An assertive, emotionally intelligent, approach to advocacy enables achieving the goals of getting to the right decision - design, plan, agreement - and maintaining healthy relationships that enable people to work and live together happily and effectively.
The theme of my book Managing Conflict in Projects is the ability to reach optimal resolutions and maintain healthy relationships by being an assertive, non-aggressive, advocate, combining analytical clarity, mindful awareness, and emotional intelligence.
In this article the focus is on achieving the goals of optimal decisions and healthy relationships by being assertive, with an open mind, clear communication and a sense of collaboration rather than enmity, even with the opposition.
These qualities go beyond project work. They are basic foundations for effective performance, conscious living, happiness, and stress reduction.
"Be supple mentally. Strength does not lie in being firm and strong but in being pliable. The pliable tree stands in a gale. Gather the strength of a swift mind." – J. Krishnamurti"Be supple mentally.
Must One Be Aggressive to 'Win’?
However, there is a widespread belief that it takes aggression to get things done. Is this belief well founded or is it the result of listening to and emulating people who do not know how to use the powers of open mindedness, kindness, and effective communication to find best ways forward?
Does non-aggressive, acceptance get in the way of being effective in leading, managing conflict and effectively promoting one's ideas? Does non-aggression and acceptance mean being a doormat for aggressive coworkers, opponents, and partners? The short answer is NO!
These questions have come up many times in coaching and learning sessions. Let's explore to find an optimal way of addressing sensitive issues, disagreements, and decision making.
Aggression and Assertiveness
We begin by defining aggression and assertiveness. Aggression and assertiveness are often used as synonyms, but when we analyze them, we find important differences.
Aggression brings to mind hostility, violence, opposition, and a readiness to attack. It is "strong self-assertion with hostile or harmful tones. ... Aggressive behaviors can lead to academic, employment, financial, legal and relationship problems."
Assertiveness has a different connotation. To be assertive "means being able to stand up for your own or other people's rights in a calm and positive way, without being either aggressive, or passively accepting 'wrong'."
Neither aggression nor assertiveness are passive, indifferent, or apathetic. The difference between them is that unlike aggressiveness, assertiveness is not destructive and threatening. To be assertive is to be self-confidently forceful without the anger and hostility. Assertiveness is compatible with empathy, kindness and caring.
So, one can be a successful advocate by being assertive rather than aggressive. You can care about or at least be cognizant of others and still be a proponent of your ideas and wellbeing. You can overcome the anger, frustration, jealousy, and fear that trigger aggression.
Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness: Foundation for Assertiveness
This is where emotional intelligence (EI) comes into the picture. EI is the learnable capacity to apply self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills, empathy, and awareness of one's motivation. EI enables the ability to cut through the tendency to be driven by emotions into aggression or passivity.
Mindfulness is the capacity and courage to objectively observe everything, including one's inner workings. Mindfulness enables EI.
See below for references for more on EI and Mindfulness.
Acceptance is a factor in healthy assertiveness. Acceptance is the capacity to see and be OK with reality. In this context, acceptance does not mean favoring or passively living with what is "wrong." It means that one is wise to see things objectively as they are, be OK with them, and from the platform of OK-ness move forward to assert and promote change.
For example, one can accept the fact that people have different ideas that oppose yours without either being angry at them or agreeing with them for the sake of peace. Taking it to another level, one can accept that opposing ideas are better or at least as good as yours. Accepting that leads to collaboration to find the optimal solution regardless of its author.
Aggression is perceived by the aggressee. Sometimes, the aggressor is acting consciously. Other times a person may think that he or she is acting in a perfectly benign way, while others may experience a sense of fear because they perceive aggression.
The role of Emotional intelligence becomes clear as we understand that aggression involves the interplay among behaviors, individual perceptions, emotions, cultural norms, intention, and values. Understanding from the perspective of others enables collaboration and a greater ability to manage aggression.
Here are two examples of how perceived aggression can affect relationships and performance:
- Bill says to Paula, "You speak so well." If Paula is a person of color, she might sense a micro aggression. Paula might think "Of course I speak well I was well educated, grew up in the suburbs, and have a PhD in English Lit from Yale." She might have the sense of being stereotyped by her ethnicity. And that may bring up psychological and emotional issues.
- At a design session, Harry says "That's a dumb idea and here's why." and then goes on a critique, identifying all the flaws in Jim's concept. Harry's demeanor, his vibe, is strongly competitive. There is an underlying sense of anger. Harry doesn't perceive himself as being aggressive. He is just advocating for his idea in the way he has always advocated. "That's the way I am." he thinks and says. His behavior may trigger any number of reactions and responses. Those that know him and recognize his knowledge and critical ability, might be thinking, there he goes again. Once he's done, we will have all the negatives and we can explore the positive side. Others might react differently depending on their emotional intelligence.
The bottom line is that it is skillful to be assertive rather than aggressive. Take the anger that drives aggression and transmute it into analytical clarity. Use the clarity to assert what is "right." Couple that with a motivation to find the optimal way forward, with healthy relationships.
The action steps are:
- Cultivate mindful awareness.
- Intend to be responsive rather than reactive.
- Observe your behavior and feelings.
- Note anger, fear, insecurity, and all the other emotions.
- See yourself and your ideas objectively, as if they weren't yours.
- Experience the presence of empathetic co-operation - the natural capacity for people to work together.
Here are a few resources for those wanting to explore further.
Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel GolemanEmotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman
Managing Conflict in Projects: Applying Mindfulness and Analysis for Optimal Results, by George Pitagorsky PMI Publishing 2012,
Making Effective Decisions: What is the Truth and How Important is it?
Conflict Management - Trading Anger for Understanding
Ready For Anything - Mindfully Aware
The Practical Side of Empathy - A Critical PM Success Factor
"What Makes A Leader" by Daniel Goleman, best of Harvard Business Review 1998
Mindfulness Meditation Practice
Short video tutorials on what mindfulness meditation is and how to do it