Constructive assertiveness

Alexandre Plennevaux
4 min readFeb 16, 2023
Photo by Richard Lee on Unsplash

(Cet article existe aussi en français)

I came out of childhood hating and fearing conflicts. The violence of the arguments and fights of my parents made me feel like it was just better to shut up and move away as far and quickly as possible. I basically learned to avoid conflicts, especially by denying my emotions and pretending that it didn’t affect me.

Yet life has since then shown me repeatedly that it is destructive to react this way, and on the other hand, that conflicts are not necessarily bad, that between avoidance strategies and warlike confrontation, there is a third way, leading to a constructive dialogue. Let me call it (drumroll)… The path of constructive assertiveness.

Choosing this path strengthens the trust of the protagonists and therefore their relationship. Conversely, avoiding conflict means denying oneself. This prevents the relationship from evolving and becoming more genuine, potentially leading to a premature end or, on the contrary, to a frustrating and unfulfilling fossilization.

In this short article I share with you some tips and tricks that help me speak “truthfully” on a daily basis, without alienating the whole planet.

Principles of a constructive dialogue

  • Speak as an “I”, and avoid “you”. A coach talked about a police siren, when you are in the “you … you … you …” mode. It is much less agressive to speak in “I” and say what I feel. Example: You are mean! becomes I felt humiliated by your reaction.
  • Point not the person, but the behaviour. Just like you, every person knows him/herself better than you do, so avoid this posture where you would explain to the other person who he/she is. On the other hand, we all make mistakes and clumsiness.
  • Choose your words carefully: prefer “and” rather than “but”, “for the moment” rather than “always” or “never”… Some words and expressions have the gift of putting us on the defensive, because they put us in opposition, or express a condescending and finite judgment of who we are.
  • Start with the facts, then your subjective feelings, then end with a request, a proposal for a solution or if it is too early to be in the resolution, an open question. Read Lara Hogan’s excellent “feedback equation” on this subject.
  • Choose the time and the place. If possible, avoid reacting “on the spot” at the height of a strong emotion, and choose a discreet place to reframe the other person. Avoid “public shaming” by isolating yourself with the person. In a work environment where mutual trust is low, you can also ask an HR person to be present in order to facilitate the discussion and to give an “official” point of view…
  • Aim to improve the future rather than rewrite the past (which is, by the way, impossible). So, instead of You should have told me sooner, prefer Next time, could you tell me as soon as possible?
  • In an evaluation, avoid the “shit sandwich (first, a layer of “you’re great” then the real message as a layer of “you fucked up” and a final layer of “but you’re still great”). It is essentially manipulative and dishonest and, therefore, damage the relationship. I prefer to start with the glass half-full (recognition) and then the glass half-empty (opportunities for improvement in the future).

It takes two to tango

These are “tricks”, little techniques that have proven useful in many occasions. Yet if the person in front of you doesn’t choose this third way and looks for a fight (despite the fact that you really managed to express yourself in an assertive and non-aggressive way), well… It’s their freedom, their choice to live a shitty life. At least you know where you stand and can tell yourself that you have done your best to be constructive and that this relationship, if you choose to hold on to it, will be toxic for you.

No matter the outcome, you will have behaved like an assertive yet non-aggressive human being. That’s something to be proud of. In truth, it’s total class, you’ve been “grand” and somewhere along the way, you’ve made the world a better place, bringing your authenticity to it.

These tips help me especially with my teenager children, when I have to reframe them… but also to express positive feedback in the best way. Expressing thanks in an assertive way makes it so much richer!

What about you, have you discovered any tips and tricks that help you navigate life’s conflicts in a constructive way?

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Alexandre Plennevaux

Belgian UX designer / web developer / teacher. Favorite word: ideation