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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.