Assertiveness: A Thought Experiment

February 20, 2024

Over the past few articles, I’ve been writing about assertiveness, and so far I’ve focused on external behaviors, specifically on habits of speech.

There’s a reason for that. Language is powerful. Somewhere deep down inside, a part of us tends to believe the things we say. And that part of us can grow pretty quickly when nurtured. Language shapes the way we see the world - and how we see the world shapes the way we behave.

Language also has power over other people. In a very real way, language defines reality for people within earshot. Change your language and you’ve changed the world, even if it’s only for the people you’re closest to.

But today, I’m switching gears from language to mindset. To help lay a foundation for the topic of assertiveness I’m going to invite you to take part in a thought experiment. But contrary to most psychological exercises, there’s only one right answer.

From time to time in my work with clients I’ll pull out a legal pad and draw a simple picture: Two stick figures facing each other with one holding up a gun at the other. A simple drawing, but a terrifying picture. Then I ask, “If you find yourself in this scenario, what should you do?”

I get a range of responses. Some stare at me in confusion. Some start talking through different options of how to get to safety or intercept the gun.

But some ask the magic question…

“Which one am I?”

This is exactly one I’m looking for.

It shows mental and emotional flexibility, and this is the key to assertiveness.

Remember that assertiveness is the middle ground between passiveness (the victim in this imaginary scenario) and aggression (the one holding the gun). People who can imagine themselves as either party tend to avoid gravitating toward a victim mindset, and are positioned to give the one correct answer to the experiment:

“Put down the gun and walk away.”

(This, of course, is a metaphor, and all metaphors have their limits. So don’t get lost in the land of literal interpretations.)

I’ve heard it plenty of times: “I HAVE been a victim!”

That’s true for everyone, though more for some than for others. But what is also true is that each person possesses power, and learning to recognize and judiciously use that power is the point of the exercise. It’s not about victim-blaming. It’s about empowerment.

Next time you notice yourself in a power struggle, pause and ask yourself, “What weapon am I holding, and how do I go about putting it down?”

Weapons come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. For some people it may be wielding hierarchical authority. For others it may be planning revenge by slacking off on the job. It can be name-calling, the cold shoulder, or feigned acquiescence. It can be sarcastic remarks or simply criticizing someone behind their back. Learn to recognize yours, so that you can get better at putting it down.

It may feel counterintuitive, but that’s the first step toward assertiveness.


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