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Assertiveness Skills


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         Assertiveness is a way of thinking and behaving that allows a person to stand up for his or her rights while respecting the rights of others. Nonassertive people may be passive or aggressive. Passive individuals are not committed to their own rights and are more likely to allow others to infringe on their rights than to stand up and speak out. On the other hand, aggressive persons are very likely to defend their own rights and work to achieve their own goals but are also likely to disregard the rights of others. Additionally, aggressive individuals insist that their feelings and needs take precedence over other people's. They also tend to blame others for problems instead of offering solutions. 

       Assertive attitudes and behaviors are at the heart of effective advocacy. A person with an assertive attitude recognizes that each individual has rights. These rights include not only legal rights but also rights to individuality, to have and express personal preferences, feelings and opinions. The assertive individual not only believes in his or her rights but is committed to preserving those rights. An assertive attitude is important in recognizing that rights are being violated. The passive person is so concerned with being liked and accepted that he or she may never recognize the need to advocate. The assertive person clearly expresses his or her rights or needs. They tend to face problems promptly and they focus on solutions rather than problems.  The following will enhance your assertiveness skills.

     Assertive listening is one of the most important advocacy skills we will discuss. The goals of assertive listening are: (1) to let the other know that you want to understand his or her point of view; (2) to understand accurately what another is saying; and (3) to let the other know that he or she has been understood. Remember that understanding is different from agreement. You can understand what another is saying but still disagree with him or her. 

     You can let others know you are interested in hearing and understanding their points of view in several ways. You can tell them you are interested. Here are some examples of how you could phrase such a statement: 

I'd like to hear your views on....
I'd like to understand your views on....
Could you tell me about them?
I'm confused about your stand on....
Would you tell me more about how you see the situation?
I think we are approaching this from two different perspectives.
What does the situation look like from your perspective? 
I 'd like to hear your thoughts on

Looking directly at the other shows you are giving him, or her your attention. Leaning forward slightly communicates interest, while a relaxed, open posture communicates receptiveness to what the other party is saying.

     Listening for accuracy takes concentration and requires you to give your full attention to what the other is saying. It is easier to listen for accuracy when you feel relaxed. If you are tense and your own thoughts are racing, excuse yourself for a minute and go to another room. Take a few deep breaths to relax and clear your mind before returning. Ask questions as they come up, especially if the answers are important to understanding additional points the other party is discussing. Saying "um hum" and nodding your head slightly will encourage the other to continue talking. Most people will discontinue talking without these mild encouragements.

     Assertive Listening.  You can test whether or not you have understood the other party by summarizing your understanding of what was said and asking for verification. This not only lets you know whether you have understood the other correctly, it also lets the other person know they have been understood. Some problem solving or negotiation sessions get stuck because people do not realize that they understand one another. Many times the issue is not confusion, but disagreement about what to do about the problem. Working out solutions is different from establishing an understanding and some issues remain unresolved because parties never get past the stage of establishing that all viewpoints are understood. Below are some examples of language you can use to test for understanding. 

If I understand you correctly....
Is that what you meant?
I heard you say _____________, did I understand you correctly?
I heard you say ______________, did I understand you correctly?
Your view is _______________________, is that right?

     Brain injury can interfere with the ability to process information. Consequently, it can impair the ability understand and make sense of complex information. This condition can be especially troublesome when such information is presented in a stressful context. It may become necessary to have statements or questions repeated or rephrased. Note taking on such occasions can be used to reinforce your understanding. Finally, you can test your understanding of the other party's intentions by following the steps outlined above. 

     Nonverbal Assertiveness Even when we are silent we communicate a lot -- through our eyes, facial expression, posture, gestures and personal appearance. Through these nonverbal behaviors we communicate who we are and how we feel. Others draw conclusions about our sincerity, credibility and emotional state based on our nonverbal behavior. Poor eye contact, slouching, nervous gestures and other nonassertive behaviors can convince others that what we have to say can be safely ignored. Awareness of our nonverbal behaviors is an important advocacy tool. 

     Elements of Nonverbal Behavior Nonverbal behaviors are harder to control than verbal behaviors, but with awareness and practice you can become effective in communicating non verbally as well as verbally. 

     1. Eye contact. Eye contact means looking directly at another, focusing on his or her eyes. Direct eye contact is assertive. Children often play at seeing who can stare the other down. The one who can maintain eye contact the longest wins and gains a sense of power. We are not suggesting you try to out stare others, but looking directly at another while you are speaking strongly suggests, even demands, that you be listened to and taken seriously. Looking down while speaking to another suggests timidity and weakens you in the eyes of others. Looking to the side as you speak suggests avoidance and insincerity and jeopardizes your credibility.

     Maintaining eye contact while the other is speaking shows your interest in listening. There are times when you will want to minimize eye contact while others are speaking, perhaps to avoid revealing your reaction to what is said or to give you time to think. When this occurs, concentrate on note taking since this also gives the impression that you are listening. 

     2.   Posture. The moment you walk into a room, your posture and carriage communicate messages about your confidence, how you expect to relate to others, your energy level and emotional state. Slouching may say "Don't notice me" or "I'm tired and can be easily worn down" or "I'm not interested in being here". Slouching does not invite the other to take you seriously. A tense and rigid posture communicates you are in a heightened emotional state. It may be interpreted as anxiety or anger depending on your other nonverbal behaviors. This kind of posture makes you look out of control. An erect and relaxed posture while standing and sitting communicates confidence, self-control, energy and an expectation that you be taken seriously.

     When sitting, leaning forward slightly communicates interest and a sense of purpose. Leaning back communicates disinterest or disagreement. Crossing your arms and legs suggests a tense and closed attitude while uncrossed arms and legs suggests a relaxed and open attitude.

     3.   Facial expression. We say a lot through our facial expressions. Our face tells others the degree to which we are alert, interested, in agreement, or relaxed. It reveals the types of emotions we feel. It is best to keep your facial expression as neutral as possible. 

     4.   Gestures. Gestures can be used to accentuate and support your message or to distract and discredit. Nervous fidgeting and tense jerky movements are distracting. These types of gestures and movements make you look out of control and seriously diminish your persuasive power. If you have trouble controlling nervous and fidgety movements, channel your nervous energy by taking notes. Hand and arm movements can be used to emphasize what you say. Do not emphasize everything, however. Be judicious in your use of gestures. Keep your gestures relaxed, fluid and moderate in size. Gestures which are too large make you look grandiose while gestures which are too small make you look nervous.

     5.   Personal Appearance. Whether we like it or not how we dress affects credibility. It also affects how we feel. Being extremely overdressed or underdressed in relation to others makes most people uncomfortable. Dress appropriate to the situation. If you do not know how to dress for a particular situation, ask questions of people who should know such things. The way in which you dress carries distinct messages about power. When dressing for business it is best to dress neatly, conservatively and as professionally as possible.

     6.   Tone of Voice. There are many aspects of voice that affect the impact your words have on others. The most important of these and the easiest to control are loudness and speed. Nervousness can make us speak too softly to be heard or so loudly that we distract from our message. Speak loudly and slowly enough to be heard and understood. It is also important to control how you end your sentences. Raising the pitch of your voice at the end of a sentence makes the sentence sound like question. A slight lowering of pitch at the end of a sentence makes it sound like a statement. Make your statements sound like statements in order to strengthen your message. 

    Negotiation and Communication in Meetings.  The resolution of many advocacy problems will involve one or more meetings with service providers and administrators. You will use all of the skills we have discussed; problem analysis, information gathering, action planning and assertive communication in preparing for and participating in these meetings. In this chapter we will discuss additional advocacy techniques and pointers that can help you become a more successful advocate in meetings and negotiations.

    Whose Territory.  Where a meeting is held will have a subtle but powerful impact on you and everyone else who participates. People generally feel more comfortable and in control of the situation when they are in their own territory. Conversely they feel less comfort and less control when they are in someone else's territory. Potential discomfort over being on someone else's turf can be decreased by increasing familiarity with the individuals you will negotiate with and increasing familiarity with the site of the proposed meeting. 

     If you have control over where the meeting is held, request that it take place a neutral location. It's a good idea to arrive at the meeting location early. This will give you a chance to become familiar with and feel more comfortable in the meeting space. Secondly, it will give you some control over the seating arrangement. Some seating arrangements create a sense of equality among participants at meeting whereas others create a power imbalance. 

     A round table has no head seat and thus creates a feeling of equality. Since there are no sides to a round table it also minimizes an "us versus them" atmosphere. A square table can also be used to equalize power. Although it is likely to enhance the feeling of taking sides. The head chair at an oblong table connotes power. If you are faced with an oblong table, sit in the head chair if possible. 

     The person who sits behind a desk during a meeting enhances his or her power considerably. In addition, the desk can, create a sense of defensiveness and act as a barrier to open communication. If you can, try to get the other party out from behind his or her desk in order to equalize the power. 

The Numbers Game 
     Before the meeting, find out who the other party plans to have present. You will want to know their names and roles within the organization. If the other side plans to have several people present, bring several people with you. Equalizing the number of people representing each side will help to equalize the power. It will also allow you to assign tasks to your supporters, taking some of the pressure off of you. 
Controlling the Agenda 
     It's a fact of life, every party to a meeting brings along his or her own agenda. It does not matter whether the meeting is formal or informal, planned or "spontaneous;" the other party will have an agenda or set of objectives they wish to accomplish and a strategy for accomplishing their objectives. They may not describe this agenda to you but they will have one nonetheless.

     You must have a set of objectives and a plan to accomplish them also. If you do not, the other party will control the content and the outcome of the meeting. Use an advocacy plan as discussed earlier in this chapter to develop your objectives and strategy for the meeting. 

     When you get to the meeting, negotiate an agenda to which all parties agree. The agenda should state the issues to be discussed and the order in which they will be discussed. Frequently, it is a good idea to define issues that will not be addressed during the meeting. Sometimes, such items are raised in an effort to throw opponents off track. When such matters are raised, calmly explain that you are not prepared to discuss it at this time, and offer to schedule a meeting to discuss it. Ordering of items on the agenda is also important; you might want to tackle less controversial issues first if there are several issues to be decided. This will give everyone a sense of progress and accomplishment and will create a more cooperative basis for tackling more troublesome issues later. 
     It is also a good idea to agree on how long the meeting will last since you or other participants may have commitments later in the day. If time constraints will not allow all issues to be dealt with, arrange for an additional meeting so that you will not be pressured into unacceptable compromises because of time limitations.
Time to Think
     As you developed your advocacy plan you listed your objectives, organized your information, identified the types of arguments the other party might use and thought of how you might respond to those arguments. Despite all of your preparation, surprises will occur. The other party may propose arguments you had not thought about, ask for information you don't have or propose a solution you are not sure you are willing to try. If this occurs, ask for a short break to allow time to think about how you want to respond. Even after a break do not feel that you must respond immediately, ask for more time to research and consider your options.
     It is also important to ask for a break if you feel you are losing emotional control. You will not negotiate at your best when your thinking is clouded by intense anger, anxiety or other emotions. Resist the temptation to simply walk out since you gain nothing by this and will seriously damage your credibility. Asking for a break is perfectly acceptable: so is asking that the meeting be adjourned until a later time. If you decide to take a break, leave the room otherwise, the other party is likely to engage you in small talk and deprive you of your opportunity to plan your next step.
Don't Get Caught In These Traps 
     There are several strategies that are commonly used to throw opponents off track. Just being aware these strategies will better prepare you to handle them if they are used. 

     Use of Jargon: It is common for professionals to use jargon. By this we mean technical terms, specialized words abbreviations that are not likely to be used in everyday conversation of the average person. In negotiations, professionals may intentionally use a lot of jargon in order make nonprofessionals feel ignorant, to keep them out of conversation or to diminish their credibility. 

     Resist the temptation to pretend you understand jargon. Ask that all terms you do not understand be defined in plain English and ask others to avoid using abbreviations with which you are not familiar. It is unfair to expect the average person to understand jargon. Do not allow yourself to feel less competent or less powerful just because you are not familiar with certain types of specialized jargon. 

     It's also important to learn to say "I don't know" comfortably. You should not be expected to know everything although, at times, you may be asked questions you are not expected to know the answers to in order to throw you off guard. Again, be sure to ask for clarification and/or more time. 

      Creating Guilt:   Often the other party will attempt to convince you that the problem is your fault of the product of your own doing, when in fact it is not. If you feel it is your fault, you will get caught in a guilt trap. If the other party is able to make you feel responsible for the problem, he or she is getting ready to convince you that you, and you alone, are responsible for the solution. Resist this common and usually effective diversionary strategy. Such transparent attacks are irrelevant and you should say so. Instead of falling into such obvious traps, calmly steer the conversation back to the point. 
     Use of Ultimatums:     The use of ultimatums is unwise. Do not do it. An ultimatum is the use of an uncompromising, "take-it-or-leave-it" position. It is likely to cut off valuable options and will definitely make you appear unreasonable, creating sympathy for the other party. Skilled advocates and negotiators do not use ultimatums. 
     If other party issues an ultimatum, question them about it. Ask what options and alternatives were considered before deciding on their position. Suggest that perhaps not all options were considered. Suggest that there may be additional positions to consider. Ask if there are any exceptions to the ultimatum. Try to think of examples where they would be likely to make exceptions to the ultimatum. Your goal in asking questions is to show that you are unwilling to accept a "take-it-or-leave-it" offer and want to explore additional alternatives. Furthermore, you want to jog the other party's thinking so that they also are willing to look at possibilities beyond the ultimatum they have issued. 
     Communication and negotiation in meetings is complex, challenging and fascinating. We suggest that you build your own skills by attending meetings with other advocates and playing the role of observer and note taker. As an observer, the pressure will be off you and you will have more freedom to analyze and learn. As a side benefit, your presence provides support to the advocate and he or she may return the favor to you when it is your turn to advocate.
Writing Letters 
     We have all written letters -- writing letters is nothing new. However, sometimes the idea of writing a letter as an advocate makes it impossible for intelligent people to put words on paper. This problem arises when a letter written as part of an advocacy effort is seen as radically different from a regular" letter". The letters you will write as an advocate are simply business letters. Even if you have never written a business letter, you've read many and you know what they look like. 
     A second barrier that makes an advocacy letter seem difficult to write is the notion that you must tell your entire story in the letter. This notion makes the task of writing seem overwhelming. But in fact, it is unwise to tell your whole story in a letter. The idea that you must tell the whole story arises when you feel you must justify your position or request. This usually is not necessary. 
     As an advocate, most of your letters will be written to accomplish a fairly simple and specific objective such as: to request a meeting in which the problem will be discussed, to request information, to make an appointment to review a case file, or to thank others for their cooperation. A letter is the best way to make such requests, since it is more likely to get a response than a telephone request is. Such letters should be short and to the point. There will, of course, be some occasions when your objective requires a longer letter with more detail. For example, a letter filing a formal complaint, a letter to your lawyer, doctor of congressperson or to the editor of a newspaper may require more detail. But these letters too should be as concise as possible.
Materials and Style
     Your advocacy letters are business letters and should be consistent with standards for good business correspondence. Save your prettiest stationery for writing to your friends. Instead use plain white typing paper or simple stationery with your name and address and telephone number imprinted. To ensure that your letter is legible and looks professional, type it or ask a friend to proof read it for you. 
     Use a business style in setting up your letter. When your letter is finished, check it very carefully to make sure you have not made any errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation or in typing. Careless errors will decrease your credibility and may cause your reader to conclude that you are not serious enough about your request to ensure your letter is correct. 
Writing the Letter
     It's a good idea to make a short outline or list of points you want to include before you write your final copy. This will help you organize your thoughts and will result in a well organized letter. It will also help ensure that you don't forget anything important. 
The outline should contain the following points: 
1.  A sentence or two that states your purpose for writing the letter.
2. Sentences that provide further detail on your request.
3. A statement summarizing your request and asking for a response to your letter. Make sure to include the date by which you want your response and information on how you want to be contacted. 
     Always keep a copy of the letter for your records. We recommend that you send the letter by certified mail and request a return receipt so that you know the letter was delivered and accepted. Keep the receipt as part of your record. It's also a good idea to note the date by which you expect you, reply on your calendar.
     If you do not receive a reply by the date requested, call to find out when the other party will respond to your request. If necessary, write a second letter, pointing out the fact that you have made a request but have not yet received a reply. When dealing with agencies or businesses you might want to send copies of your letters to regulatory or advocacy agencies.   The Better Business Bureau, your legislators and congresspersons. In personal matters you might want to send copies to persons that have the ability to influence the person you have written to.  In both instances this tactic creates an incentive for the other party to respond to you. 
Adapted from: "Don't Get Mad Get Powerful, A Manual for building Advocacy Skills," MI P&A

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