assertiveness.
As stated earlier – the beginning is a very delicate time. Future oscillations can be cancelled by a simple, but profound approach in the beginning. What approach, you might ask. Well, the exact words are not as important as the principles, some of which follow:
1. PASSIVE PEOPLE AND AGGRESSIVE PEOPLE tend to answer quickly, without thinking. ASSERTIVE PEOPLE pause and consider effects. They suspend kneejerk reactions.
2. PASSIVE people only respect others, not self. AGGRESSIVE people do not respect others, only self. ASSERTIVE PEOPLE respect both self and others (in that order, by the way), and consider outcomes.
3. PASSIVE PEOPLE can’t confront. AGGRESSIVE people only confront. ASSERTIVE PEOPLE can confront when necessary and can accept confrontation. Without bearing a grudge.
4. PASSIVE PEOPLE often have low self-image, are depressed and full of self-pity. AGGRESSIVE people have an inflated self-image, are regularly agitated and feast on high adrenaline, fueled by conflict. ASSERTIVE PEOPLE are normally content, seldom ruffled and DON’T NEED CONFLICT TO FEEL GOOD ABOUT THEMSELVES.
5. PASSIVE PEOPLE feel controlled. AGGRESSIVE PEOPLE feel the need to control. ASSERTIVE PEOPLE are in control of self.
The list goes on and on and we consider many case studies in and outside the office, bearing the above principles in mind.

What would you do if someone came into your office, sat in the extra chair and explained her weekend woes while you’re trying to complete an urgent task, due one hour ago. More importantly, What Words Would You Choose to use in your response.

What would you do if you ordered your steak medium and it arrived well done? More importantly, What Words Would You Choose to use in your response.

What would you do if you exited the grocery store and realised you were overcharged R50? More importantly, What Words Would You Choose to use in your response, should you decide to walk back in and respond.

What would you do if a frail old lady jumped the queue in front of you during lunch, claiming her age as the reason for her indulgence. More importantly, how would you choose to frame your response?

And remember: The word “you” ought to be used very, very sparingly. Rather use “I”. For example, “You have …” should rather be “I think …”.
It’s just one of those very delicate things that might avoid a nasty oscillation and prevent future wars.

To find out more about Karl and the training courses that he offers please click here.

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