Safety boots, essential footwear for certain production and manufacturing environments, are typically designed to protect employees’ toes and feet in the event of an unfortunate accident. I call this a defensive strategy – being protected if something bad should happen. At the same time, many manufacturers have what I call an offensive strategy – ensuring that employees behave appropriately according to a set of guidelines to prevent something bad happening, making sure as many accident free days as possible are achieved. In this strategy, everyone has a responsibility to ensure that care is taken and compliance is upheld. “Safety First” is the tenet.

When it comes to human dynamics, however, especially in relation to boundary management (saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ appropriately), people often adopt either of the above two strategies, both seemingly with negative results:

  • Defensively – adopting a submissive approach, giving in or building walls to protect oneself, resulting in feelings of being victimised (ending with a lack of self-respect and depression)
  • Offensively – adopting an aggressive approach, attempting to get your way at all costs, even manipulating circumstances/relationships to suit your ends, resulting in feelings of power and control (ending with greed, more manipulation and self-righteous entitlement on the one hand, but on the other hand, resulting in possible guilt and shame)

Fortunately, there is a third non-offensive strategy which helps one take a firm stance without treading on people’s toes – this is commonly called ‘assertiveness’. Assertiveness commences with an understanding that besides your needs, others, too, have needs that they desire to be met. It progresses when assertive people listen intently to the real needs of others and look for possibilities of meeting those needs, whilst retaining perspective and focus on achieving their own goals. It reaches fulfilment in a ‘let’s both win’ approach that seeks the best for everyone concerned.

Part of the problem of succeeding with this non-offensive strategy is dealing with one’s own insecurities, ineffective habits and fears. The following guidelines may assist in addressing one’s own obstacles to achieving assertive communication:

  1. Don’t become a victim of your own conviction – unfortunately, deep commitment to a cause, idea or action may become detrimental, i.e.: the deeper the commitment, the more likely you are to become obsessed with the idea of being committed to the cause that you could annoy or harm people around you. When your desire becomes bigger than what you are committed to, people get hurt.
  2. Stop proving yourself and start expressing yourself – Scott Ginsberg, The Guy with the Nametag, put this beautifully: “Proving yourself is claiming commitment; expressing yourself is embodying commitment. Proving yourself is screaming your truth; expressing yourself is walking your truth. Proving yourself is striving for approval; expressing yourself is allowing for refusal. Proving yourself is demanding your rights; expressing yourself is deploying your gifts. Proving yourself is trying to be somebody; expressing yourself is embracing who you already are. Proving yourself is advising people from the outside; expressing yourself is inspiring people from the inside”.
  3. Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’ – unless people ask for the entire dissertation, keep reasons and comments to brief and simple answers – not more than three sentences. There is no need to share your personal philosophy about life with everyone every time you speak.
  4. Remain calm, but firm – emotional intelligence suggests that one needs to understand and control one’s feelings about an issue. It is acceptable to say how you feel, but attempt to express how you are feeling without using emotion. Shouting or emotional manipulation are never acceptable responses.
  5. Realise that you could be wrong – honour the opinion of the other party and learn from it. You may not agree with all that is being said – this is not a reason to become frustrated, but rather a mirror to reflect where you are possibly being short-sighted.

Taking a firm stance without treading on people’s toes requires inner security and emotional intelligence. Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire, but exercise the same with humility. This non-offensive assertive approach allows for new insights, greater creativity and retains the inherent value of the human being.