Ed Smith, Psychologist
UTC Counseling and Career Planning Center
One of the major factors in healthy psychological adjustment is positive relationships with others, and the quality of our relationship with others is largely determined by our communication with them. When there is a lack of direct and open communication there is inevitably a less than honest relationship. It is important that we respect others enough that we tell them what we need and expect in the relationship rather than expect them to know, as if they are psychic, and then resent or punish them when they fail to read our minds correctly.
Essentially when people make their needs known unproductively, they do it one of two ways - aggressively or passively. The aggressive style of communication is easy enough to recognize and probably needs no elaboration. The problem with aggressive communication is that it frequently works temporarily. It's basic human nature to minimize how aggressive we are perceived by others vs. how we perceive the same behavior as more aggressive when we observe it in others. The end result is that the aggressive person ends up asking: "Why don't people like me? Why can't I make friends?" Worse, since that style of communication frequently involves blaming others, the aggressive person often answers this question by blaming others for not being friendly, cooperative, direct, and trustworthy (we shrinks call this "rationalization"). The passive style, however, is a bit more subtle. A passive person finds every excuse (what's that word again?) in the World to not communicate directly. These include "I don't want to cause trouble" or "It's just a little thing, hardly worth making a big deal over,” or, "maybe if I don't say anything, things will just change on their own." The list can go on and on. To paraphrase a famous movie line, rationalizations are better than hot fudge sundaes. When was the last time you went 24 hours without a good rationalization (don't ask me to quote the original line - this is a "family values" article!)
People typically don't dislike passive people, they just don't respect them. And, if people don't respect them, they probably won't consider their needs, feelings, or rights. What happens then is that, unless the person is masochistic, they end up gradually building up more and more resentment. Resentment turns to anger and what you end up with is either someone who becomes depressed (anger turned inward) or someone who "explodes," leaving everyone else asking "what's up with you?" Not the best way to develop good relationships!
Learning to be assertive is like learning any other skill. First of all, you have to let go of the notion that assertive is another word for pushy, selfish, or domineering. Too often, those in authority when we were children inadvertently taught us that to be "good little boys and girls" we must defer to others and sacrifice our own needs, or that any conflict is bad. This simply isn't true. Conflict is a natural part of any healthy relationship. It's how it gets dealt with that makes the difference. If two people can express their differences openly and respectfully, and if other aspects of the relationship are sound, then differences can be settled.