Non-pretty life


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


9 thoughts on “Non-pretty life

  1. So true! It’s such a challenge addressing this topic with these words with so much baggage as “assertive” and “aggressive.” But what is authenticity if not asserting who you really are? And the only thing I would add to your comments is the importance of appreciating authentic assertiveness when we see it coming from another person. Listening rather than reacting can help take things to the next level.


    • Great point. It runs both ways; the other test is being with the authenticity when it’s coming our way and not pulling out of the conversation or cutting the other person down. The book is good in emphasizing it’s virtually guaranteed the first response will be a defensive one. So the important thing is not to be put off, and to give the receiver (or ourselves) time to get over the shock and formulate a second response.

      About authenticity … this is the reason trying to teach communication skills is mostly a waste of time. We don’t recall or apply skills when we’re in the middle of communicating. On the other hand, if we’re being authentic, we don’t have to recall or apply anything; we simply express who we are and our mastery is always already there.


  2. Blogging is the perfect example of authenticity- without it a blog is a dud, with it a blog suffers until a following remains after the mass has pulled out in quest of being fed apple sauce. As to the choice of image leading your story, regardless of the purpose of the image or it’s subject, the artist accomplished a near perfect composition – in reverse. A beautiful painting as a story telling image and does not fit the un-pretty life on most levels, but only if you flip it.
    Radio lab did a story on reversals, (long but worth it) Link included.
    If you get the time, flip your image horizontally and see for yourself a different view, a pretty picture if you look into the human and not into the prison-esque.
    I liked this posting because in some way, your own authenticity peeks through, all of your posts have good truth, but this one is itself authentic. Maybe the responses will tell.


    • Hi John. Choosing images is such a great topic. I wondered if people would wonder about this choice.
      I just choose an image for how it makes me feel, I don’t try to match it to the subject. Sometimes, afterwards I see it can be said to relate to the subject.

      I chose this because I wanted those colours in my life and also the feeling of hot sun (we were having our first proper hot day after a week of cool and cloudy weather). When you flip on its side are you talking of the golden mean? I think Jeffrey Smart is renowned for his mathematical composition. He was a famous Australian artist who lived and worked in Italy for decades and died last year in his 90s.

      Re blogging, it’s fascinating, isn’t it? I think blogs are a combination of authenticity, performance, exploration. The posts I’m grateful for are where something gets generated in the writing, where the experience is actually there. They’re the ones where I cry. Sometimes the audience hears it too, sometimes not.

      Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out over the weekend.


      • Nice reply, Flip it horizontal, not turn but the left side goes right, if you flip it it is a perfect composition, not golden mean, just geometrically balanced, like the old masters would do. Also it places the focal line of vision in the upper right third which does use the golden mean, a traditional layout for a painting of meaning.
        I see why you wanted the warm colors.
        Thank you for replying, it was a good post you put up.


  3. Love this post.

    I find myself continually gravitating towards authentic people, authentic writing, authentic blogs.

    There is a BIG difference between assertive & aggressive.

    Being Authentic is Empowering, but also risky!! xxx


    • Well put. And as one gravitates towards being authentic, people or writing which is affected is harder to be with.

      Your commitment to being authentic is one of the reasons why your blog is a must-read. Plus, you teach me about LOVE! xxx


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