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Assertiveness and the Holiday Season

Assertiveness and the Holiday Season

Those of you who follow this blog or who read the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants for Legal Professionals in Canada know that the Study identified two key skills which can protect our profession from negative factors in our work lives. These two skills are assertiveness and psychological detachment, and as they are skills rather than innate qualities, they can be learned and strengthened. But have you thought about applying these skills to your personal life, especially at demanding times of year like the Holiday Season when we face social situations which can challenge our personal equilibriums as well as our work lives?
First, let’s review how the National Study defines assertiveness:

(pg 264)

The National Study outline eight reasons why assertiveness is important

  1. It is directly associated with the reduction of the three health indicators measured: psychological distress, depressive symptoms and burnout.
  2. It reduces the negative impact of work overload on psychological distress.
  3. It reduces the increase of depressive symptoms associated with emotional demands.
  4. It enhances the protective effect of experience on depressive symptoms.
  5. It increases the protective effect of experience on burnout.
  6. It is associated with an increased commitment to the profession and decreased intention to leave it.
  7. It is associated with a decrease in work–life conflict.
  8. It is associated with lower alcohol use.
 (pg 278)

While some of these reasons are work-related (numbers 2, 6 and 7), the remaining five may apply to our personal lives as well.
I hope that many of you will be puzzled by why I am linking a key resilience skill to the holiday season because you do not face stressful family and social situations. However, many of us know, or fear, that we will have difficult encounters with people and wish that we didn’t have to attend functions where the difficult people will be able to ruffle our feathers.
This is where the definition of assertiveness comes in. First, it is rooted in confidence in our interpersonal relationships. If you have a difficult person in your seasonal midst, you may feel that you cannot express your emotions spontaneously. In fact, you may be laughing at the idea that you could have the confidence to express your emotions spontaneously when Uncle Fred or Aunt Bertha starts in with views that you find objectionable. If you were to express your emotions spontaneously, you would find yourself saying things like “That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard anyone say” and you would be on the receiving end of dirty looks from family members that just want everyone to get along and be nice at family gatherings.
You have to read the next phrase—the definition isn’t a buffet that we can make selections from! You also have to be able to set boundaries that respect your rights, thoughts, and feelings without denying those of others. Whether we like it or not, Uncle Fred or Aunt Bertha were invited by the hosts, so we will want to balance expressing our emotions spontaneously and setting personal boundaries with respecting the rights, thoughts and feelings of family members we care about (even if we don’t care about Uncle Fred or Aunt Bertha’s feelings.)
I would like to share a real-life situation that an assistant of mine faced many years ago when she was expecting her second child. An older female co-worker would say the same thing to my assistant when they saw each other. The older woman would say, every time, “are you sure that you aren’t expecting twins? You look awfully big to me for x months.” My assistant would smile politely and say that no, she was not expecting twins and she was the size she was. Once was bad enough, but repeatedly asking this question was awful.
To solve this situation using an assertiveness style, we would say something like this:

  • You have asked me this question before and I have to tell you that when you say that I must be having twins because I am so large for six months, I feel bad about myself, that I can’t achieve your concept of a perfect pregnancy. If by some miracle that my doctors haven’t identified it turns out that I am indeed expecting twins, I will tell you but I would appreciate it if you would not ask that question again.

It uses the “when you ______, I feel _______” method of giving feedback which helps ensure that you are not attacking the other person (even though you may want to.) I don’t know how the colleague would have responded to this, but I would like to think that she would have realized that she had been insensitive and that she would have stopped asking her favourite question.
You can use the same technique in your social sphere. Imagine that it is an overbearing aunt who keeps asking if you are having twins. You deliver the same message, and if the aunt is anything but a complete jerk, she will stop now that she knows that you find it hurtful. Consider as well “I feel sad when you ask me if I have finally met someone so that I will not be single for the rest of my life.” 
However, since we don’t live in a perfect world, you may have to deal with some difficult people who do not accept your feedback, even when phrased in the “I feel ____ when you ______.” So, I have looked at the definition of assertiveness and want to propose some ideas for what you can do when you have to attend group functions, like dinners, where it can be hard to avoid someone who pushes your buttons.
Here are a few suggestions from me:

  • First, know what your potential triggers are. You may know from past experience that certain subjects cause Uncle Fred or Aunt Bertha to go off the rails—let’s say it is American politics. If it looks like the conversation is heading into that territory, can you interject and say something like “I was always taught not to talk about politics, religion and money in polite company, and I would really like to believe that our family is polite company! Let’s agree to just not go there tonight so we can all enjoy our time together.” You have expressed your emotion (dislike of the direction the conversation is going) and you have set out your boundary that you do not want to talk about American politics. You have not challenged Uncle Fred or Aunt Bertha’s right to think what they think or to talk about it in other settings, and you have not called them stupid! This is a win if you can move the conversation to a safer subject like how your favourite NHL team is doing.
  • Secondly, if your boundaries are about to be violated because Uncle Fred or Aunt Bertha looks delighted at the prospect of getting under your skin, be ready with an excuse to get up and leave the conversation. It can be hard to think of something appropriate when under pressure, so plan in advance. It could be that you need to call the babysitter to check on how the kids are doing, or you can see an important email coming in from your boss who is handling an emergency—whatever makes the most sense for your situation. Announce your need to deal with this issue and move to the kitchen or a safe place that you scoped out earlier and remain there until the need for the emergency evacuation has passed. Or offer to take the host’s dog for a walk since you can tell they are getting antsy or need the exercise.  You have expressed your emotions—that you do not want to talk about a subject, and then you have asserted your boundary and maintained it.
  • Thirdly, if when you return to the table, Uncle Fred or Aunt Bertha gets a gleeful look in their eyes and you can tell that they are about to relaunch their diatribe in order to breach your politely protected boundaries, you may have to be more blunt: “I do not want to discuss politics with you, Uncle Fred/Aunt Bertha, because you know that we disagree and it makes many people at this table uncomfortable. We want everyone here to have a good time tonight, so let’s talk about what your grandkids are doing now.”
  • And be ready to implement your pre-determined action plan if this doesn’t work. Can you invite others who don’t want to talk about American politics to move into the living room with you—“why don’t those of us who don’t want to talk about Trump move to the living room so we can talk about something less inflammatory?” Or consider if it is about time to go home using whatever your phone emergency was earlier? Have a strategy in advance. Staying at the event and letting Uncle Fred/Aunt Bertha needle you is disempowering and potentially harmful. Consider discussing your strategy with an ally in advance so you feel more confident. Then politely thank your host and leave if necessary!
  • Can you think proactively of ways to approach the issue with lightness or humour? Perhaps you can bring a jar labelled something like “Conversational No-Nos” and tell everyone they will have to put in a loonie (or an IOU) every time they wander into sensitive topics. Or can you bring a list of “what if” questions that can take the conversation in a different way, like “let’s go around the table and say ten things we would take with us if we had to spend 100 days on a desert island all alone.” Sometimes, diversion (and not discretion!) is the better form of valour.

 One of Assist’s peer support volunteers considers these strategies as part of an “In case of emergency, break glass” kit. Forewarned is forearmed, and if you need help developing your armaments, please consider meeting with an Assist psychologist to work on your plan.

If there is a large table, can you engage the person on your other side in conversation? Better yet, arrange with the host that you will be seated next to someone who can give you support. You can practice deep breathing while reciting the mantra “let it go, let it go, let it go.” Or do you best to block your ears and look in another direction while saying “la la la” or “I am not listening” in your head. In theory, conversational bullies will back off when they aren’t getting the reaction they crave.
Each group is unique, so I want to share a few other strategies which can be helpful for navigating challenging group dynamics:

  • Try to find common ground: Identify shared values or interests among the group members. Emphasizing common ground can help bridge the gap and foster a more positive atmosphere.
  • Listen Actively: Practice active listening and try to understand others' viewpoints without necessarily agreeing with them. Avoid interrupting and show empathy, even if you disagree. This can help defuse tension.
  • Use Humour: Lighten the mood with humor. A well-placed joke or a funny anecdote can shift the focus away from divisive issues and create a more relaxed atmosphere.
  • As we head into the holiday season, we are hoping for special times with the people (and pets) we love most, but we know that there will be parties or gatherings—both family and work events—where we will have to deal with difficult people. We may not be able to avoid difficult people altogether so we can work on our assertiveness skills—and perhaps our “break glass in case of emergency” preparedness-- and we can plan proactively so we have alternatives to either suppressed rage or telling off someone inappropriately.
  • You may also want to distance yourself from the conversational bully. If the table is large, can you engage with the person on your other side in conversation? Better yet, arrange with the host that you will be seated next to someone who can give you support. You can practice deep breathing while reciting the mantra “let it go, let it go, let it go.” Or do you best to block your ears and look in another direction while saying “la la la” or “I am not listening” in your head. In theory, conversational bullies will back off when they aren’t getting the reaction they crave.
  • Diversions can be helpful. Here is a link to some “what if” questions (although I would eliminate the ones with any with political overtones!)
  • Here is a link to some fun “this versus that” questions (like which is worse, pineapple pizza or candy corn?):

Remember that you can always call Assist and that our crisis counselling service is available 24/7 if you need crisis support. Call 1-877-498-6898—we are here for you!