Assertiveness training is a key requirement in any organisational/management context. Individual training in the technique is common for many managers and co-workers.
Traditionally, it has been used to deal more effectively with a variety of workplace issues: conflict, anger, anxiety, timidness and self-denial – among others.
All of these issues apply to someone with Asperger Syndrome (AS). However, there are additional reasons why Assertiveness training may be particularly appropriate for a person or manager with AS.
Having innate feelings of personal insularity and independence; being naturally somewhat reserved and non-confrontational ands, perhaps, slightly unsure inwardly of one’s own self-worth in relation to others are just a few examples.
I know that I have felt these effects at times throughout my career. I also believe that they have resulted in negative consequences for me, meaning that I have had to make being more assertive a key personal, developmental objective.
Finding the right balance between being too assertive and timid has though at times been difficult. Given the sensitivity as a result of having Asperger syndrome, has meant that, at times, I have either over-reacted to events and others or, been insufficiently forthright in opposing negatives for which have been personally detrimental.
Developing Assertiveness Skills: Why There May Be a Need
The aim of Assertiveness as a developmental technique is to replace habits of learned helplessness to increase personal effectiveness. It seeks to address marginalization, injustice, oppression and inequality which makes it very appropriate for workers with AS.
It tries to address questions such as: do people often get the better of you at work? Do you fail sometimes to speak your mind or make your point effectively?? Not doing so can make a person resentful or unhappy and reduce their professional impact and effectiveness.
Where such issues prevail Assertiveness training may be appropriate. I know that they have applied to me. However, there is one need that maybe is the most important for a person with Asperger, which makes assertiveness training particularly beneficial: it can increase psychological well being!
Assertiveness: What it is – And What it is Not!
Many of the most disappointing outcomes that I have encountered in a work context have occurred as a result of being insufficiently assertive. Subsequently, this has led to great unease and personal frustration.
Being assertive can address these feelings and uphold integrity and dignity. To achieve this means also, encouraging and acknowledging this in others. I have to confess that, perhaps, at times I have failed to do this: my AS has meant that I personally have shown my disapproval of others.
Assertiveness however is not about being aggressive or steamrolling other colleagues into submission – nor is about trying to enforce the AS tendency to work on pre-definable, self-centric terms. It is about developing a more effective communication style.
As a person with AS, I have had difficulty at times communicating effectively. I have therefore, needed to change and address some of the characteristics associated with my AS that, at times, have hindered my interactions with work colleagues.
Doing this has necessitated respecting more closely the thoughts and feelings of others; things that as someone with AS I have unintentionally be not been pre-disposed to do. I have come to appreciate that assertiveness is not only about respecting just my own choices, but those also of the person I am communicating with. It is more about seeking and exchanging opinions, developing a better understanding of any situation and negotiating mutually constructive and beneficial outcomes.
Additionally, I have also come to appreciate that being assertive also means ensuring that I don’t feel “put on”; that I am able to speak my mind and ask for what I want non-confrontationally. Doing this has involved overcoming the difficulty in standing up for myself.
At times in the past I have failed to secure what I need as a manager and, as a consequence, have not operated as effectively as I would have liked.
Distinguishing Between Assertion, Aggression & Unassertiveness
Achieving progress in this area has meant that I have had to develop a better balance or equilibrium between assertion, aggression and unassertiveness. In other words, being assertive without offending or upsetting others.
It’s about standing up for one’s rights without anger and aggression. Central to this has been controlling my emotion, whilst also more readily accepting that other person has rights also. In business there needs to be a satisfactory result for both sides. From an AS perspective it perhaps means accepting more also, and accommodating, the different views of others.
Aggression involves acting in an intimidating, demeaning, controlling, manipulating or demanding manner. Here, only your rights count – you aim to come out on top at the expense of the other person (a “win-lose” outcome).
Factors which encourage and support this approach include: “I must win”, “the world is hostile”, “I must get my way”, “the world must be fair; it’s intolerable when people mistreat me”.
Many of these statements have applied in the past to me. I have never consciously intended to offend others, but I have come to appreciate that, at times, the self-centric thought processes that emanate from my AS have – unintentionally – affronted others.
When engaging in assertive behaviour, evaluation needs to be made if the intent is to offer an opinion to others or force it on them. At times I have felt to need to say that I am fundamentally right as a result of my condition. However, do I automatically have the right to do so?
Of course, at times I have veered to far the other way. Unassertiveness involves compromising ones own rights by failing to express honest feelings, thoughts and beliefs, or expressing them in an apologetic, diffident, self-effacing manner that others’ can easily disregard or view as a sign of weakness.
In this case, the message conveyed by such unassertiveness is: “I don’t really count; what others want is more important. Such an approach can, I believe, come across as excessive politeness simply to avoid unpleasantness.
Again, I know that this applies to me. I have always disliked confrontation and been unsure about how to confront difficult issues that involve it effectively. I know also that this can be hugely damaging internally. In such cases I have berated myself by failing to say what I truly feel and think. From a personal perspective I have found that issues fester because they do matter. Being unassertiveness therefore impacts negatively on my self-esteem.
Misconceptions about Assertiveness
I have found that there are a number of attributes associated with assertiveness that, because of my AS, I have struggled to come to terms with cognitively and which have hindered my ability answer factors relating to assertiveness satisfactorily.
* Acting assertively automatically means getting what you want.
Though I may try to assert myself over issues that are important to me, other people have, at times, been hostile or indifferent to what I regard as fundamentally right. My viewpoint has been seen as an infringement of their position.
At times during my career I have failed to secure the respect to which I am entitled due to a feeling of uncertainty either about my own self-worth or validity with regard to the righteousness of my actions.
In such cases compromise has been impossible and has limited my ability to be assertive. I have come to appreciate the need to question the motives and/or attitudes of others at times, needs to be recognised to avoid automatically assuming unjust blame or criticism and the subsequent slipping into anger or “victim” mode.
* Having become assertive, you must act in this manner all of the time.
This is about achieving the right balance between aggression and submission.
Being assertive means being prudent: I have come to understand that undesirable consequences sometimes need be avoided and that it is better to remain silent or adopt a low key approach in certain situations. Realising this has meant constraining many natural thoughts that occur as a result of my AS.
Being continually “rights conscious” I have found, can exacerbate colleagues and lead to an “assertive backlash” as others feel they are being penalised for speaking against what someone with Asperger unequivocally asserts to be an automatic given.
From a managerial perspective, I have learnt to temper the characteristics of my AS to ensure that I consider other viewpoints and make concessions going forward. I have also worked hard to “care a little less” about what others think to control my emotions.
* Being assertive will make people respect or like you.
Related to automatic assertiveness is excessive assertion. My condition has meant that I feel strongly about many issues and have been prone to say so when, at times, caution would have been a better approach. Not doing so has meant that I have upset people and triggered personal grudges or caused people to distance themselves from me.
* Being assertive always equates to strength
A different take on this perspective is weakness, rather than strength, due to unnecessary, compulsive assertion. It emanates from being overly worried about the opinions of others and means one becomes subservient to a perceived image.
In the case of my Asperger, this has involved at times feeling slightly inferior as a result of my perceived differentness. Consequently, I have been excessively assertive or forthright unnecessarily. The end result is that I have antagonised people instead.
Overcoming this possibility has necessitated appreciating more that I am different and at times act in ways which may be unacceptable to others. I have worked hard to mitigate this whilst, also ensuring, that I do not perceive myself to be any less of a person or manager as a consequence.
* Being assertive will solve all my problems
Learning self-acceptance in the face of setbacks and being persistent in obtaining goals are also important, related qualities.
Irrespective as to what problems I face in the workplace, and what I do to firmly face them, I also know that they will still recur.
Of course, these problems may be in spite of my Asperger, and not because of it! I am conscious of the need to retain perspective.
Specific Blocks to Assertiveness as a result of Asperger
Perhaps the most pertinent reason of all for lack of assertiveness for those with Asperger syndrome – is not knowing, how to act assertively effectively. This may be due to lack of role models or not having the opportunity to acquire such skills.
When faced with difficult situations, three response options normally present themselves: Flight, Fight or Assertiveness. Because of my Asperger, the first two have previously prevailed in my circumstances.
The reason for this, I believe, is because of some unique factors that emanate directly from the condition. As a manager with AS I have also had to address these issues to overcome non-assertive behaviour.
* Internal (Cognitive) Reasons
Fear of rejection. As a person with AS, and who is therefore in my own way “different”, I want to be liked. I don’t like being rejected by colleagues and work strenuously to avoid being so. Related to this is the concern I usually have about upsetting others.
I have found it essential to not be automatically pre-disposed to worrying about “what others think of me” and that it does not make me any more or less of a person than I actually am. I have also come to appreciate that sometimes I have felt negatively about myself when, in reality, the blame lies with another person.
Achieving this in a business context has not always been easy. As a manager, I have had to make unpopular and, at times, unpalatable, decisions that have not endeared me to others.
I have always felt a responsibility towards other workers, especially subordinates. Innately as a person with AS, this is a natural tendency. So, if people are upset, I have tended to take it somewhat personally. I have worked to overcome this mindset to operate more effectively as a manager.
If colleagues are put out as a consequence of a reasonable need or request, or if a person is not working as effectively as I would like and needs to adopt an alternative work approach that is at odds with their preferences, I don’t feel unable to assertively say so. I have mentally conditioned myself to not allow my dislike of personal disquiet to deflect me from my professional duty.
Of equal importance however, is the need discard any disapproval going forward and to let the person know that. A useful technique that I have discovered to achieve this is, after having to assert myself and – possibly – make myself unpopular, to go out of my way to praise something that the person has done to illustrate that there are no negative, residual feelings.
* Mind Games
There are two realities: the way we think and the way they really are.
The way a person with Asperger thinks can be pronounced and rigid. Though everyone has some negative pathways as a consequence of their thought processes, for a person with AS, they can be quite unique and they have applied to me:
1. Labelling: attaching negative descriptions which become self-serving, i.e. “no one really likes me”;
2. Mind Reading: someone reacts negatively or in a hostile way and I have automatically assumed the blame;
3. Generalising: thinking that [negative] one event or outcome will always occur;
4. Doomsdaying: blowing a small issue up out of all proportion and not taking it as part of life’s normal ups and downs;
5. Personalising: assuming negatives so I condemn myself to lasting blame or self-denigration.
I know that some of my internal thought processes that emanate from having AS can be detrimental. At times I have been personally attacked unfairly by others as a result of them perceiving me to be “different”. Instead, of responding assertively I have, instead, stood back and taken unfair criticism.
Conversely, I know that I have also been at times too opinionated. Either way, my internal thoughts have not been positive or helpful to my effective modus operanti.
However, the above factors apply to everyone and I have afforded myself the credit of not – as previously – believing that my AS precludes me from doing so.
* Rights & Responsibilities
Having rights in the workplace is a given, and rights for someone with Asperger are especially important. Every person has the right to:
* Be treated with respect;
* express their thoughts and opinions;
* know what is expected of them;
* be consulted about those parts of their work that affect them;
* express their views about how their work should be done;
* have the right to say no or refuse.
However, rights cut both ways and at times I have not always fully accepted this as a result of my condition. For example: to respect others unconditionally. When someone fails to meet my personal approval, or who expresses views or values that I cannot resonate with, I have not always done so.
Asserting my rights is important. Not doing so runs the risk of inflicting self-damage internally and results in increased levels of stress and/or anxiety and weaker inter-personal relationships.
However, I know that I have to respect always the rights of others also – even if they at times – as they inevitably will – digress from my own.
Emotional and Behavioural Aspects of Assertiveness Training
Acting assertively therefore is both highly appropriate for a person with AS and also offer real benefits. To achieve this outcome I have found, means implementing changes in both my mind set and consideration of specific assertive techniques.
To act assertively in relation to interpersonal difficulties cannot be achieved if I am emotionally unsettled, nervous or anxious. When approaching a situation which calls for assertiveness, I know I must not feel in any way inadequate or be unable to contain frustrations or feelings of injustice. If I am, I know that emotion will cloud the issue.
Among the assertive techniques that I have found useful include mental rehearsal before enactment. I try hard to anticipate the response of the person to prepare my response internally and retain control. Other relevant assertive elements that relate to my condition include retaining eye contact and observing others to ascertain non-verbal communication messages.
I have also found it helpful to desensitize myself by gradually exposing myself to difficult, recurring situations in real life to build my experience, and increase my understanding of, difficult scenarios. Inter-personal discord between staff is one example, which I have sought to mediate by dealing with low-level disagreements.
Making it Happen – Assertiveness in Practice
Being effectively assertive I have found means making choices that meet my needs and the needs of particular situations. Given the dynamic nature of business this will always be necessary.
At times, this may require my remaining passive so as not to antagonise the situation or the other person. At other times, I have appreciated the need to confront an issue not just assertively, but more aggressively. However, the latter really is a last option and one which I only implement when I have explored all other avenues.
The key I have found – especially as a person with Asperger – is to always retain composure and control of how “I” react. My condition sometimes means I find it difficult to locate the right response (in terms of words or actions) spontaneously.
A helpful exercise I have found is to again identify common scenarios that are typically problematic and develop and practice response techniques that can be drawn upon in similar but differing scenarios.
For example, I personally find extremely difficult to confront aggressive personalities. To do so effectively I have found requires caution and a careful, sensitive approach initially to prevent it escalating out of control.
The reason why I have often found this difficult is that the aggressive communicator is the one personality that particularly affronts many of the attributes inherent within my AS: a sense of righteousness, fair play, etc. As a result these have often provoked an emotive “reaction” from me.
A technique I have found useful is delayed response by saying: “I’d like to think about that first if I may”. This provides the time for the other person to calm down and for me to respond less emotively. Remembering that I have the right to express my opinion, whilst accepting their views and concerns is also something I remember to exercise. This basically involves “not going too far” by demonstrating my disapproval initially, which is something I have previously tended to do as a result of my inner thought processes that strongly drive my behaviour.
By acting assertively, I have significantly changed and influenced the way others behave towards me. It also produces important internal effects. I think and feel differently about myself. I consequently send the message to others that I expect them to treat me with the respect I am entitled to and need as a manager.
From the perspective of my Asperger syndrome, such approaches also provides strong psychological advantages.
I find that I am:
* less adversely affected by others or their actions;
* accept personal success and failures more unequivocally;
* enjoy a more realistic outlook on what is, and is not, possible;
* more in control of my own behaviour.
I have found that I can be assertive and not upset fellow workers. As with most things connected with my Asperger, doing so has initially not been easy.
But I have achieved this, and having done so, I will never lose the capability. It has also improved my working life and effectiveness as manager