The Law of Addition for Assertiveness

February 20, 2024

Assertiveness is perhaps the most important interpersonal skill for leaders. It’s often the make-it-or-break-it point when it comes to building good work culture.

If you ever hear employees describe someone as passive, passive-aggressive, a micromanager, hostile, or impossible to please, these are all code words for poor assertiveness skills.

As mentioned elsewhere, assertiveness in broad terms is the middle ground between the extremes of being passive on one hand or aggressive on the other. But that explanation can only take you so far.

In today’s wrap-up article for this short series, I’m going to talk about an often-overlooked component of assertiveness skills.

There are a few interchangeable terms for this concept:

The Law of Addition

The Plus-One Principle

The Positive Opposite  

If you are aversive to axiomatic labels, you might want to memorize it by the simple phrase, “Here’s what I would love to see happen.”

In the end, it doesn’t matter what you call it as long as you can implement the principle.

Working with this concept can be surprisingly difficult. It is simple but not easy. That being said, it has the potential to build a surprising amount of emotional and psychological muscle and help you break through plateaus that have been holding you back in different areas of your life.

Before I go any further, though, I’m going to ask you to engage in a quick self-assessment exercise.

Do You Even Know What You Want?

Think of a challenging situation you’ve faced in your life. It could be related to work, romantic relationships, physical health, finances, or anything else that comes to mind.

Now imagine a continuum. On the far-left side is the attitude of, “I don’t know what I want exactly. I just know I am sick of this.” On the opposite side of the spectrum is our magic phrase: “Here’s what I would love to see happen.”

Take a moment to be honest with yourself and think about where you fall on that continuum in relation to the situation you chose.

Personally, I spend way more time on the left side of that continuum than I prefer. I also know that the more time I spend on that side the more pessimistic, overwhelmed, and downright grumpy I feel.

Conversely, when I am able to move closer to the right end of that spectrum and have a clear desire that I can state in positive terms, I tend to be calmer and more relaxed. I feel clearheaded and optimistic.

If you can say what you would like to see happen – something you want to add, not take away – then you have an advantage over those who are stuck in a state of aimless unrest.

Why Stated Desire Is So Important, And So Hard

Having something to hope for can feel dangerous after being hit by the hard realities of life. It can make you feel vulnerable, or worse, naïve.

As a result, we spend a lot of time throwing darts in a dark room back-and-forth with the people in our lives. We toss out pleasant greetings and social niceties, benign complaints and escape fantasies. But how often do any of those translate into one specific concrete goal stated in positive terms?

Many people feel that their intentions or desires have been clearly implied when, in fact, they have not. This leaves others guessing – and we’re not usually very good at guessing. Until we finish the exercise of saying, “Here’s what I would love to see happen,” then the light remains off and the target unseen.

A lot of people fear that if they say what they want, they will come across as pushy or presumptuous. But what usually happens is the opposite. Others tend to respect you for giving them a clear target to shoot for and are thrilled for the chance to deliver.

In those cases where you don’t get what you ask for, the act of opening up dialogue has a way of moving you past the impasses and cul-de-sacs that have kept you stuck.

Examples Are Everywhere

In terms of romantic relationships, I hear the same story from women all the time. Lots of guys flirt, but few ask them out on a date. And even fewer use the more assertive approach, “I would love to take you out for dinner,” opting instead for the watered-down version, “Do you want to go out for dinner?”  

In terms of careers, most people are so grateful to receive a job offer that they never pause before signing a contract to say, “I would love to accept the position at x-number of dollars above the current offer.”

Many turf wars in larger organizations skip over the simple act of asking for a wish-list from their counterparts in a negotiation. When they do, they are often surprised about how simple some requests actually are.

In conflicts, we tend to get so focused on the act of fighting that we rarely pause to say, “It sounds like what you want from me is A, B, and C. And if that’s the case, then I can give you that.” Or conversely, “What I would really love to hear from you is X, Y, and Z. Do you think you could give me that?” (And don’t forget to recognize when you receive exactly what you ask for. Knowing when you’ve won is an important aspect of assertiveness.)

Where Assertiveness Meets Desire

When we are stuck on the left side of that continuum, we tend to be in survival mode. We focus on self-preservation, posturing, and playing defense. But the hard reality is that, most of the time, we don’t even know what we want outside of escaping from an uncomfortable or threatening situation.

When we begin thinking in concrete positive terms and actively looking for plus-one opportunities, we become more flexible and resourceful. We build better emotional connections with others that make them want to work together to find a win-win solution.

Assertiveness then becomes a natural outgrowth of the process of wrestling with the hard question, “What do you want to see happen?”

So next time you feel stuck in a frustrating situation, take a moment to check your own targets.

And make sure you didn’t forget to turn the light on.


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