“The same thing happens again and again,” complained my friend. “I can’t get a word in edgewise at meetings and when I try, I just get talked over – like I’m not even there.” We commiserated about being talked over in meetings, and I offered all the usual well-intentioned platitudes about being assertive. The conversation nagged at me. How many clients, students, colleagues and friends have I urged to “be more assertive,” as if speaking up were ineluctably both a) easy and b) unfailingly effective. Obviously, neither is the case; I ought to know.
Some relevant personal disclosures: I am radically introverted. I detest unnecessary conflict. Many experiences have shown me the wisdom of saying very little when I feel attacked and while this is, at times, incredibly useful, at other times it just makes things worse. The “worse” that results from speaking up tends to come right away: schoolyard bullies, for example, delight in prey that “fight back,” like cats playing with still-living mice. The “worse” that grows from silence usually comes later, which makes it hard to know when to retreat into silence and wait it out, and when it is worth taking something to the mats.
Some months ago, at a meeting with colleagues, I attempted several times (in vain) to make a point about a problem in the plans for a mutual project. The particulars aren’t relevant here; what matters is that I was trying to point out that if A, B, C are to be combined into D, and the current volume of A, B and C are 2D…well, we need to plan for 2D and not just D. The person in charge of the meeting plowed cheerfully over my objections. Alas, I continued to have concerns about the arithmetic and this was treated as some sort of mutiny and personal betrayal (it wasn’t). No explanation that it was merely a math problem was helpful. I spoke up, I tried again to speak up, and it was, clearly, not effective. Despite efforts to move forward as if all were fine, the relationship appears to be irretrievably damaged. (We did turn out to need 2D – and I did not reference the disagreement; it seemed inappropriate.)
A few months later, my unassertiveness floundered in the personal realm. Details are not necessary; suffice it to say that one person (call this person ‘Bob’) misrepresented a conversation to another (call this person ‘Sam’). Sam approached me with great distress as if I were somehow behind a plan that would involve many people descending upon Sam’s home (there was no plan and had there been, I would have been against it). Fortunately, there was at least some history here of the same type of thing happening in the past with Bob…Bob known to be of the temperament to leap to unexamined conclusions.
A few weeks later, my reluctance to engage in repeated attempts at being assertive ending up costing me two friendships. Back to word problems we go. Friend A said something interpreted to mean something entirely different than A intended by friends B and C. I was (as is regrettably often the case) lost in thought and didn’t hear precisely how the point was (mis)made, or mistaken. B and C elected not to confront A at the time. I, having heard A make this particular point very clearly many times, knew it was not meant as interpreted. When B and C were angry, I felt blindsided. It smacked of the recent colleague problem and social near miss. It is a poor excuse, but it seemed as if, after one attempt, it was useless to be more “assertive.” I felt, as it was with my colleague, that there was apparently no making things clear. I gave up – I dropped my end of the rope – have lost friends B and C, have a strained relationship with a valued colleague, and must face the fact I am the common denominator.
I don’t believe I am the only one at fault. Dismissing legitimate concerns, running off with rumors, closing off explanations: there are plenty of missteps to go around…but there, in the middle of it, am I, retreating into watchful silence when speech seems futile. Determining what is and is not futile obviously takes wisdom, which I lack.
I will still encourage clients to be assertive when it is the appropriate thing to do…we’ll just have to explore whether, and when, it is the appropriate choice.
Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC
Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.