In Part I, we explored the beliefs needed to drive assertive behavior and I encouraged you to take our assertiveness survey as a way of reflecting on your current communication patterns and level of assertiveness.
If you are like many, you may have found that you weren’t as assertive as you’d like to be, particularly in difficult or heated conflict situations. Conflict is created when there are differences between us and others, and those differences often trigger an emotional response in us. The more intense the conflict and the more threatening it is to us, the greater emotional response and more difficulty we have being assertive. So, if you aren’t responding assertively, you may find that you are communicating in one of these three other ways: passive, aggressive or passive-aggressive.
Let’s look at passive communication first. I like this description of the passive communicator from Dr. Paterson in The Assertive Workbook (pay attention how he describes both beliefs and behavior): “Many people in today’s society fear conflict and criticism. They believe in any conflict they would lose and that any criticism would crush them. They feel that they have no right to impose their views on the world. They have been trained from childhood to believe that their role is to accept and live up to the standards that other people impose…The solution is to be invisible. To offer no opinion until others have done so, and then only to agree. To go along with any request. To impose no boundaries or barriers. To prevent yourself from ever saying “no;” to give up directing your own life; to hide your ideas, your dreams, your wishes and your emotions – to exist as a mirror for other people.”
In conflict, this style plays out in one of three ways: deny there is a problem, give in to the demands of others, or run away from any differences. This is known as the “flight” response. Emotions run high and include a profound fear of being rejected, helplessness and frustration often leading to depression, as well as resentment from all the demands.
So if the consequences of this behavior response are so grim, why use it? Because it isn’t a conscious decision; it is an emotional reaction. The person may not be able to help it. Neuroscience now tells us that early in life we develop certain brain patterns and ways of responding to conflict based on what we have learned from those around us. Scientists also have discovered that all stimuli to our brains go to our emotional center first. A person may continue to use this response pattern because it shuts down any conflict and the undesirable feelings that accompany it. Moreover, your organization might just encourage it. Seriously? Well, think about it: passive communicators can be easily touted as team players, and seen as agreeable and flexible. They never argue or pose obvious resistance to differences. As a result, they are rewarded for their behavior and acceptance. If everyone responded passively, wouldn’t it make your life as a manager easier?
Tempting as that may be, it does ultimately hurt the organization and the employee. Not only do employers miss out on their employees input, feedback and problem solving, but companies pay a huge price for silence. As Bower and Bower have put it, “not only does obsessing about unresolved conflicts upset our mental well-being, it can increase our physical stress: headaches, backaches, digestive problems, heart attacks and increased sensitivity to pain of all kinds including depression and paranoia.”
So, what if you say, “That’s not me?” It could be your reaction is more of a “fight” response. Like passive communication, aggressive communication is instinctual and emotional – often angry and hostile. Here, aggressive communicators use intimidation and forceful words and body language to shut down conflict and regain power and control over others.
Responding in the “fight” mode results in strong initial negative emotions and uncomfortable “after the fact” feelings, such as guilt, shame and reduced self-esteem, and now add the fact that you have to answer for your inappropriate, offensive behavior as well. Not unlike our “flight” response, the original conflict still exists and is compounded by hurt feelings and damaged relationships.
People can remain in this style because they don’t know how to change or stop themselves or again, because it works. It works particularly well when you pair the two together– one blows up and the other shuts down – conflict is gone (or so they think).
Still not right? Well, maybe you don’t get aggressive, but you aren’t so nice either. The passive-aggressive communicator feeds off the worst of both. This style uses quietly aggressive methods to get their needs met. Behaviors for the passive-aggressive communicator include: sabotage, gossip, complaining to other co-workers, shutting down or refusing to talk, sarcasm, wearing upset visually, forgetting to do things or doing them poorly, etc. Get the picture? With this style, you’re never sure what you’ll get. Not as obvious as the “fight” response, this communicator can hit you when you least expect it and typically when you can’t respond. Like the aggressive response, this type of communication can do serious damage to your performance and relationships with others.
These three responses are what we call “the emotional phase” of conflict. They represent a strong instinctual reaction to perceived threats or danger. If you find that you choose one of these three responses, the good news is that you don’t have to stay trapped in this reaction. Tracking and learning about your response to others is key to success and critically important to understanding and changing your behavior. Go here to download our tips on becoming more assertive: