The Assertive New Me!

The Assertive New Me!

The other day in class, I stopped in my tracks. "She makes it seem so easy!" a parent had said of me. 

Our topic was Confrontive I-Messages. As in each of my courses, the participants were eager to practice Thomas Gordon's proven, practical tips on how to accomplish the following:  

When our children, spouse or anyone does something that is below our Line of Acceptance, Dr. Gordon says the best bet is to give a full I-Message:

We were working on a real-life -- albeit very Hong Kong -- scenario: a parent's domestic helper was doing the child's chores for him.

Someone gave the initial message a go:

"When you clean David's room and do other things that he is responsible for, I feel really frustrated because on Sundays it's much harder to get his cooperation."

We added other concrete and tangible effects:

  • "During summer vacations, it's even that much more difficult for him to unlearn habits."
  • "I am prevented from raising my children with values important to me!"

At that point, a mom, shrugging ruefully, raised this probability: "And then she'll just walk away and continue doing what she's been doing all along."

There were groans of agreement from others.

Living with domestic help -- especially as an expat for the first time -- is fraught with challenges (though no one denies the upside). The sense of powerlessness and hopelessness I was hearing called for attention so we paused to consider our options.

I urged the class to think about this scenario in light of the Behavior Window.

 "Other" can be substituted for "child" -- these brilliant skills are universal!

"Other" can be substituted for "child" -- these brilliant skills are universal!

What started out as the parent's problem was now, temporarily, the helper's problem. As a result of the confrontation -- however expertly constructed and delivered -- she was experiencing oft-seen resistance and emotional heat that would have to be dealt with if we were to increase our chances of her changing out of consideration for our needs.

And so we spent a little time practicing Shifting Gears to Active Listen:

Parent: "You seem really annoyed that I'm bringing this up again!"

Helper: "Yes, Ma'am, I have a lot of work to do. You want me to make that dish for dinner. I don't have time for this."

"And then," I said, "You continue to Active Listen to find out what her needs are. But once she feels heard, you OWE IT TO YOURSELF to reassert with a Confrontive I-Message. You are raising YOUR child."

I modeled: "I hear you are really burdened and frustrated and yet this is something very important to me. It's a really strong value I have!"

That's when one mom whispered to another that I was such a natural.

I don't think anyone noticed my barely audible intake of breath. I was momentarily dumbstruck but for the best reason: I was stunned by the fact of my own transformation.

I'm still a work in progress but, OMG, I used to be pretty far down on one end of the passive-assertive-aggressive spectrum. You guess which side:

  • Once, I was getting a pedicure and the woman was so distracted or unskilled that she was filing skin instead of a callous. I didn't say anything for fear of being "that difficult customer." My heel was bleeding.
  • A new friend and I planned for days what we were each bringing to a town Fourth of July picnic. When the holiday rolled around, she mysteriously did not answer my calls so we never did meet up at the park. I dropped her rather than ask what had happened.
  • My modus operandi with my husband used to be to seethe silently and then, when we finally did have a row, sideswipe him with a litany of complaints.
  • I was passive aggressive and sarcastic with my children many more times than I'd like to admit.

There are numerous other examples, reaching all the way into my childhood. And that's a significant point: I learned non-assertive coping mechanisms because I lacked role-modeling. I cannot blame my mother (my father passed away when I was two); she probably never witnessed healthy ways to resolve conflict either. (I know what my grandparents were like and a bit about Korean culture.)

I had come to a sudden momentous realization: I have broken an intergenerational cycle of passivity! 

[P]arents today rely almost universally on the same methods of raising children and dealing with problems in their families that were used by their own parents, by their parents’ parents, by their grandparents’ parents. Unlike almost all other institutions of society, the parent-child relationship seems to have remained unchanged. Parents depend on methods used two thousand years ago!
— Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, page 4

My children, especially my older two who more clearly remember the old me, see how Confrontive I-Messages have contributed to my metamorphosis. What's more, all three kids have grown increasingly comfortable using them themselves. Their children will be facile with them too, I happily predict.

I didn't make this change alone. I didn't do it after reading the P.E.T. book. I didn't even do it after sending away for the Family Effectiveness Training kit and trying to lead Saturday morning sessions which devolved into blaming and threatening.

No, I did it in community by signing up for a class

The P.E.T. course gave me the chance to ground the much-desired, fine-sounding goal of a "democratic relationship with your kids" in actual practice. I needed to hear and experience confrontation in a supportive setting before trying it at home.

Because what I was trying to do was crucial to my parenting goals but scary too:

It takes a certain amount of courage to send I-Messages but the rewards are generally well-worth the risks. The sender of an honest I-Message risks becoming known to the other as she really is . . . She tells the other that she is a person capable of being hurt or embarrassed or frightened or disappointed or angry or discouraged, and so on. For many parents, it is much easier to hide their feelings under a You-Message that puts blame on the child than to expose their own human-ness.
— Gordon, P.E.T., page 136

Listening to the challenges of other parents, sharing my own and struggling together to gain clarity and competence was invaluable to my growth. As a social worker and someone who's lived it, let me say that there is mighty power in groups.

So, wouldn't you know it -- one Confrontive I-Message at a time, I have become someone who makes it look easy.

And well that should be. I owe myself a big debt for neglecting to honor and champion my own needs for so many years.

More on raising assertive children:

Check out the list I found in an article from Kids Health for teenagers. Many P.E.T. skills besides Confrontive I-Messages -- such as Active Listening, Declarative I-Messages, Preventive I-Messages and Method III Problem Solving -- all help children gain the attitude that their desires and needs are important.

I hope my children can be assertive in all sorts of situations, including -- gulp! -- those involving sex. As in the article "This Woman Just Explained Consent With the Most Perfect Metaphor: Let's Break It Down, Shall We?," I want them to make it clear they don't want that cup of tea if they don't. (Note to self: brilliant illustration to use in Consulting) 

Supporting ourselves

Many articles on the "learnable" skill of assertiveness list formal training as an option. P.E.T. is parenting and assertiveness rolled into one. Woohoo! Who knew about this bonus?!

I have also chosen someone who helps me grow this quality. In master P.E.T. trainer and associate certified coach Kathryn Tonges, I have found a style of leadership that I can comfortably emulate. Kathryn models a quiet but firm insistence, a confidence in her right to speak up. I soaked it all up over the 50 hours of my certification course with her and now treat myself to Skype sessions. 

Credits: Assertive visual (