“Please Pass the Salt”: A Guide to Healthy Assertiveness

Posted by Michael Dale Kimmel in Columns 28 Aug 2020

When you’re having a meal with someone, it’s easy to say: “Please pass the salt”. You calmly ask for what you want: no big deal. Healthy assertiveness is like that: you don’t have to get angry, nor do you need to be embarrassed to speak your truth. You can say it in the same way you’d say, “Please pass the salt.”

Try saying that out loud. This is what assertiveness sounds like: reasonable and non-threatening. If you’re trying to be assertive but you sound angry, it’s probably aggression you’re feeling. If you feel sad or embarrassed when you want to be assertive, you’re likely being passive.

I hear my clients say, “I hate conflict. How can I avoid it?” Unfortunately, conflict is unavoidable. However, a conflict doesn’t have to be an argument or a fight: it just means that there are two people with different opinions. As human beings, we interact with other people and, inevitably, disagree with some of them.

This is where healthy assertiveness can save the day!

Let’s say that you want to go to Idyllwild for the weekend and your travel buddy wants to go to Palm Springs. How do you resolve it? You could be sneaky and manipulative, try to guilt trip them, intimidate them or play the victim. All of these primitive strategies may work, but they make life ugly. Instead, why not be calmly assertive and say, “I would really like to go to Idyllwild this weekend” and give your reasons why.

Now, let’s bring “healthy boundaries” into the mix: let’s say that your travel buddy isn’t willing to give you what you want. Will you be respectful in your disagreement? Or do you say things like, “We never go where I want.” or “You’re such a spoiled brat.” If so, you’re not playing fair.

How you define what’s “fair” is determined by your boundaries of “fairness”. When someone crosses your boundary, it feels bad. You may feel disrespected or belittled. If you’re passive, you may just roll over and play dead, saying to yourself, “Oh well, whatever, it’s not worth speaking up.” If you’re aggressive, you may decide “I want to win this argument” and you do and say anything you need to in order get your way, regardless of the emotional cost to the relationship.

If you’re assertive, however, you speak your truth in your “please pass the salt” voice and then listen – really listen – to what the other person is saying. Then the two of you can see where you stand. Here are three ways the discussion could go.

 

Passive stance: “I’d like to go to Idyllwild this weekend.”

“Forget it; I want to go to Palm Springs.”

“Oh, all right (sigh). That’s fine.”

(This person gave up on having their needs met. They’ll probably resent their partner and passive-aggressively “poke” them during their time in Palm Springs to get some kind of revenge.)

 

Aggressive stance: “I’d like to go to Idyllwild this weekend.”

“Forget it; I want to go to Palm Springs.”

“I’m tired of doing what you want. I’m not going to Palm Springs.”

“Well, I’m sure as hell not going to Idyllwild.”

“Fine, I’ll go by myself.”

“You do that. I’ll have more fun without you in Palm Springs anyway.”

(See how this conversation escalates anger, ultimatums and manipulation?)

 

Assertive stance: “I’d like to go to Idyllwild this weekend.”

“I was hoping we could go to Palm Springs instead.”

“I hear you. Idyllwild really appeals to me because ——————.”

“Yeah, well, I prefer Palm Springs because ————–.”

“Could we go to Idyllwild this weekend and Palm Springs in two weeks?”

“How about Palm Springs this weekend and Idyllwild in two weeks?”

 

(Notice how respectful and clean this conversation is? We don’t know how it will end; but it will probably end with both people feeling good about themselves, and each other.)

As the election gets closer, we can expect to have plenty of opportunities to practice handling conflict, setting fair boundaries and being assertive. And, when in doubt, remember: “Please pass the salt”! It’s a good touchstone (I use it myself…a lot).