Healthy Assertiveness in Christian leaders

Healthy Assertiveness

When you use a word like assertiveness in Christian circles you get some interesting reactions. So what is assertiveness? Let me try to give it a definition. Assertiveness is the ability to honestly express your opinions, feelings, attitudes, and rights, without undue anxiety, in a way that doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.  It’s dependent on a feeling of self-worth, a sense that if you behave in a certain way, something predictable will occur. Even though this definition may not hold universal appeal, I doubt many of us would seek to deliberately put ourselves in a place where we suppress our opinions, feelings, attitudes, and rights.

Non-assertive behaviour

If assertive behaviour is what we aspire to practise as much as we can, where does non-assertive behaviour come from? Many of us were taught by our parents or coached in adult life to accept that that we should always please and/or defer to others, that it is not nice to consider our own needs above those of others, or that we shouldn’t “make waves”. We believe that if someone says or does something that we don’t like, we should just be quiet and even perhaps stay away from that person in the future. Unfortunately, all of this leads to “avoidant” behaviour and does nothing to help us to communicate what we may want or need in clear ways to others.

The benefits of being assertive

Although other communication styles can work at times, it is assertive that most often leads to honest, effective and problem solving-focused communication. When you are being assertive you are more in control and fair to both yourself and the other party.

To practise being more assertive, individuals need to take small “risks” in their everyday conversations, or get out of their comfort zone from time-to-time. This is how you can practise more assertive behaviour without undue risk.

When starting to take new, more assertive risks it is important to remember that every individual has rights. In being more assertive then, some of us need to learn to “turn down the volume” on how we come across to others.  However, most of us are simply not assertive enough in our interactions with others, either out of fear, lack of confidence in ourselves, or because we are easily intimidated.  We therefore need to learn how to use tools and skills that will help us be more broadly assertive without alienating others or trampling on their rights.

Using Different “Styles” of Communication

There are four different “styles” of communication we can consider using. These are Aggressive, Passive, Manipulative (or passive-aggressive) and Assertive.

  1. An aggressive style wants to win at any cost
  2. A passive style is happy to lose so as to avoid conflict or keep the peace
  3. A manipulative style is quietly hostile or unhelpful (i.e. passive aggressive)
  4. An assertive style looks for win/win outcomes for both communication parties

Everyone has and uses all four communication styles, but in varying amounts and at different times.  For example, you may be more assertive at home with your family than you are in a ministry situation.  This is common and has to do with many factors, including trust, confidence and even love (i.e. family may “put up with” behaviour that peers will not).

To be effectively assertive, you need both process (i.e. HOW you communicate) and content (i.e. WHAT you say) communication skills. In this regard, preparation and anticipation ahead of an encounter can help in both process and content terms. Perhaps the best way to do this is to prepare what words you are going to use and then practise or rehearse your intended communication.

Practising your assertiveness skills

A common problem for people who wish to become more assertive is that they don’t know how to do it in the right way; that is, they simply become more demanding or louder, rather than skillful in using behaviours and language that is more effective.  Deciding to be more assertive is not enough – you must learn to use tools that help you practise being more assertive in a way that is palatable to others.

In very practical terms, it is often helpful to have a specific script prepared in advance that you can use to help you find the right words, attitudes and behaviours to use in communicating more assertively.

Your script should have 3 elements of preparation:

  1. First, you need to think through the message you want to communicate.  Jot down the core message you want to deliver – not the exact words, but just the overall message.  For example, it might be that you plan to talk with a person about getting information to you earlier. Your message, then, might be that you want that information to come to you so you have more time to do your part of the work.
  2. Next, you should plan your “room to move”, or your degree of flexibility.  Using our example, how much earlier would be acceptable to you if the person you are talking to does not agree to your proposal?  That is, are you willing to back down if you need to, and if not, how will you react and respond?
  3. Lastly, what are some of the actual words you can use in the interaction?  Scripting some of the key wording you will use in the interaction can be very helpful, particularly when the words you might normally use could be damaging to the relationship. Back to our example, you might decide to script wording that presents your case in neutral language rather than pointing the finger at delays in the past.

It is a good idea to try out, or rehearse, your assertiveness script or sequence with a friend or other neutral third party before you actually deliver it.  This way you can practise actually saying the words and making your message personal, natural-sounding and flowing.

Colin Noyes is the Director of ResourceZone International. He has thirty years of ministry experience as a pastor, college lecturer and consultant/coach to consultants, denominational leaders and local church pastors.


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