Maximizing Skilled Assertiveness


Maximizing Skilled Assertiveness  Written by Timothy A Carey

What is the difference between skilled and unskilled assertiveness?  How can we maximize skilled assertiveness?  How can we learn to interact better with each other using a method for teaching assertiveness to children with disabilities?  How can people with disabilities become more assertive?  It all started out with this energetic man giving a presentation on teaching assertiveness to people with challenges. He asked us when we remember asserting ourselves the first time. I think most of us probably have our earliest memories being assertive as a child. We probably asked for something and we got what we wanted or we didn’t.  If we didn’t get what we wanted, like ice cream before supper, some of us probably had a tantrum. This presenter would say a tantrum is unskilled assertiveness. It is assertiveness because it is making your wants known, but it is unskilled. 

Mark Sweet, Ph.D. would agree that assertiveness is important because it eventually leads to skilled assertiveness. Many parents might say it would be great having totally compliant children, but it wouldn’t prepare them for the real world and it certainly wouldn’t teach skilled assertiveness. Dr. Sweet asks, “Who is easier to take advantage of or abuse”, a compliant person or an assertive person?  There is a balance between doing what one is told and doing what one wants. Parents, teachers, and coaches should realize this and give freedoms for assertiveness, and only require compliance when absolutely necessary. I think Dr. Sweet gave a perfect case in point and I will leave it vague for privacy purposes. A mentally challenged girl was at some presentation where she started to stand and walk away.  When her handler (I don’t like the term Handler) saw this they would have stopped her as usual, but Dr. Sweet suggested letting her go and he would watch where she goes. She went into the bathroom down the hall and from the hallway he could hear a flush and the washing of hands. This wouldn’t be an unusual occurrence except she was having problems with incontinence and evidently it was happening because people in charge wouldn’t let her go when she wanted. She knew what to do and was being assertive, but it was unskilled assertiveness because of a lack of communication. Dr. Sweet would probably say if she would ask permission, then it would be skilled assertiveness.  He did comment that she should not have to get permission. This is an example of misreading an act of assertiveness because it was unskilled. In other cases children seem to be acting out and behaving badly, but could people be misreading unskilled assertiveness as a behavior problem?  Here is an example I witnessed from my past. There was a 4 year old girl that kept picking up a beverage from the table, but every time she was stopped by her mother and this happened until she was given a punishment. Awhile later when the mother was more engrossed in conversation the child managed to pick up a beverage and take it to an adult who had none. This time the mother praised the good little hostess. This child was being assertive, but she was being perceived as having bad behavior because of a lack of communication skills.   If the mother would have paid more attention, observed her child, and let the assertiveness unfold, then it would have been less traumatic for the little hostess’s behind. This was a perfect opportunity to foster assertiveness, but it only worked out for assertiveness because this little girl risked another punishment in order to help out. These two examples show that assertiveness combined with poor communication skills can be mistaken for behavior problems. It is the responsibility for people in a position to teach assertiveness to actually create, or allow, opportunities to recognize and foster assertiveness. 

Whether it is a parent, teacher, babysitter, attendant, or even nurse educators must realize assertiveness can be mistaken for bad behavior and watch for opportunities to allow assertiveness. From Dr. Sweet‘s presentation I can say that educators must know what their students are all about to recognize opportunities for allowing assertiveness. Educators can get insight into their students by looking at; what makes them upset, what their motivations are, and what their likes and dislikes are. For instance, when I was in 5th grade some students would take my power away, push me at the stairs, and stop me before going over the top stair. I know you would try defending yourself after the first time someone threatened you with that!  When the students would threaten me I would drive at them, but they could slowly step out of the way because power wheelchairs of the 1980s went a fraction the speed they do today. One day a fellow student and I collided because we didn’t see each other coming around playground equipment and we were in a hurry with the school bell ringing. I apologized, he said OK, and we both limped away. The next day the principle confronted me about the incident red faced and would not let me explain at all. When all of the students were confronted at once the ones that were threatening me said I was driving at them and a few others thought they saw this and backed up their story. This kangaroo court only took my wheelchair power away for the day as a punishment, but it took something (assertiveness) from me for the longest time. I didn’t know who to trust and I felt I didn’t know how to make friends. The teachers, students, and principal assumed I was angry about being in a wheelchair, but I was actually asserting myself for protection. If someone would have tried to understand me, they would have known being in a wheelchair gave me incentive to work hard and it wasn’t making me angry at others.   A similar occurrence happened in junior high with different students I thought I could trust.  Of course I didn’t try defending myself then, but a helpful librarian did finally put a stop to it.   With this in mind you can see how important it is to realize there is more to any situation than you see from the outside. To know what is actually happening and to see assertiveness in situations it is helpful to be knowledgeable about the people involved.

For opportunities to allow assertiveness and teach skilled assertiveness successfully, educators must know about the student.  The examples above show not knowing motivations or all of the facts can impede assertiveness. This is not good because without assertiveness happening there can be no skilled assertiveness. So an important step in teaching assertiveness is to take a genuine interest in their student and gather usable information for knowing them. Gather info on temperament, sensitivities, values, preferences, and curiosity. In the example where my wheelchair power was taken away, they assumed I was getting angry because of my disability and that I would never hit someone unless it was in self defense. Useful information can be obtained by observing behavior and finding out what is being communicated and by observing the level of communication the student is capable of. A certain language level means a certain skill level in assertiveness. Remember the example of the 4 year hostess with the sore bottom? We should acknowledge that even an unskilled action, seeming like bad behavior, can give a message for teaching assertiveness. Watching someone go through the process of learning can communicate important information about their ability to learn and the way they learn. This can determine how you teach assertiveness. A perfect example is the girl that had incontinence problems because they didn’t realize she already knew how to stay dry. Not gathering information can hamper teaching skilled assertiveness successfully. We learn by experience and we learn skilled assertiveness from assertiveness even when it is inconvenient. 

Dr. Sweet gave people at his presentation ideas on how to interact with children, older children, and adults for gathering useful information for teaching skilled assertiveness and allowing assertiveness to happen. Educators should engage young children in activities. He explained that you could collaborate with the child to solve a problem or gently interfere to create interaction. For instance, you could work together with the child to pick up all the toys around the room in a certain order. If you notice the child always doing something a certain way, change the order to see if it is important enough for them to assert themselves and change it back or react. Make sure to ask questions using words like; where, what, who, when, how, and why. Encourage the child to use statements using the word ”I” like “I want …”   Follow up their answers with questions continuing their line of thought like asking, ”Then what will you do? ”  This will create interaction that is active rather than passive and can create an instance to teach assertiveness.   With older children and adults you can create opportunities for them to notice, consider, want, plan, and act, which all are included in assertiveness. You can ask questions like, “what can you tell me about your life?”, “who do you live with?”, “where do you go for fun?”, and “what do you like to do?” You can promote assertiveness by asking, “is there something else you want?”, “what could you do to change this or get what you want?”, “what will you do?”, and “do you want help with your plan?” Remember skilled assertiveness takes a good plan.  What you are doing is promoting thinking and encouraging advocacy or assertiveness. Always be alert to any initiation of assertiveness because the act of assertiveness shows a lot of information. Remember that in both children and adults behavior is a form of communication you can gather information from.

You have seen how not allowing assertiveness can actually prevent learning skilled assertiveness or cause problems and you have seen some ideas on how to obtain information for promoting acts of assertiveness. To teach skilled assertiveness successfully educators should stay away from things that hamper assertiveness and concentrate on thing that foster assertiveness.  Terminology people use to describe someone can be harmful for assertiveness. For example, why should people be described as challenging rather than confused, board, curious, disappointed, frustrated, excited, or anxious? When you label like this it automatically diminishes possibilities for assertiveness. For instance, describing someone as having a behavior problem automatically puts educators into the mindset that they are acting out with bad behavior instead of being assertive. In this circumstance the educator will be less likely to allow this bad behaved person to do acts of assertiveness.  There are many things that can foster assertiveness and some are related to gathering information. People trying to teach advocacy can neutralize themselves in certain situations and let assertiveness happen unless it is a safety issue. Remember the example of the girl almost forced to be incontinent. When you are dealing with someone ask open ended questions to promote thinking and possibly a reason for advocacy. When you ask a question avoid the temptation of asking secondary questions as the person thinks about the answer. This filling the silence can be counterproductive to assertiveness.  Instead wait at 30 seconds. Waiting 30 seconds can seem like forever for the person waiting, but it gives the person time to tell their story and time to let them give their perspective. Remember a watched pot never boils. This is all part of allowing assertiveness and directing less. Always acknowledge initiation of ideas and actions and do not interrupt with negatively with the reasons why it wouldn’t work. Always acknowledge non-speech actions as having a message value and always acknowledge small acts of assertiveness. Also encourage the get back on the horse attitude.  Always remember what the person might be experiencing, trying to accomplish, need, want, or might be trying to say. And always encourage ideas to solve a problem with planning without giving negative reasons against the idea.

It could be being teased as a child or it could be a lack of experience, but for some reason many people with disabilities have trouble being assertive. People with disabilities could help themselves become skilled in assertiveness using these methods. Many people take this important asset for granted, but it is even more important for people with disabilities to be assertive. People with disabilities are limited by their physical abilities and this vulnerability makes it important they be assertive and advocate for their own cares, health, and what they want out of life. This is why doing acts of assertiveness and becoming skilled in assertiveness is even more important for people with disabilities. Dr. Sweet recommends educators allow and promote instances of assertiveness because it is through assertiveness people learn skilled assertiveness. So for people with disabilities reading this article, whenever possible, try asserting yourself. It might make you nervous and it might not get you what you want, but you will slowly become more comfortable and eventually skilled in assertiveness. Remember not to sound demanding or like you are owed and to think about the people you are interacting with because not everyone understands the importance of practicing unskilled assertiveness to learn skilled assertiveness. Below are some ways to practice assertiveness.  
  • When you go to the store or someplace with a door, ask someone to open the door instead of waiting for your entourage (don’t forget please & thank you and don’t ditch your entourage).
  • If there is a place you would like to visit, no matter how remote, ask about going there someday.
  • If you hear your family or friends planning some activity ask if you can join in. Do this even though the answer was no in the past or you would rather watch a TV show (Hit RECORD).   
  • If there is something you never did before, then try to find a way to do it even it isn’t interesting. 
  • Instead of “JUST DO IT”, it should be “JUST ASK” because the worst that can happen is they say no.
Dr. Sweet stated educators should not do anything that might impede assertiveness. Similarly people with disabilities who are reading this article should not do anything to impede assertiveness. 
  • If someone asks to help you with or go do something, by all means do it, as long as it doesn’t go against your morals or judgment. They might not ask again thinking you don’t like to do things.
  • If you know family or friends are planning something and you want to also do, don’t drop hints implying you would like to. For instance, “Sounds interesting”. Dropping hints isn’t assertiveness and should not be done because them not figuring you out will probably feel like they don’t want you along and make you upset.  
  • Never be demanding something immediately and don’t act like you are owed because this will impede assertiveness. 
  • Do not just keep asking for things off the top of your head left and right because it would be detrimental to assertiveness and everyone would probably assume you are needy or selfish.

 Mark Sweet, Ph.D. would like everyone to run their lives like he suggests educators should teach assertiveness to the challenged. Everyone, including people with disabilities, can use these methods for supporting assertiveness in their everyday life to; help them work better with others, make the lives of people around them better, and hopefully make the world a better place. Remember everyone is different and so that can affect how you perceive their actions and how they perceive your actions. Something that seems like bad behavior can actually be unskilled assertiveness.  When you experience someone seeming to be behaving badly, try to see it from their side. For instance, when someone knocks into you, you probably; assume they are rude, get upset, and possibly react negatively or even act on in a negative way. When there is some reasonable explanation, would it pay for you to react negatively and for others in the area to be affected negatively? Of the many possibilities other than rudeness, the person could have had a family emergency and in a hurry, didn’t see you or they could be having a medical problem. There is no sense being filled with negative emotions when you don’t have to be.  Negative emotions can be bad for our health. When something like this happens, put an effort into finding out why it is happening before reacting.  Dr. Mark Sweet suggested when a student is making a statement or trying to answer a question educators should not; interrupt, answer for them with what the student might be trying to say, do not ask secondary questions to help out, do not fill in the end of the student’s sentence. These instances are examples of trying to fill the silence.  Everyone should follow this rule and let the other person take their time to answer a question or make a statement.  Related to finding out information about a student to teach skilled assertiveness, everyone should be genuinely interested in the person they are talking with. If everyone would try to follow these methods proposed by Mark Sweet Ph.D. at this presentation, I think the world would be a much different place.

I encourage people with disabilities and others to use these methods, presented by Mark Sweet Ph.D., to become more assertive and hopefully become skilled in assertiveness more easily. Also, people should use these methods for teaching assertiveness to the challenged in their everyday lives. Maybe it will make the world a little better place, but at least it may make your world a little better.