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Stress Mastery : Nonverbal Aspects of Assertiveness & Asserting Yourself with Aggressive People

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Nonverbal Aspects of Assertiveness

How you say what you say is just as important as what you say—that is, the body language you display has a profound effect on how your words will be interpreted and on the responses you will get. No matter how well-crafted your assertive response may be or how appropriate your words, if your nonverbal behaviors are not congruent with your verbal communication you can totally sabotage your message and greatly reduce the likelihood of getting the reaction you seek. If your nonverbal behaviors reflect passivity, deference, self-effacement, timidity, or lack of confidence, you will undermine your message and invite others to discount your words. On the other hand, if your words are assertive and appropriate but your demeanor is intimi-dating or aggressive it will also detract from your message. Other people will respond with fear or resentment rather than accommodation.

Basically, you want to present a demeanor that is consistent with assertiveness. It is neither timid nor aggressive, but rather forthright, confident, and matter-of-fact. One of the most effective ways to present a confident demeanor is to maintain eye contact. When you look directly at someone's eyes while talking to him or her it conveys confidence, self-assurance, and that you mean what you say. A passive stance usually involves minimal eye contact or looking down, which conveys lack of confidence or uncertainty about your position. An aggressive stance often involves staring a person down, which is not what we mean when we suggest making eye contact. Sometimes it is hard to maintain eye contact, particularly if you have trouble being assertive, because it may make you uncomfortable. Despite this, we encourage you to force yourself to do so for several reasons: (1) it will make your assertive responses more effective, and (2) keeping eye contact gets a lot easier once you practice doing it.

Posture is also important when delivering an assertive response. You can maximize your effectiveness if you stand up straight, face the person squarely, and lean forward slightly. This conveys a sense of confidence. Likewise, if you are sitting down it is useful to lean forward slightly. Leaning back conveys fear or lack of confidence. People tend to lean back and look down when they are unsure of themselves or afraid. Obviously, getting too close to someone or getting in his or her face is an aggressive posture that you want to avoid. It is always wise to respect the personal space of other people.

What you do with your arms reveals a lot about your internal state. For example, have you ever seen two people sitting across from each other in a restaurant, both with their arms folded across their body? Even though you might not overhear the content of their conversation you can usually tell, just from their arm postures, that they are either arguing or annoyed with each other. How do you know this? Arms crossed over the body is referred to as a “body armoring” response, an unconscious way to protect or hug yourself when feeling threatened. When threatened, most people immediately adopt this posture unconsciously. Thus, it is very important not to cross your arms over your body or you will convey that you feel intimidated by the encounter. Rather, make a point to leave your arms open. Open arms communicates that you are confident and comfortable and that you mean what you say. Incidentally, when on the receiving end of feedback at work (from a boss, supervisor, or colleague) it is useful to maintain the open arm posture. In this way you will come across as nondefensive and open to feedback, qualities that are respected in the workplace.

Also, allow yourself to gesture freely while asserting yourself. People tend to gesture and use their arms when they are comfortable. When you gesture you communicate comfort and confidence, and people are much more likely to take you seriously. But there is one gesture we recommend that you definitely avoid: pointing at someone. People hate it when you point at them like a scolding parent or an angry schoolteacher. They will tune you out and resist you if you resort to finger pointing.

Perhaps the most important nonverbal aspect of assertiveness is tone of voice. So much is conveyed by the volume, pitch, and rhythm of your voice. Avoid shouting, which is perceived as aggressive. Also avoid being so soft-spoken that you come off as timid. It is best to speak in a firm, consistent voice tone where you pause for emphasis, and also emphasize key words by slowing down your voice tempo and increasing your volume slightly. Do not talk fast or swallow your words when asserting yourself. It may be useful to talk a little slower, particularly if you are a fast talker, and a little louder than usual for emphasis. Table 1 summarizes the differences between passive, assertive, and aggressive communication styles.

Asserting Yourself with Aggressive People

One big source of stress, whether at your workplace or in your personal life, is having to deal with aggressive, unreasonable, or nasty individuals. When dealing with such people, it is common to feel as if you have no control and to become angry and aggressive yourself. The following pointers should prove useful for handling encounters with aggressive people.

  • Make ample use of empathic assertion. Try paraphrasing what you have heard the person say or commenting on the feelings that are being expressed in their demeanor. For example, simple comments such as, “You sound like you are feeling very angry,” or, “This is obviously very upsetting for you,” can help an angry person feel understood, and in some cases can help defuse his or her anger. It is also helpful to ask questions to get the person to clarify the problem and work toward a solution.

  • Keep your focus. Aggressive interactions, particularly with people you know well, often get sidetracked from the original issue with laundry lists of everything else that is a problem. Work to bring the focus back to the issue at hand. Use phrases such as, “We've gotten off the subject. You were talking to me about….”

  • Postpone the discussion until cooler heads prevail. If you and/or the other person are enraged, and it does not look as though either of you will cool off soon, it may be wise to suggest discussing the matter later when both of you have calmed down. If the other person refuses to delay, explain that you need time to think about the issue, and make a definite appointment to discuss it as soon as possible.

  • Try the broken-record technique. In an ordinary situation calling for an assertive response, the broken-record technique could come off as obnoxious. But when dealing with an aggressive person who refuses to listen to your assertive response, and who fails to respond to your efforts at escalation, this technique can come in handy to reinforce your request. Basically it involves repeating your request over and over, like a broken record, even if the other person is arguing, or ranting and raving. You just calmly continue to state your request, even during his or her protestations. It often involves being willing to interrupt. All parents have had to rely on this method at times when dealing with resistance or disobedience from children.

Table 1. Differentiating Communication Styles
 Passive Assertive Aggressive
Verbal BehaviorsApologetic Indirect statements Rambling Not saying what you really mean Giving up easilyDirect statements Honest expression of feelings Describing objective behavior I-statements Straightforward Good listener Talking slowly Emphasize key wordsAccusations, threats Insults, put-downs Blaming You-statements Sarcasm Failure to listen Manipulative comments
Nonverbal BehaviorsIncongruencies Poor eye contact Soft, timid voice Looking down Fidgeting Leaning back Slumped postureActions congruent with words Good eye contact Firm, calm voice Assured manner Gesturing Leaning forward Erect posture Open arms Face person squarelyStaring Yelling, shouting Loud, hostile voice tone Arms crossed over body Finger pointing Getting too close Clenched fists Breaking things
You AreScared, anxious Helpless Manipulated Ignored Resentful Confident Effective Respectful Valued RelievedAngry, full of rage Indignant Misunderstood Controlling Guilty
Others FeelFrustrated Puzzled Unsure of your needs Respected Valued Intimidated Alienated Angry, resentful Humiliated, hurt Defensive
Results Stress Depression Low self-esteem Helplessness Failure to solve problems Resentment Lost opportunities Health problemsProblem solving High self-esteem Self-respect Respect of others Satisfaction Good relationships Less stress Improved healthInterpersonal stress Guilt, remorse Low self-esteem Loss of self-respect Loss of respect from others Passive-aggressive responses Frustration Failure to solve problems Broken relationships Loneliness Hostility from others

Dealing with the Impossible Boss

It is important to note that before asserting yourself in the workplace with your boss, you need to make a rational assessment of any risks involved. If possible, get feedback from colleagues (particularly those who have known your boss for a long time) about whether asserting yourself is too risky. There are those occasional bosses who will not tolerate any attempt at assertiveness from employees, and who misinterpret even diplomatic feedback or requests as insubordination. If you are unlucky enough to work for a boss like this, then the risks of assertion (losing your job or being demoted) may outweigh the potential gains. If the risk is too great and the issue too important to ignore, looking for a new job may be your best alternative. That too represents an assertive way of handling a situation that you realistically have no power to change.

Assertiveness and Persuasion

Often, as part of a large organization or even a small business, you will be required to participate in business or planning meetings. Many people are concerned about how to ensure that their voice will be heard, that their ideas and input will be taken seriously by the group, the boss, supervisors, or subordinates. Getting lost in the shuffle can be stressful and contributes to feelings of loss of control. It is important to learn how to be influential in groups, at work and in your personal life, and how to maximize your impact without being perceived as aggressive or overbearing. Basically this is about being persuasive, which is related to your assertive skills. Two principles can maximize your ability to persuade others when giving your opinion at work, in meetings, on committees, and so on: how to use timing and tact when expressing honest opinions.

Timing involves several issues. First of all, you have to decide where your priorities lie. Otherwise you run the risk of being assertive just for the sake of being assertive, and talking too much and too long. The result could be that others would view you as being on an ego trip and tune you out. You want to save your assertive efforts for those points that are really important to you. Observations of groups indicate that it is usually more effective to express an opinion after one-third to one-half of the group participants or committee members have already voiced their positions. By that point the members have a good sense of the group's general position and can address themselves to the points being raised, but this timing reduces the chance that group members will have already made up their minds before you speak up.

To be maximally persuasive when expressing an opinion, you need to state your thoughts clearly, concisely, and without self-deprecating remarks. For example, saying, “I just don't understand. Maybe there is something wrong with me but this proposal doesn't feel right to me,” implies that you are inadequate, that there is something wrong with you. It is generally more persuasive to express yourself as a capable person. It is more effective to say, “The way I see it, there seems to be a flaw in this proposal that is hard to pin down. Does anyone else sense that too?” Needless to say, the nonverbal behaviors accompanying opinions are extremely important in determining how that opinion will be received.

Tact is also very important when taking a position that is in opposition to the rest of the group or a powerful group member such as your boss or supervisor. Here it is often most effective to use empathic assertion in order to “stroke” or warm up the group to your opinion. This does not mean using flattery or making ingratiating comments, but rather finding something that is genuinely good about the group consensus or another person's point of view. For example, “Susan, your point is really well taken. But despite the obstacles we face, I believe we need to take action rather than do nothing.”

In summary, we urge you to practice using the four-step framework the next time you find yourself in a situation that calls for an assertive response, whether this happens on the job or in your personal life. These principles apply to all situations calling for effective assertiveness. Your next opportunity to practice may present itself in your personal life before a work dilemma develops. That is just fine, for it will allow you to fine-tune your skills before you need to use them in a business context. In any event, pay careful attention to how you feel after you assert yourself. Although you might experience some fight-or-flight activation as you initially engage in assertive behavior, the resulting relief and surge in self-confidence you are likely to feel afterward will go a long way toward lowering your level of stress and boosting your self-esteem.


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