Many of the skills of peacemaking have emerged from work with at-risk populations. Assertiveness training can help anyone—students, teachers, parents, community and business leaders, professionals and average citizens and others—distinguish between actions that are aggressive and those that could be considered submissive. These differences can be important when considering actions and attitudes that are, instead, driven by ego, for example. Here is where humility and meekness, together with a commitment to assertive communication, offer an alternative to power, control and violence.
Invariably, it is when people let their emotions fuel their aggressive tendencies that violence can erupt. Unfortunately, it can also be true that retreating to a submissive state can undermine a democratic process that benefits from everyone’s participation. Humility and weakness married to assertiveness can help people take the necessary initiative to address real problems and move toward sustainable solutions.
It is that place in between aggressive and submissive responses where the assertive response lies, delivered with confidence, usually face to face and with direct eye contact, behaviors that even the truly humble and meek can learn to express. As such it offers the clearest and most effective communication, a foundation for peacebuilding.
At one end of this continuum, anyone of us can become hostile. We can get angry, adopt a negative attitude or become aggressive. We can blame someone else—a colleague, the students or their parents, the culture.
On the other end of this continuum, we can play a submissive role, allow others to dominate or some injustice to continue. At times it may just be inertia that wins. Or we let our confusions paralyze us. We may suffer in silence or look for excuses. We may define ourselves as introverts and be uncomfortable out front on issues. We may feel overwhelmed by events that seem too big, too dangerous or too far away.
Taking some time to discuss and practice assertive responses can help people take more responsibility for their own actions, especially when they’re involved in group projects where success often builds on everyone’s contributions. For peacebuilding efforts to endure, grassroots efforts usually require everyone involved to be willing to take some initiative and assume a share of the responsibility.
On any task, we can help others with the following:
- Being more direct in their communication, expressing clearly and concisely what they want, how they feel and what they need.
- Focusing on honesty in communication.
- Being more empathetic toward others and working toward understanding those with different opinions.
- Being more persistent in their requests by, for example, making eye contact when appropriate.
Guidelines for training
All that may sound straightforward enough, but time and guidance are often required as people shift from either submissive or aggressive responses. So here are some additional recommendations that can help people make more assertive responses:
- Before individuals act, have them reflect some on the problem they are having and develop a clear definition for themselves of what they think is wrong.
- Help people plan for a preferred response. They can start by clarifying what they want. Help these people take some initiative, doing or saying something constructive.
- Before they attempt to put a plan into practice, many are helped with a visualization, how they think a situation would play out with different responses?
- Now it’s time to practice on others—classmates, friends, co-workers or family members.
- Finally, have these people put a new plan into action and evaluate the results.
These guidelines are not just for addressing problems, however. People can use the same principles and practices to express appreciation to someone who is sensitive to their needs, to a group member who comes on time and is ready to work, to someone who puts a stimulating challenge out there for them to meet, or to those who are pushing to end violence and promote peacebuilding.
Adapted from William M. Timpson’s (2002) Teaching and Learning Peace (Madison, WI: Atwood.
Bill Timpson has been on the faculty at Colorado State University in its School of Education for many years and a member of the Fort Collins Rotary Club where his focus on sustainable peacebuilding in Burundi, East Africa, has been supported by two Global Grants.