How to be Assertive: 'No' and Criticism
Here's more on how I learned how to be assertive both personally and professionally. Learning how to do this was as much about learning to say 'No' as anything else. My friendships seemed to be particularly stressful when I began my teaching career. As a young person I thought that I had jettisoned most of the bullies from my childhood, even though I was still rather obsessed with the 'wrongs' that had been done to me. As I look back now in my 40's I fail to understand why I still felt like a victim but I obviously did and I was, in my twenties, still seeking out (albeit unconsciously) friends who would dominate me in life. People who I simply could not bring myself to say 'no' to.
No. Its a small word but it would not be an exaggeration to say that it changed my life and taught me how to be assertive. Ironically it was teaching lessons on assertiveness as a part of my role as Form Tutor, that finally allowed me to say it and mean it. I remember the lesson clearly; The children were in a line all, practicing how to say 'No' as loudly and as forcefully as they wanted. The idea was to practice it and then do a role play where someone would try to talk you out of a decision. You had to learn how to be assertive, by saying 'no' to their request, getting the word out early, not apologizing for it and not changing your mind.
If your partner argued you needed to use the 'Broken Record' technique where you would repeat a 'no' phrase, such as 'No, I don't want to do that' three times until the other person got the message. Three times seemed to be magic number, for those learning how to be assertive. It still is if you try it out.
The effect on me was dramatic. I began to use the word with my friends and family. I may well have gone a little overboard at first as I sensed the liberation from life as a 'Yes-Man'. I felt free to choose for the first time and I was prepared for the flak, for broken friendships if necessary because what I gained was far more valuable. I began to respect myself and incrementally others, pupils included, began to respect me as assertive discipline became a part of who I was as a teacher.
The second major lesson as I was learning assertive discipline, was to do with criticism. Both giving and receiving. Again this was something that I learned to do after teaching it to others. It did not come naturally to me as I tended to want to avoid confrontation at all costs, perhaps because I had been unable to handle the strong emotions involved. As you read the rules, try to imagine using these principles in class and as necessary in your personal life. Once you do, you will see that conflict can always be managed calmly and respectfully, when you learn how to be assertive.
• Use 'I' statements. As soon as you accuse someone of anything, particularly if you begin with 'you always..' 'you never..' or rhetorical questions such as 'why do you...?' you are asking for an argument. However no-one can argue with your feelings, so use statements like 'I feel angry/frustrated/hurt when you..' Take responsibility for your own feelings and you encourage others to do the same.
• Find a private space to criticize. Respect the other person's right not to be publicly humiliated and they will do the same for you. Ask to see them at the end of a lesson. Ask them to wait outside during a lesson, for more immediacy. Children who misbehave often simply need your attention. Give it to them in a positive and constructive way.
• Get your facts right. Preferably get the pupil to give you the information that you need by appealing to their better nature and showing that you are prepared to spend time with them. Try not accuse them of something unless you witnessed them doing something wrong.
• Think win/win. Encouraging children to take responsibility for their behaviour will minimize misbehavior in the future. A great technique is to quietly ask them if they know why you have asked to see them and then leave a long and uncomfortable pause. Never shout if at all possible. Show them you are prepared to respect them whilst being firm about protecting your rights and class boundaries. Criticize the behaviour not the child.
• Get agreement. Even if its just an agreement to behave well until the end of the lesson, it suggests a willingness on the part of the student to change their behaviour. This change then, will be the result of your taking time to spend some private time with them and modeling how to be assertive and create the disired results.
Then of course, when you learn how to be assertive and practice assertive discipline, you need to know how to receive criticism well, something we rarely think about. Criticism can come in all forms and from all quarters; from a pupil telling you that your lesson is boring to a colleague criticizing your work. You need to play high status and be aware of your rights when you receive it. Often with children, it will be designed as a put down and as an attempt to lower your status. Keep your status high and it will not affect you. For more on Status, see the next section.
• Find the grain of truth. A child tells you that the lesson is boring. To learn how to be assertive, you must step back.If the activity itself bores them then you can acknowledge this and mention the more interesting, practical activities to come. If these do not yet exist you can take their feedback as an impetus to differentiate the work. Look for generalizations like 'always' and 'never' and focus on clarifying those.
• Thank them. When discovering how to be assertive, a powerful way to re-frame a criticism is to take the emotional context out of the criticism and think of it as feedback (see the 'Rapport' section for more). Using the previous example, there is nothing wrong in thanking the pupil for their feedback. It can humorously defuse a tense situation as well.
• Don't get angry. It is tempting to become emotional when criticized, although by reacting, you may well be playing into the hands of a pupil who is simply trying to have fun at your expense. Becoming emotional will also stop you from dealing with the criticism in a constructive way.
• Call a put down. When someone makes an inappropriate personal comment about you, particularly in public, then all you need to do is say; 'No we don't do put downs here. We respect each other'.
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