The communication skills book has got on to a good part which has little to do with skills, and everything to do with the ontological resources required to be authentic.
The author is distinguishing three types of behaviour: submissive, aggressive and assertive. He says two things in particular that are interesting about assertive behaviour, in my parlance, being authentic.
He points out that being authentic is not easy and often comes with a price. I think it’s important to recognise this; not everyone is pleased when you start being authentic. It violates the “looking-good/avoiding looking-bad” code of our society’s agreements, and other people can be uneasy, frightened they’re going to lose you, frightened something similar is going to be expected of them, angry because your change is viewed as a reproach to them. He says:
While authenticity in a relationship makes possible joy and intimacy, it also leads to some conflict. To be assertive involves a willingness to risk dissension knowing that some conflict is necessary to build a significant relationship of equals. To be assertive also involves becoming vulnerable in significant relationships. Without that vulnerability, one cannot experience the joy of enduring love … Still, when we dare to be vulnerable, even with trusted friends, we sometimes get hurt. *
He also points out that being assertive in conversations does not usually lead to pretty conversations. Occasionally, you can say something in such a way that the space opens up straightaway, and then the magic occurs. But this is rare. As he says:
No matter how well we phrase assertion messages, people seldom like to receive them … We warn our students, “When you send a well-worded assertion message, don’t expect an accolade. Anticipate an attack or some other form of defensive response.”
I tell my workshop participants something similar. If you’re going to be straight with someone, if you’re going to move something that’s been in the Unsaid for possibly years or decades to the Said, the conversation may not be pretty. It may be rough around the edges, scratchy, messy, uncertain. But prettiness is not the point. Pretty is what you’ve had and it’s just another word for comatose. The point is that you’ve found the wherewithall, the courage, to have the conversation.
Without the conversation, nothing is possible. With the conversation, everything is possible. It may turn out or it may not; what counts is that it’s moving again.
Life is back on.
* People skills: How to assert yourself, listen to others, and resolve conflicts by Robert Bolton
Image: On the roof, Taylor Square, 1961 by Jeffrey Smart