How do you deal with a potential social conflict? Most of us avoid conflict, and others seek it out. Neither is a particularly useful approach to communication.

There is a middle way.

I recently read a good article by Barbara Pachter on just this subject. It has a lot of good advice, but the end in particular caught my attention with the advice to stay assertive, not aggressive.

A lot of people equate assertiveness with aggression. What’s the difference?

If we assume we only have two choices, being polite or being pushy, most people opt for polite. A few opt for pushy, figuring it’s the only way to win.

Some of the latter actually relish it, but a lot of those folks (based on my own conversations with students) wind up feeling bad about themselves, and even if they don’t, they often suffer from losing business and social contacts.

The polite ones may not be any happier, though. Many of them report feeling walked on, taken advantage of, etc. In fact, many of them actually move into a pattern too many of us recognize: the passive-aggressive pattern, in which we put up with perceived mistreatment until we explode.

Ironically, both passive behavior (“polite”) and aggressive behavior (“pushy”) share the same goal: controlling someone else. Both attempt to get a certain response from another person. The goal of passive behavior is to please the other person (so s/he will do as you wish), and the goal of aggressive behavior is to dominate the other person (so s/he will do as you wish).

Again: there is a middle way.

That middle way is assertiveness, recommended by the aforementioned article. The goal of assertiveness is simply clarity. You seek to communicate clearly, and ultimately you may hope the other person will agree and choose to do as you wish–but if that happens it will result from the other’s decision, not from the other’s pity or fear.

Passive people often report feeling bad about themselves and the other person, as do aggressive people. Assertive people generally feel healthy self-respect and healthy respect for the other.

The best book I’ve ever read on this is Manuel J. Smith’s book, When I Say No, I Feel Guilty (also available in Kindle format).

Photo Credit: Gideon Wright cc

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