Being Assertive


So much of Jesus teaching deals with the everyday realities of life as in todays Gospel. Who among us has never been wronged, and how few never knew what it is to be a victim of injustice. What are we supposed to do when we are living with, or confronted with behavior that is clearly unacceptable? Should we just put up and shut up, or is it better to let fly and let our tongue act like a sword?

As you know, I make symbols for teaching purposes. I have with me three such pieces. The one on the left is entitled passive. On the right is a piece called aggressive and the middle one is called assertive. These are the three basic ways we respond to things that happen. We all find ourselves to one side or the other especially in certain situations.

Taking the passive piece first. It’s made up of spikes that retreat into a sphere when any pressure is placed on them. The passive person is like that, the least bit of external pressure and he or she retreats into their shell. Their approach them becomes:

Anything for a quiet life, no matter how difficult someone is making it. Least said, soonest mended, even when feathers need to be ruffled. Never show your anger or annoyance, even if we are raging. Let sleeping dogs lie and hope they won’t wake up. Don’t rock the boat, even when a good storm might clear the air.

When we lack assertiveness we tend to lack respect for ourselves. Being too passive is basically where we don’t stand up for our rights, where we let ourselves be walked on, where we don’t feel we have a right to defend ourselves. If someone is acting in an unacceptable manner we basically grin and bear it.

A man went on a course entitled, How to be Assertive, and he arrived home with a pep in his step determined to make changes. He informed his wife that for far too long he had let her boss him around and from now on he was going to be wearing the trousers and she had better get used to it. Tomorrow when he would come home from work, there were going to be no more long lists of things to be done. She was to have a nice dinner cooked and he wouldn’t be doing the washing up. Later he would be going out with his mates and she was to prepare a hot bath and scrub his back. Then he said ‘And guess whose going to towel me dry and comb my hair’? That’s easy she said, ‘The undertaker!’

Do you think that Jesus ever advocated his followers to be doormats, to let others walk all over them and to condone anything that’s unjust or unacceptable? Definitely not! Neither did he advocate being too aggressive where we dump our anger onto another and end up making a bad situation worse. An angry reaction can be even worse than an angry action and just doesn’t work because all that’s heard is our anger. Three years ago a woman from the North had an affair. Her husband was away too much and she was lonely and vulnerable. It was a genuine mistake and she still deeply loved her husband. Yet years later he was still punishing her for it to the extent that I had to remind him that while he was going on and on about the hurt she had caused him the hurt he was causing was now far worse.

This brings us to the second piece. It’s a series of red spikes set into a black sphere and this time they are solid and there’s no give. That’s how it is when we are aggressive and there is no giving in.

There’s no letting go of the issue and we hold onto it for far too long. A man said that whenever he and his wife had a row she became more historical than hysterical. Things from twenty years earlier were being thrown at him.

Being aggressive we fail to see that there’s three sides to every story, there’s yours, mine and the truth. We only see our own side.

Being aggressive we tend to shoot first and ask questions later but in shooting our mouth off we have left wounds that need healing.

The last piece then is assertiveness. This has a lot of inner flexibility and it’s also possible to see through it from different angles.

In dealing with thorny situations we need flexibility and to seek understanding. We get far too caught up in the nonsense of who is right and who is wrong instead of who is hurt. In the place beyond right and wrong is the garden of reconciliation and that’s where we need to meet.

Being able to see through the piece is also significant and points to intimacy which basically means, ‘Into me you may see.’ To be able to express our feeling openly and honestly is hugely important and a sign of inner strength and never of weakness. Many potential conflicts can be resolved where the offended party begins the process by saying ‘I felt’ rather than with ‘you’ or ‘you always’ that is basically an accusation that forces the other to jump to their own defense.

So to conclude when someone does something wrong it is necessary to go and confront them. Otherwise it will not go away, it will cause a barrier in the relationship and is sure to recur again. However how we do so is all important. We are asked to speak the truth in love and not simply love to speak the truth. To love to speak the truth is where we are simply annoyed and want a dumping ground for our anger while to speak the truth in love is when we say what we need to say out of respect and because its for the good of the other person.

So to summarise: When we are too passive we lack respect for ourselves. Being too aggressive we lack respect for the other. But, by learning the art of assertiveness we have respect for both

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