Empathic Assertiveness as Right Speech

Usually, an interpersonal problem takes the form that, from your point of view, the other person is doing something wrong and is creating the problem for you. As we just discussed, talking with the other person is a useful first step. This solution, however, requires criticizing the other person. One of the concerns of assertiveness training is how to give criticism so that the problem is solved with minimal side effects.

When we criticize another person, our aim is to win his or her cooperation in bringing about the solution. How can we best evoke a cooperative attitude from the other person? Several principles have emerged and are routinely taught for achieving this. Let's review the most important of these principles.

1. Presenting Yourself. This concerns not what you say, but rather how you say it. The basic recommendations are: (a) Maintain good eye contact; look at the person in an informal conversational style; (b) Use a good voice; speak to be understood using an audible but not loud voice.

Avoid the two extremes. An overly timid approach involves looking away, as if fearing to face the other person, and mumbling or speaking too softly. An overly angry approach is overbearing, with frowning and scolding as though the other person were a troublesome child. In empathic assertiveness, you appear confident and sympathetic, ready to stand up for your rights, without showing ill will toward the other fellow. The key words are eye contact and good voice.

2. I-Talk. It has been noted by several authors that a blunt statement of the criticism, "telling it like it is" (e.g., George telling his roommate "You're such a slob!") is not apt to be effective. Blunt criticism has the sound of an attack. The person may then get his guard up, and become defensive or resentful.

The likely result is that he attacks back or simply defends himself. The solving of the problem gets lost in the process.

How, then, does one effectively express one's displeasure? By describing it. What you want to convey is just that, your unhappiness about the situation. Thus, George can say "I have to tell you, Bill, it bothers me to see clothing all over the place. We both work hard to keep the room clean yet it still looks like a mess. It's embarrassing when friends come over. Don't you think it would help if we each always hung our things up?"

Walter, the student whose neighbor, Jim, plays music in the middle of the night, can say to the fellow: "I have a problem, Jim. The music coming from your room at night is so loud that I can't sleep. The walls seem to be paper thin." Walter could then suggest possible solutions (limit playing time, use earphones).

Notice certain features in these examples of how to present criticism: There are no insults. Instead of "You this" and "You that" it is "It bothers me," "I have a problem." No accusations are made; solutions are suggested.

While we cannot show the tone of voice or how eye contact is made, we do see another way to humanize the situation: George and Walter begin by using their friend's name. Among friends this is a natural supplement to eye contact and good voice.

3. The Mary Poppins Rule. This takes its name from a theme in the film Mary Poppins that was repeated again and again, and was even sung about: "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."

Ever since we were small children we have been taught when you want something, ask for it politely. Preface requests with "Please," or "Would you mind...," or "May I...". Why should we do that? Why is "May I please have that" better than "Give me that"? Both state the same message: You have something and I want it. Why is a person more likely to cooperate with the first form than with the second?

I was in a movie theater recently. Although the film hadn't started, the theater was crowded. A fellow, Mr. A, was sitting in front of me with an empty seat on either side of himself. Another man, Mr. B, came walking down the aisle with his wife and said as he passed me, "There are two seats." He then went to Mr. A and said "Hey. Move over. We want to sit together." Mr. A visibly stiffened and said "I'm not moving."

Why did Mr. A react like that? Let's consider why he might not have felt like cooperating. It was noted in the previous chapter that, in any interpersonal problem situation, both people have, or feel that they have, certain traditional rights. Here, Mr. A may sit in an empty seat of his choosing; Mr. B may sit with his wife. An important step in getting another person to change is to see that offending person's rights, and to acknowledge that he or she has those rights. When you are polite, you are making precisely that acknowledgment. By talking in a command ("move over") Mr. B. said, in effect, "You have no rights. You must do as I say." Mr. A. then asserted his rights.

So, the Mary Poppins rule is as follows: To make your criticism most effective, make it more palatable. This, of course, is the function of those behaviors already considered: conversational style, I-talk, and now, polite language. The direct form of the Mary Poppins rule, however, is a compliment. The criticism might be prefaced with an honest, appropriate positive comment. Thus George, who in fact likes Bill, could start a discussion of the clothing problem with the following: "You know Bill, I really like you and I'm glad that we're roommates. I've got to tell you, though, I'm unhappy here. The place is cluttered; it's embarrassing,."

I am not talking here about empty flattery. The positive expression should be appropriate to the relationship and to the situation. Fre-quently, however, the compliment, or statement of affection, is completely true but in the heat of indignation is overlooked.

4. Face-Saving Language. Because you want to win the other person's cooperation, begin by assuming that that person was not being malevolent, or insensitive. Assume, rather, that a mistake has been made or that there was a misunderstanding. Here are two examples (face-saving language in italics):

For the fellow who lights up a cigar in a no-smoking car: "Excuse me. Perhaps you didn't see it, but there is a sign that says No Smoking."

For the student whose neighbor plays a stereo in the middle of the night: "You may not realize it, but the walls are paper thin and the music comes through."

5. Keep It Light. This deals with the use of humor and wit in problem situations. It works best when the problem arises suddenly and does not have profound consequences. A light-hearted attitude can be useful in avoiding agitation.

The chairperson of a large biology department gave her secretary, who was young and relatively new in the position, a set of documents. She informed her that the faculty would be coming by to read these and that it would be better if the papers did not circulate. The faculty had been asked to read them in the secretary's office. One of the senior professors came in later and requested the documents. He announced that he would be taking them to read in his office. The secretary resisted a bit and dutifully reminded him of the policy. The professor, starting to become impatient, insisted on taking them. The following exchange then took place:

Secretary: "Will you be bringing them back?" Professor: (Clearly irritated, almost sneering) "No. I am going to throw them out."

Secretary: (Brightly) "Good! You'll save us all a lot of work."

The professor, by his tone and facial expression, conveyed that the secretary's question was stupid. The secretary, instead of crumbling at the insult and suffering afterward, kept it light. By bantering, she deflected the insult.

6. Bypass. This is a specialized principle for use when dealing with people in organizations. A clerk insists that some merchandise can't be refunded, or an airline check-in agent refuses to honor your already purchased ticket, insisting the flight is full. The recommendation is: Without anger, ask to speak to the next higher person in authority, to someone who can waive the rules. Keep going up the hierarchy until satisfaction is achieved or until all possibilities have been exhausted (for an example see p. 191).

These are the specific recommendations for Right Action and Right Speech as they are taught in contemporary psychology. This collection of specifics embodies another general technique for transforming emotions: When we have skills, strategies, or procedures that we can use, the emotions are much less likely to overwhelm us. Suppose that someone irritates or frustrates us. When we don't know what to do we are likely to be intimidated or to react angrily. By being practiced in the foregoing skills, however,and by having a strategy that we can employ, these emotional reactions are much reduced. Knowing how to take effective action, in other words, helps fulfill the aims of B&Y. It helps dispel fear and anger.


1. You have a deskjob. At a desk near yours is a coworker who is always whistling. The songs are pleasant enough but they distract you from working and sometimes get on your nerves. You decide to speak to the person about it. Using the recommendations from this chapter, what would you say?

2. Suppose your co-worker is uncooperative and is even a bit unpleasant about it. Now what can you do? (Hint: Remember back to chap. 28)

3.Compare Empathic Assertiveness to Right Speech (from the eight-fold path). How do they overlap? What are the differences? In particular, is there a difference in underlying attitude between the two?

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