Monday, December 23, 2013

Being assertive without the army boots

With (sometimes difficult) family gatherings occurring over the next few days, I thought it was a good time to post this excellent take on getting through these gatherings with as few ruffled feathers as possible. I'm happy to welcome author and friend, Lisa Lawmaster Hess, again as today's guest blogger.

Photo by Summer Woods

Marita Mercer doesn’t take any guff from anyone. Standing up for herself and her daughter is woven into the fibers of her being, threads that have only become stronger as she raises her daughter alone.

Angel Alessio is demure with a gentle spirit. Her frame isn’t the only thing that’s petite; she avoids confrontation and puts other people’s needs before her own.

These two women are fictional characters in my novel, Casting the First Stone, but  every fictional Marita and Angel has a real-life counterpart. As women, we value relationships, and sometimes, in our efforts to preserve and protect them, we put ourselves second. We forget that the ability to stand up for ourselves is a life skill, one that we are entitled to exercise.

Don’t get me wrong -- I’m not suggesting that we run roughshod over everyone who gets in our way, let alone those we love and respect. There’s a difference between aggressive behavior and assertive behavior. While aggressive behavior is characterized by a “me first, take no prisoners” mentality, assertive behavior seeks common ground -- a level playing field. Assertive behavior seeks the win-win.

While we may be aggressive, assertive (or passive, like Angel) by nature, these are also behaviors we can cultivate. Even better, these are behaviors we can teach our children.

And we can begin by teaching them to send the messages they want to send. To help them do that, we can teach them to consider four elements of their message:

Choose your words. Name-calling, sarcasm and put-downs may appear to be a show of strength, but in reality, bullying behaviors like these weaken our messages because they diminish other people's respect for us and they shut down problem solving almost immediately. Well-chosen words that show respect for another person are the foundation of a strong, assertive message.

Watch your tone. The most thoughtfully considered words can deliver a completely different message if the tone in which they are spoken is pushy, disrespectful or harsh. Kids often have trouble recognizing their tone, however, and may even need you to model the appropriate tone for them...gently and without sarcasm.

Look them in the eye. Eye contact is the part of nonverbal communication that shows you mean business. When we're nervous or afraid, it can be very difficult to maintain eye contact, and we end up undermining our entire message because the other person doesn't take us seriously. It takes practice, however, to keep our eyes focused on another person's eyes, especially when we are nervous or upset.

Stand up for yourself - literally. Stance, or body position, can strengthen or weaken a message. Someone who stands stoop-shouldered and stares at the floor will not come across as confident and is unlikely to be taken seriously. A relaxed, friendly expression (think smiling mouth and eyes) inspires cooperation more readily than an angry or hostile one. Also look out for gestures or stances that can be interpreted as aggressive, such as clenched fists or hands on hips; these can make even a peaceful message look like a declaration of war.

It's a lot to remember! The good news is, you don’t need to do it all at once. Choose the easiest element and work on that first. (Eye contact is the most powerful, but it can also be the most difficult to pull off).

Does all this mean we have to be walking, talking displays of assertiveness all the time? Not at all. Assertive behavior is nuanced (that’s one of the things that distinguishes it from aggressive behavior), and we can choose when to move in and when to back off. Not wild about your husband’s choice of restaurant, but you know it’s his favorite? Could be a time to back off. Not wild about your daughter’s boyfriend because he treats her poorly? Move in.

One step at a time.

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is a transplanted Jersey girl and former elementary school counselor. She is currently an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania.

Lisa is the author of Acting Assertively and Diverse Divorce, both inspired by her interactions with her elementary school students. Her first novel, Casting the First Stone, will be released in January 2014.

Lisa's previous guest post, Diverse Divorce... What have your kids faced?, can be accessed here.

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