Assertiveness + Empathy = Effectiveness

  • November 5, 2018 |
  • 9:29 am |
  • Ed Nissen, MSW, LCSW

Case Study

Jessica came home from working late on a Wednesday. She and her husband, Chris, were already butting heads that week over some seemingly trivial issues. Chris expressed his desires with Jessica about wanting her to be less critical of him by saying, “You are too critical of me. Do you really think that makes me want to change?”. Chris wasn’t aware that a close friend of Jessica’s had been offering her suggestions about being more assertive with her partner. Responding to Chris’s expression of wanting less criticism, Jessica looked at him with as much of a serious face as she could and said, in a slightly high-pitched voice, “I’m sorry you feel that way”. She didn’t move or change her expression as she awaited his response. Chris immediately began to scan his skillset for an appropriate response, but something wasn’t quite right. It was clear to him that she was using assertiveness, yet he didn’t fully buy into her attempts to do so. Chris had known Jessica long enough to notice the subtlest of emotional cues as he processed her facial expression. There seemed to be a hint of contempt on her face, and he struggled to dismiss this, causing him furthered frustration. Suddenly, Chris was less inclined to resolve the conflict and he shut down.

The scenario above is common in many relationships. A quick analysis of this interaction might conclude that Jessica had a right to assert herself and Chris could stand to learn how to be more receptive to her assertiveness. While this is true, it only speaks to half the equation here. On the other hand, had he used a little empathy, he may have gotten a better response from her. While it is her responsibility to respond well, it is his responsibility to effectively get his message across, to elicit the best possible response from her.

Going a little further into this analysis might reveal deeper issues. Most people can learn what assertiveness is and how to be assertive. Assertiveness is acting firmly while standing up for yourself and/or what is right. It is important to understand…

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