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Understanding assertive communication

Assertive behaviour is commonly misunderstood. People often think of assertive behaviour as similar to aggressive behaviour. It is also commonplace for assertive behaviour to be seen as being about getting your own way, at the expense of others? needs. In the essay below, Dr Carol Craig outlines what assertive behaviour is and is not. She also looks at assertiveness skills and various techniques to boost assertive behaviour.

Introduction to Assertiveness

For more than two decades psychologists and mental health professionals have been aware of the importance of assertiveness skills. People who find it difficult to assert themselves or their rights and who routinely fit in with others are more vulnerable to depression and more likely to be taken advantage of. This is why assertiveness training is often included in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Those working with young people are also aware of the importance of teaching assertiveness skills. For example, assertiveness training is one of the modules in the Penn Resiliency Programme for young people devised by Professor Martin Seligman and Dr Karen Reivich.

Assertive behaviour is not only a keystone of good mental health. It is also linked to confidence. Indeed, teaching people assertiveness skills is a common route to building confidence. Why?

In Creating Confidence I gave the definition of confidence as self-efficacy + optimism. Self-efficacy is the belief that you can achieve your goals. An individual’s goal may be to walk across a desert.  Ostensibly, the skills required for this feat have nothing to do with assertive behaviour as such and have more to do with fitness and survival skills. The ability to endure a challenging task on your own is also central to the realisation of this goal. However, most tasks in life cannot be accomplished alone and require us to communicate and negotiate with others. Indeed, even in the example of the trek through the desert, assertiveness skills may have been required in negotiating with employers, parents, travel companies or government agents. Failure in these negotiations may have brought the goal to a premature end. So accomplishing just about anything in life is easier if we have the ability to communicate well with others and know how to negotiate.

This is exactly the type of skills that assertiveness training provides. By enhancing an individual’s communication skills, assertiveness training can increase the feeling of self-efficacy – the belief an individual has that they can reach their goal. In other words, learning to assert yourself can help self-belief and self-confidence.

The relevance of this material to education

Over the years I have run a variety of different types of courses with assertiveness content for people in education. These included twilight assertiveness courses for teachers and negotiation skills courses for senior managers, including male secondary head teachers. I also delivered the assertiveness modules in the old Strathclyde Region’s Women into Management programmes as well as courses for probationary teachers for a few different authorities.

As well as these courses, aimed at teachers and head teachers, I delivered a few courses for 4th, 5th and 6th year pupils. They really liked the material and thought it very relevant to their lives. One of the main things they wanted help with was being able to say ‘no’ to drinking too much alcohol. But what was strikingly clear from each of these sessions with young people is that they thought that both parents and teachers did not like them to be assertive. They said that often when they expressed their opinions, even if they were not being cheeky, teachers did not like it.

My experience with pupils made me think there was something in what they said; that before trying to train a whole generation of young people in assertiveness skills we needed teachers (and preferably parents as well) to understand what this means and for them to be able to model assertive behaviour for young people. This is why, after a few initial workshops with pupils, I did not actively seek this type of work and concentrated instead on this type of training with staff.

A focus on teachers’ developing and modelling these skills

It is for these reasons that I concentrate very little on what assertive behaviour means for young people in this paper and present the material more generally in a way that has relevance to people of all ages.  It will be impossible to educate a generation of assertive, confident young people if teachers are not also using these skills in their everyday lives.

What is assertive behaviour?

I ran assertiveness training courses for over fifteen years and during this time I often asked people how they would define the word ‘assertive’. ‘Getting what you want’ would often feature on their list. Now there is little doubt that those who are assertive are more likely to get their needs met but for me this is not at the heart of what assertive behaviour means. The following is a definition of assertiveness which is much more suitable:

Being assertive means clear, honest and direct communication of positive and negative thoughts, feelings and opinions while, at the same time, respecting the rights, opinions and feelings of the other person.

The seven fundamentals of assertive behaviour

1. Communicating when it is important to you/exercising choice 

Central to the definition we are using here is the emphasis on communication with others. Behaving assertively does not mean that we have to tell others endlessly how we feel or what we think. Sometimes this would be inappropriate or insensitive. Clearly people who are good communicators are able to judge when is the best and most appropriate way to let others know their feelings. What is more, some people – those with a preference for introversion (explored more fully in the next chapter) – often do not have a great need to communicate their thoughts and feelings. So being assertive involves being clear about what is important to you on those occasions where this communication will protect your rights or what you believe in, or facilitate your relationship with other people through better understanding or negotiation. The important distinction here is that when you do not assert yourself, and withhold your thoughts, feelings and opinions, you are making a deliberate choice. You are not simply saying anything for fear that you might put your foot in it or annoy someone. You are making a conscious choice which allows you to feel positive about yourself and the decision. This distinction should become clear in the following examples.

• Fifteen year old Derek is with a group of friends who are discussing a film they have seen. Derek likes the film but the others think it is ‘rubbish’. Derek chooses not to say anything. His decision not to express his opinion is not about lacking assertiveness skills it is about conserving energy and not having a need to convince others of his opinion. Derek feels ok about his decision to keep quiet. Derek’s actions can be seen as a sign of confidence rather than lack of it. 
• Fifteen year old Amanda is with a group of friends and they are saying nasty things about a girl Amanda likes. She thinks what they are saying is unfair but she does not want to be different from the others so she says nothing. However, when she goes home she feels critical of herself for not sticking up for the girl she likes. Amanda’s failure to speak out in this instance is a sign that she lack assertiveness skills and confidence.

2. Being direct (but not blunt or rude)

It is very common for people to drop hints or hope others ‘get the message’ rather than being open and direct. As we shall see below, often this indirect approach is adopted because people do not have the confidence in their ability to communicate openly with others without giving offence. The problem with this indirect strategy is that other people often do not take the hint or end up receiving mixed messages. Being assertive means being open and honest and not leaving clear communication to chance. However, there is a world of a difference between being so blunt (calling ‘a spade a spade’) that you come across as rude and disrespectful. People who are good, assertive communicators do not pussy-foot about, but they are not so direct that they appear rude or obnoxious. Below is an example of the difference.

Rachel is seventeen and her mum asks her if she would go into town with her to help her choose a special outfit. Rachel just is not in the mood to go into town with her mother as she finds it frustrating to go round so many shops. Here are various ways in which she could reply:

• Rachel just says ‘no way’ or adds something critical about her mother being ‘too dithery’. Her mother is likely to feel that Rachel can be quite rude. She is also likely to feel a bit hurt and rejected, particularly if Rachel has a habit of replying in this way. 
• Rachel says: ‘I’d love to go but I’ve got an essay that I have to finish today’. When the mother gets back from town, she discovers that Rachel has been out all afternoon with friends and she feels rejected and annoyed with Rachel.
• Rachel says to her mother: ‘I’m sorry but I really don’t enjoy that type of shopping. I think it would be best if you went with one of your friends’. Rachel could also offer an alternative to make sure that her mother does not feel rejected or to help her mother see that she does care about her. For example, she could ask her mother to go into town and narrow down the choices to one or two outfits which she’ll look at with her next week. Or she could suggest another type of outing which they are both likely to enjoy – eg, going to the cinema together.  

3. Being honest

From scenes like these, old Scotia’s grandeur springs
That makes her lov’d at home, rever’d abroad:
Princes and lords are but the breath of kings,
‘An honest man’s the noblest work of God.’
Robert Burns, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’

Sometimes on assertiveness courses people question the relevance of the word ‘honest’ in the definition of assertiveness. ‘Surely it is simply about clear communication?’ they will say, thus making questions of honesty, or morality, irrelevant. I disagree with this view. For me, the most important facet of assertive behaviour is honesty. As the quotation from Burns shows, most of us have been brought up in a culture which prizes truth and honesty and so their value is instilled in us as children. We may be given mixed messages about the wisdom of being honest (penalising children when they say something truthful which is embarrassing), but nonetheless for most of us honesty and truth are important guiding principles. When we act in accordance with them we feel not just ‘true to ourselves’ but also we experience ourselves as ethical individuals. This means that behaving assertively can give us a strong sense of personal integrity and hence improve the way we feel about ourselves.

However, to really benefit from the sense of personal integrity and self-worth that assertive behaviour can bring, it is important to treat others with respect and dignity.

4. Treating others with equality and respect

Another important value in Scotland is equality. ‘The rank is but the guinea’s stamp, the man’s the gowd for a’ that’ wrote Robert Burns in ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ that’ – a poem which is recognised internationally a celebration of basic human equality. The definition of assertiveness we are using here is based on these same values. It is about how we can balance our individual rights and sense of personal respect with those of other people who have exactly the same claim. Status and power cannot be denied or ignored but they are only the context in which we often relate to others. If people have power they can determine how things will turn out. Power can guarantee that the stronger party will get their needs met or their own way – often at the expense of the powerless. This power can be based on money, resources, status, authority or, when children are involved, age.

Nonetheless, the definition of assertiveness we are using encourages us to see the rights and feelings of individuals as equal – as something to be addressed, considered and catered for. In practice it means that while I may be a teacher or manager and have authority invested in me to make decisions, this does not mean that I am essentially a better person than others who are in more junior positions. It does not give me rights to lord it over others and act in ways which disregard their feelings or violate their rights, including the right to be treated as an equal human being. In modern parlance, behaving assertively does not mean puffing myself up and rubbishing other people.

5. Taking responsibility for your thoughts and actions

No-one can make me feel inferior without my consent.
Eleanor Roosevelt

At some point in our lives most of us will have blamed other people for how we feel; ‘he makes me feel worthless’ or ‘she makes me feel guilty’. We will complain but, as the quote from Eleanor Roosevelt suggests, we are responsible for how we feel. No-one can make me feel guilty unless I already harbour feelings of guilt. All that others do is activate these negative feelings. Despite this fact it is commonplace for people to blame others for how they feel.

Becoming more assertive is partly about taking more responsibility for how we act and think. It is about owning our feelings rather than attributing their origins to someone else. Of course, some individuals are likely to trigger our negative feelings by things they say or do but recognising this is different from believing that they have caused them in the first place. For example, if I say to someone ‘you make me feel guilty’ then I am blaming that individual for my feelings but if I say ‘when you keep going on about working mothers I feel guilty about having a job’ then I am not off-loading all responsibility on to them. What is more, the ‘you-make-me-feel’ formula tends to suggest that the person is deliberately trying to induce negative feelings. It is blaming and so tends to solicit a defensive reaction from the other person. However, when we point out that a person’s comments or behaviour is triggering off our own thought processes we inevitably have to be very specific in what we say and it is inevitably less threatening and judgemental. It also does not convey the idea that we think they are intentionally trying to make us feel bad.

When we take responsibility for how we feel and what we do, we feel more powerful and in control of our lives. In short, it builds our confidence.

6. Being positive as well as negative

It is common for people to equate assertive behaviour with negative or self-serving behaviour. For example, it is easy to see assertive behaviour as voicing criticism of others, saying ‘no’ or generally asserting what we want by asking for help. Being able to say ‘no’ assertively is an important assertiveness skill, as is giving criticism well, but this is not the full story. Being assertive is also about expressing our positive feelings to others by letting them know we value or appreciate them. It is also about offering help when we see it is needed; not just about asking for it. In short, behaving assertively encompasses a range of behaviour and communication: some of this is about asserting our rights as individuals, and therefore may sometimes be viewed negatively by others, while other aspects of assertive behaviour are about saying appreciative things or taking positive, supportive action. In Chapter 14, Positive Psychology, I presented evidence which shows that to keep a relationship positive we need to make more positive than negative remarks. Even an equal balance will tip the atmosphere into negative, as negative feelings have much more power than positive ones. This means that when individuals behave assertively they must make sure that their behaviour falls more in the left, than the right, column or else they will appear somewhat cold, critical and self-centred.

Assertive behaviours which are likely to have a positive effect on relationships:  

• expressing appreciation
• valuing
• complimenting
• praising
• encouraging
• offering help/support
• inviting
• listening and showing empathy.  

Assertive behaviours which may be required but can have a negative effect on others:

• saying ‘no’
• setting limits/boundaries
• pointing out what is wrong
• giving critical feedback
• behaving independently
• focusing attention on our own needs.

7. Being open and responsive to others

The essence of our assertiveness definition is communication of thoughts, feelings and opinions. However, it is also about being responsive to the impact that this has on other people. Behaving assertively thus requires that we are good listeners and are empathetic enough to pick up the impact that our behaviour has on others. If we do not listen well or pick up on how people are feeling, then asserting ourselves can have a negative effect on others, particularly on those who are quieter or more timid. This means that our behaviour could be experienced as overpowering and undermining.


Summary of assertiveness behaviour

• Communicating when it is important to you.
• Being direct (but not blunt or rude).
• Being honest.
• Treating others with equality and respect.
• Taking responsibility for your thoughts and actions.
• Being more positive than negative.
• Being open and responsive to others.

Advantages to self

• Gives a sense of personal integrity.
• Builds your self-confidence.
• You feel in charge of your behaviour and your life. 

Impact on relationships/others

• People know where they stand with you.
• Others respect you, although they may often want you to act in ways which suit them better.
• Helps to build good, solid relationships based on trust and respect.

Assertiveness and rights

It is common for the core of assertiveness training to be about individual rights. Enid MacNeill, an educational psychologist from Sheffield University, lists the following as being particularly relevant to young people.

Rights for young people:

• the right to be treated with respect
• the right to make mistakes and be responsible for them
• the right to refuse requests without having to feel guilty or selfish
• the right to ask for what you want (realising that the other person has the right to say ‘no’)
• the right to be listened to and to be taken seriously
• the right to say ‘I don’t understand’
• the right to ask for information.

When running assertiveness training courses in Scotland I found people varied enormously in how they viewed a bill of individual rights, such as the one listed above. Some found it very American and individualistic. Others saw it not only as helpful but also liberating.

There are two main points about such rights.

1. The underlying idea is that everyone has these rights. So if you want to claim them for yourself you also have to be prepared to extend them to other people. Generally, I find that people are more relaxed about the idea of giving these rights to other people than they are about claiming them for themselves.
2. Rights carry responsibilities. If you want to be treated with respect or taken seriously then you also have to act in a way that earns you that right.

Building on existing skills

I often find that when people attend an assertiveness training course they expect to be introduced to a type of behaviour which is alien to them. Instead they are pleasantly surprised to find that it is something they are doing at least some of the time. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is rare to find someone who does not behave assertively in some situations. People also recognise that when they behave in this way they feel good about themselves, even though their assertion of their views or rights might not always be liked by others. Some are happy with the extent to which they assert themselves. More commonly, people believe that they would like to behave this way more often but that something is holding them back. Helping people begin to analyse their behaviour and then extend the skills they already have in some areas of life, is often all that is needed to help people become more assertive.

Understanding non-assertive behaviour types

The most useful part of assertiveness training is that it helps people start to think more intelligently about their behaviour. It is common for people to react to situations in fairly predictable ways and for them to be unaware that they have a choice. Assertiveness training can help people understand their usual pattern of behaviour and how they could choose to respond differently.

1. Passive behaviour

As we have seen, inherent in assertive behaviour is the sense of basic, human equality. But when we are behaving passively, we do not value ourselves and put ourselves in the one-down position. We believe it is other people who have the power to call the shots and we simply fit in with what they want or think. When people feel passive they feel they have no control over their lives. This can lead them to feel sorry for themselves and to feel like victims. 

Examples of passive behaviour

• Not expressing your opinion or views, not through choice but fear.
• Not asking for help.
• Not asking questions or getting more information when you are confused.
• Not giving others critical feedback even when it is needed.
• Not saying what you want.
• Not giving voice to positive emotions such as praise or appreciation.
• Not taking the initiative and always waiting for others.
• Agreeing to do something when you want to say ‘no’.
• Constantly apologising for things – even when not your fault.

Reasons for behaving passively

• Fear of drawing attention to yourself.
• Fear of being different from others.
• Fear of failure.
• Fear of being criticised/making mistakes.
• Fear of taking risks.
• Believing it is the easy way out.
• Fitting in with others and be liked and accepted by them.
• Feeling obliged to other person.
• Believing that what others’ want is more important than your own needs.
• Not knowing how to assert yourself and still get on with others.

Negative consequences

• No control over your life or your time.
• At others’ beck and call.
• Taken advantage of.
• Not the easy way out as you are often landed with things you do not want to do.
• Fuels resentment.
• Stuck in a rut – nothing changes. Do not learn how to behave differently.
• Annoyed at self – lose self-respect and start putting yourself down in front of others.
• Can spend lots of time in close relationships bemoaning your fate.
• Makes you vulnerable to depression.

Advantages to self

• Nothing is your fault.
• Can always blame others/get them to take responsibility.
• Don’t have to cope with failure or the pains of growing and developing.
• It can feel good to play the martyr.

Impact on relationships/others

• People feel irritated that you always put responsibility on to them.
• Can be annoying to be around someone who doesn’t say what they think/want.
• Listening to someone playing the victim/martyr can be draining.

Passive behaviour often emanates from feelings of low self-worth and prevents us from doing things which would help us move on from it. We may tell ourselves that it is good for relationships but in truth it is very frustrating to constantly be on the receiving end of passive behaviour. What is more, behaving passively is rarely the easiest way out as it often leads us to have to do things we would rather avoid. In fact, since people who behave passively a lot do not value their own time, they tend to be taken advantage of by others.

Differences between passive behaviour and altruism

When people are asked to give reasons for their passive behaviour they often say it is about putting other people and their needs before their own. So, for example, they do not say ‘no’ or give critical feedback for fear of hurting others’ feelings. What is more, people often say they do not ask for help in case they might put the other person in an awkward position or burden them and so on. However, when you delve more into these feelings what you often find is that when people behave passively and fit in with others’ needs they are often more concerned about appearing to be considerate rather than actually being kind to others. In fact, what is uppermost in their mind is the fear that they may offend others. In other words, their obliging, passive behaviour is more about them, and how they are seen, than it is about the other person and their needs. In short, they are catering for others’ needs so they are not seen as selfish, uncooperative or whatever. When people behave passively a lot, deep down there is often a great deal of resentment that their own needs are not being met. This is why, as we will see in the next section, it is very easy for people to see-saw from passive into aggressive behaviour.

The motivation behind this desire to please others is very different from genuine altruism. When we behave altruistically we do so through choice. We make a decision to put others’ needs before our own and we are happy to do so. Genuine altruism does not carry with it feelings of resentment. But passive behaviour often does. This is why I often argue in assertiveness training sessions that being assertive is not about putting yourself first. Nor is it about encouraging people to say ‘no’ to others’ requests of them. It is about saying ‘yes’ for the right reasons. You may agree to put others first because you feel a certain debt to the other person which you want to pay back. Or you may genuinely want to help the other as you think their need is greater than your own. For me the critical distinction is this: when we play fair with others, or act in an altruistic fashion, it encourages us to feel positive feelings about ourselves whereas when we simply agree to fit in with what others’ want we often feel bad about ourselves as we know our choice comes, not from a positive decision, but from feelings of obligation or fear. In short, passive behaviour often creates bad feelings about ourselves, whereas freely choosing to put others and their needs first, amplifies positive emotion and happiness. 

Passivity in young people

Most of the examples given above for passive behaviour are relevant to young people in the classroom, with parents and with friends. Being passive can take the form of not asking for help when you need it or saying you don’t understand. Assertiveness skills are also important for young people in their relationships with one another. Being able to say ‘no’ assertively, and do what you think is right, is relevant to lots of different situations for young people such as resisting drink and drugs or participating in anti-social behaviour. Research shows that many of the victims of bullying have low self-esteem and have a tendency to be overly passive.

2. Aggressive behaviour

Aggression is the second type of non-assertive behaviour. Unlike passive behaviour where the individual puts themselves in the one-down or inferior position, aggressive behaviour is about seeing yourself as better than the other person. Aggressive behaviour can take two distinct forms.

i. Losing your temper

The first type of aggressive behaviour occurs when we lose our temper with other people and become irritated and annoyed, if not down-right angry. Some people operate on a short fuse and become aggressive easily if people or things do not pass muster or comply with what they think is right. These are often people who are very critical and judgemental of themselves and others. 

However, people who behave passively a lot of the time are often catapulted into aggressive behaviour if their resentment builds up. What is paradoxical about this is that people often choose to be passive because they want to please others and have harmonious relationships. However, if they blow up as a result of growing resentment, harmony is lost. So too is their goal of being liked for being nice: far from seeming caring and considerate their behaviour can degenerate into aggressive name calling and blaming. Sometimes this aggressive behaviour is not directed at the person who has made them snap but will come out unfairly in relationships with friends and family. The action they need to take to stop them losing their temper in this way is to be more assertive at an earlier stage.

ii. Feelings of superiority

A second type of aggressive behaviour emanates from a desire to win or appear superior to others. This behaviour can stem from the belief that you are better or superior to other people either in general or in some specific way, such as being more talented or intelligent. On the other hand, there can sometimes be an insecurity lurking behind some types of aggressive behaviour; a desire to ‘prove’ yourself at others’ expense. Those who have genuine feelings of self-worth do not need to use people as pawns to make themselves feel good in this way.
Examples of aggressive behaviour

• Losing your temper.
• Shouting.
• Being unduly competitive.
• Having to be right or win at all costs.
• Boasting.
• Being overly forceful in stating your views.
• Trying to prove you are superior.
• Using threats or intimidation.
• Bullying.
• Being unwilling to listen to others’ views.
• Not valuing difference and trying to get everyone to act or think like you. 

Reasons for behaving aggressively

• Stress.
• Sense of being superior to others.
• Wanting to appear powerful or have power over others.

Negative consequences

• Undermines relationships with others.
• Other people are more likely to be aggressive back.
• Undermines your development as people are often too intimidated to give constructive feedback.
• May undermine your development as people you’ve slighted will often go out of their way to check your progress.

Advantages to self

• Can make you feel powerful.
• More likely to get your own way.

Impact on relationships/others

• Undermines trust
• Leads others to feel resentful
• Intimidating others can undermine their performance (eg, when the aggression is coming from teachers or managers).

Aggression in young people

Young people, like adults, can often end up see-sawing from passive to aggressive behaviour as a result of a build up of resentment. This can get them into fights or make them an object of ridicule. Instead of putting up with behaviour they don’t like and then becoming aggressive about it, they would be better off being much more assertive an earlier stage.

Clearly aggression can be seen in young people who believe that they are better than others and who like using fear to intimidate or lord it over their peers. Some of this behaviour may come for narcissism (extreme self-love) and there will not be much that others can do to change this behaviour.

But in my experience what is common is for young people to be aggressive needlessly in the expression of their opinions. They think they are right and hammer home their views irrespective of the impact this has on others. This then makes them appear rude, abrasive and down-right disrespectful. This can alienate others, particularly teachers and parents.

Recent research on the development of the brain suggests that young people can find it difficult to be empathetic and this may be one part of the problem in this aggressive statement of views. However, for me, another aspect of the problem is that we are not as a society very good at understanding difference and too often see everything in black and white terms. What this means is that children and adolescents do not come across enough people in their lives who can model for them an assertive, not aggressive, statement of opinion which respects other people.

3. Manipulative behaviour

The third type of non-assertive behaviour is called manipulative. In some assertiveness courses it is referred to as ‘passive-aggressive’. Certainly this type of behaviour is an amalgam of passive and aggressive behaviour.

Pro-active and reactive manipulative behaviour

I like to make a distinction between two different types of manipulative behaviour. The first I call ‘pro-active’ and it refers to getting your own way often by devious, back-door means such as flattery or misinformation. The second type is ‘reactive’ which involves resisting what others may want you to do by telling white lies. In the first instance, someone who is being manipulative is trying to get an advantage of some kind or their needs met and they are just not being honest and open. In the second instance, the person often has nothing to gain from being manipulative other than not wanting to fit in with others. The motivation in this instance is to appear nice and accommodating when in fact they simply do not want to do what is being asked.

The first type of manipulative behaviour, being devious in pursuit of your goals, is not that common. However, the second ‘white lie’ behaviour is. In fact, if you have a problem with an unwanted request (eg, to baby-sit, give someone a lift, or go to a party) and you consult a friend or colleague for advice, nine times out of ten they will suggest getting out of the predicament with a white lie. The problem with this is that if we tell lies, no matter how inane, we are basically compromising our personal integrity and have some sense of guilt about it. What is more, if this is how we generally get out of doing things we do not want to do, we never manage to refine our communication skills to the point where we can do this politely, but assertively. In other words, if we lie our way out of situations where we experience a conflict of desires, we do not then learn how to negotiate such difficulties.

Examples of manipulative behaviour

• Being two-faced – eg, being nice to someone’s face but saying negative things behind their back.
• Telling ‘white lies’.
• Trying to get your own way by devious, or back-door, means.
• Playing one person off against another.
• Using insincere flattery or charm to get someone to do something they would not otherwise want to do.
• Making excuses and off-loading blame onto others.
• Sarcastic remarks or put-downs where your meaning is not entirely clear.

Reasons for behaving manipulatively

• Cowardice.
• Do not know how to be direct.
• Do not want to hurt someone’s feelings.
• Want to appear nice without having to put in the effort.

Negative consequences

• Have to remember all the white lies you tell.
• Chances of being found out are high.
• Feel guilty and worried about being found out.
• Disrespectful of others.
• Do not develop our communication skills if we are prepared to lie our way out of tricky situations.

Advantages to self

• Can make you feel clever.
• Do not have to confront difficult situations directly.

Impact on relationships/others

• Undermine trust.
• Leads others to feel resentful if they find out you have lied to them, even if it is a fairly trivial matter.
• People lose respect for you if they become aware of your manipulations.

Young people and manipulative behaviour

In my experience, telling white lies is so common in our society that children learn early that the way out of awkward situations is to tell a white lie rather than tell the truth. This is what Rachel did in the earlier example when she did not want to go into town with her mother. As adults, we should help children realise that while there may be a (very) occasional circumstance when it may be kinder to the other to tell a white lie, it should not be their stock response in difficult circumstances.

The four behaviours

When reading these descriptors no doubt you were aware that you use all of the behaviours in your life. This is common. What is also common is for people to use one type of behaviour in one situation (eg, at home) while they behave differently elsewhere (eg, at work). A person might display an altogether different behaviour with certain individuals or family members. For example, I might be fairly assertive at work, fairly passive at home with my husband and children, manipulative with my sister and downright aggressive to the neighbours who I have come to dislike.

At work, people can vary enormously in the behaviour they use to people of different rank in their organisation. I have met people who have no problem being assertive with their managers but are passive or manipulative much of the time with junior members of staff. I have also known people who are aggressive to junior members of staff but passively unassertive with people superior to them in the organisation.

In my experience as a trainer, I have found that even a short session exposing people to this way of categorising behaviour can be enlightening. There is a simple reason for this: most of the time people’s behaviour is dictated by impulse or guided by past behaviour patterns. This means that people are often unaware that they have a choice in how they respond. For example, if I am asked to work one evening and it clashes with what I want to do I have a number of options: I could just do it even though I feel put-upon and resentful (passive); I could tell my manager in no uncertain terms that she has no right to ask me to do this (aggressive); I could come up with an excuse such as visiting a dying relative (manipulative); or I could be honest about my predicament but willingly co-operate with my manager to try to come up with a solution which works for her and for me. This may mean, for example, working another evening, doubling up for someone, freeing up someone else’s time, etc.

So the realisation that we have a choice in how we face up to tricky situations and that these choices can be analysed logically can be liberating, even for adults. Encouraging children or adolescents to think about their behaviour using the four behaviour types can be enormously helpful and empowering for them. It means that early in life they are being introduced to ideas which encourage them to act in ways which will help them cultivate self-respect and respect from other people.

Assertiveness training is beneficial for young people as it encourages them:

• to think more about their behaviour and see that they have various choices 
• to take more responsibility for their behaviour and not blame others if things go wrong
• to respect themselves and to act in a way which will get respect from others.

Body language and tone of voice

It is also useful for people to realise that the four behaviours is not just about what we say and do. These behaviour types are subtly communicated through our body language and tone of voice. Equally we can easily detect which behaviour another individual is using if we pay attention to this non-verbal communication. Often people say that they do not know much about body language when in fact unconsciously they are constantly reading people’s motives and emotions from their facial expressions, eye contact, posture, gestures and tone of voice. Becoming more consciously aware of the signals we send out, and receive from others, can help us to improve our communication skills.

Body language and the four behaviours

Our body language and tone of voice varies depending on what we are saying and it can be enlightening to analyse body language in terms of the four behaviours. The table opposite gives information on how body language and tone of voice often varies with assertive, passive, aggressive and manipulative behaviour. Here I will simply draw out a few general points.

Eye contact

The most important dimension of body language is eye contact. In modern western culture there is an unwritten assumption that people of equal status should look each other in the eye when they speak. As we live in egalitarian times, this means that adults should routinely engage in eye contact during conversations irrespective of social status. If one of the parties does not do this, and looks down or routinely avoids eye contact during conversation, then this suggests that they are uncomfortable and may not feel equal to the other. Avoiding eye contact in this way is common when people behave passively.

People who are good assertive communicators know how to keep relaxed, steady eye contact. What this means is looking the other person in the eye but looking at other parts of the face, or looking away, intermittently. This is what we naturally do when we are comfortable with others in conversation. If someone breaks eye contact at an important sentence then this suggests some degree of discomfort with what they are saying. It can also mean that they are lying. When people are being manipulative there can be a ‘shifty’ look about them. This can mean literally that they are not looking the other person directly in the eye as they speak, though they will often glance quickly at the other to gauge the impact of what they are saying. This is why we often have the sense of not believing someone when they are speaking. However, some people are ‘bare-faced’ liars. In other words, they are capable of looking someone straight in the face as they lie. In such cases we are likely to be taken in by them.

Steady, relaxed eye-contact is what makes for good communication – not staring. When people are trying to be intimidating or are generally being aggressive they tend to stare or ‘eye-ball’ the other. Staring can also suggest sexual attraction but this too will often unnerve the other person and undermine communication.

Eye contact is so important for good communication and it is a good idea to get close friends to give you feedback on this if you think you are not very good at it. Some people, particularly introverts can find even moderate amounts of eye contact too intimate and uncomfortable. They can improve this, however, if they try to look at the top of the person’s nose rather than in their eyes as the other person will still experience this as eye contact.

Teachers can often be critical of pupils’ eye contact when they are speaking to them, ‘look at me when I am speaking to you’, the will often say. A pupil looking away in this context can mean different things: feelings of inferiority because of age and status differences (which is understandable and may be a sign of respect rather than disrespect); feelings of discomfort (again understandable if you are been given a row); aggressive defiance (she might be talking to me but I am not bothering or paying attention). It is better to read body language as a collection of different elements. Passivity, discomfort or defiance can also be picked up from facial expression and posture.


As social animals we pick up lots of visual cues from others on social status and to what extent we are safe or being threatened by others. When we are being assertive we tend to draw ourselves up to our natural height. When people behave passively they will often, unconsciously, take up less room (thereby looking less threatening) by slouching or keeping their heads down. When people behave aggressively they often make themselves look as big as possible. For example, they may put their hands on their hips so that (again unconsciously) they take up more space. This is similar to cats arching their backs when they are being aggressive.

In our society, there are unwritten rules about how far we should position ourselves in relation to others. These rules vary depending on context. If a child walks into a classroom and sits right next to another child then this would be unremarkable if the classroom is busy and there are very few free desks. But it would be seen as potentially intimidating if there was no-one else there, as it would seem like violation of the other child’s space.

For adults in the UK the convention at work, or in formal settings, is that we stand about three feet away from other people. If someone stands closer than this they can upset the other by appearing pushy and disrespectful (‘in-your-face’). If people stand further away than this they will look like they do not want to be interacting or are ‘stand-offish’.

Height is another dimension which affects social interaction. For good, relaxed communication two individuals should be standing or seated at the same level. If someone is higher (eg, one is standing and the other seated), the one who is higher has an advantage. The main contradiction to this general rule is when someone is seated at a desk while another stands. In this case the desk conveys authority and gives the seated individual an advantage.

It is not uncommon for people to feel that they can communicate better standing up. As a speaker I always feel it is easier for me to talk if I am standing. Some salespeople will make a point of standing up to make important sales calls as they feel it is easier for them to communicate or assert themselves while on their feet.

The context

As human beings we are exquisitely responsive to the world around us. This can manifest itself in a myriad of different ways, including encouraging criminal behaviour. Research, now known as ‘the broken windows theory’, shows that if people are in areas which have lots of broken window panes, graffiti, litter and boarded up houses, this gives out the message – ‘no one around here gives a damn. Do what you like’.  This then encourages people who might otherwise be law-abiding to commit criminal acts.

In exactly the same way the context of our conversations has an effect on their outcome. If I stop someone in the corridor I should not be surprised if they do not want to talk through an issue with me. If I am a manager and I continue to sit at my desk, with my finger on the line I am reading, then I should not expect my staff member to feel I’m listening to their problem if they come in to talk to me.

When we want to converse with people, particularly on issues of importance to us, we should choose the time and the place carefully as it may influence the outcome. The degree of privacy, interruptions, surroundings (formal or informal), type of seating and other contextual factors will influence the result and we should consider this.

This might seem like I am suggesting that people should be manipulative but I am not. It is simply good practice to consider how the context of a conversation will influence another’s mood, behaviour and the flow of communication. It is manipulative to conceal your motivation from others and to get them to do things they would not do if they had access to all the facts. But it is not manipulative to try to get the best, most positive outcome by choosing the context of conversations carefully.

Relevance to teachers and head teachers

The body language/tone of voice/context remarks in the previous section are particularly relevant to people working in education. Being able to control a class of older children requires some amount of authority and presence and much of this boils down to tone of voice, posture and general demeanour.  When I gave seminars to probationer teachers they found the body language section particularly relevant and said that it was not something which had been included in their teacher education.

These points are also of relevance outside the classroom, in meetings, for example. A young head teacher, lacking in experience and authority, meeting up with parents with a tendency to be aggressive and demanding, may find it useful to speak to them from behind his/her desk as this may help him/her to be more assertive. Whereas an older, more experienced head teacher, meeting up with parents who find it difficult to speak to people in authority, may want to downplay their position by sitting on comfortable chairs, in a side-on position to ensure no sense of confrontation. These points are also of relevance to head teachers in dealing with staff members who can be pushy or uncooperative.

Many teachers and head teachers work out these things for themselves and develop good communication skills in the process. But it can accelerate people’s learning if they are taught them or know the importance of passing on the skills they have learned to others.

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