Being assertive bothers me
October 11, 2013 1:49 PM   Subscribe

Trying to practice being assertive, and it is backfiring. What do I do?

Hi everyone. I've been trying to be more assertive. I'm a people pleaser by nature, but have been passive-(aggressive?) my whole life. I don't appreciate where it's taken me, and I know I need to make some changes. Recently, I told people on a forum much like this one, to avoid discussing personal details regarding the person teaching us. I mentioned this in a very neutral way - no names, just asking them to discuss these details elsewhere. I was the person who created the forum and created it only to discuss academic material. It kind of blew up, with people telling me to lighten up or take a joke. These kind of comments always bother me. As if common sense and etiquette makes you an anal person. And that illustrates my point perfectly. I have been spewing in every single direction wanting to say something to these "jerks" (quotation marks because that's my aggressiveness? talking). Say something incredibly mean and asshole-ish. Deleting them off the forum. I'm scared. I thought assertiveness meant the opposite of what is happening right now? It would have been so much better if I had never spoken up, and well, let them keep doing their thing.
posted by raintree to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I thought assertiveness meant the opposite of what is happening right now?

Assertiveness is a thing you do; it is not a thing that happens. Being assertive does not guarantee that people will respond the way you want. Many people WILL respond to assertiveness by being jerks. And it takes some time to develop the thick skin that will make it easier for you to see other people's asshole-ness as NOT your problem.

Would it REALLY have been better for you not to have spoken up? Would you not be in the EXACT same space of thinking these people are jerks, wanting to cuss them out, wanting to delete them? Only instead of having said your piece and stood up for your forum, you'd also know that you did absolutely nothing and were just being passive.

As the creator of the forum, you can continue being assertive by saying from now on, the forum will operate under a set of posted rules. Violators will be moderated, warned, and eventually deleted.
posted by like_a_friend at 1:58 PM on October 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

Hey, you asserted yourself, and people were assholes. Just because you assert yourself, it doesn't mean that other people are going to bow down and agree with you.

My recommendation is to keep the emotion out of any interaction.

For example.

This forum is exclusively for the discussion of academic issues. Please do not discuss personal issues regarding the instructor here.

That's an emotion neutral statement.

Anyone who reacts badly to this can get:

Per the rules of the forum, personal comments will not be tolerated.

If they still come back with shit, disable their account for 3 days with a message:

Due to your refusal to comply with our request, your account has been temporarily disabled.

Don't wrestle with pigs. You get dirty and the pig likes it. This goes triple on the internet.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:00 PM on October 11, 2013 [21 favorites]

Being assertive in no way keeps people from being jerks, and it will not protect you from flak.

It will help protect you from being walked on, because as your skills and confidence grow, you'll get better and better at A) letting jerkish shit roll right off you, and B) drawing boundaries and keeping them.

Go through jessamyn's and/or cortex's smalltext mod-style comments here on AskMe and over on the blue for examples of "Here are the rules and guidelines, follow them Or Else" language.
posted by rtha at 2:05 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

You can ask, rather than tell, people to do things, and still do it in an assertive manner. It often ends up being much more effective this way.

Web forums have a tendency to be particularly bad at amplifying annoyances and letting them stew in both annoyer and annoyees heads to the point of escalation.

It is always a very wise idea to re-read anything emotive you're about to post on a webforum with as keen, and as objective as possible, an eye for the tone in which you're coming across. Remember that you don't have body language or tone of voice at your disposal - these are two things which we use instinctively in face to face life to smooth over interaction when we have to have "difficult conversations".

Keep requests (aka instructions aka orders) and statements of consequence (aka threats) neutral, clear, and factual (as Ruthless Bunny outlines above); approach transgression in a clinical, professional manner to help avoid taking things personally and firing up your own emotions.
posted by protorp at 2:06 PM on October 11, 2013

Here's a good example from mod LobsterMitten.
posted by rtha at 2:07 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you're talking about a message board for a college course, then I think that's a pretty special case. A lot of college kids don't even have respect for the professors. If you actually have to assert this rule, then you should just do it without making a big deal out of it personally. But it's hard to say without really understanding the situation you're in. Do you have to moderate this forum? What kind of authority do you have? Etc.
posted by mbrock at 2:09 PM on October 11, 2013

Just to get this out of the way: the internet is fairy-land. The advice people give you to stand up for yourself, be assertive, etc., applies to the real world, where there are actions and consequences and at the very least something of a logic linking the two. On the internet, you may as well be dealing with a world of assumed sociopaths because, in many ways, that's what anonymity and pseudo-anonymity affords people: the ability to be a giant shit with zero consequences.

I thought assertiveness meant the opposite of what is happening right now? It would have been so much better if I had never spoken up, and well, let them keep doing their thing.

Better for whom? What use is a forum where people aren't subscribed to the goals of a forum? In fact, many webforums have a "casual" or "chat" section just to siphon off exactly this sort of behavior from the useful parts. Maybe you weren't the best moderator but no one is, out the gate. You absolutely tried to do the right thing, but that won't always work, and even when it does, it might not always turn out 100% in your favor.

I mean, I honestly can't see how it would be better to let people be dicks if it is in your power to at least make an attempt to get them to stop. If someone comes to my party and is being a dick and not listening to polite requests, they gotta go. And if I try to toss them out and get punched in the face, it would not have been better if I had let them stay and ruin the party. It's just that getting punched in the face is what happens when you try to do the right thing. And if I had to clear everyone out and not just that guy? Still not my fault. Still did the right thing.

Being actively assertive has consequences, and one of them -- a frequent one, in fact -- is people being assertive right back to you. Being able to deal with that appropriately is the other half of the whole "being assertive" thing.
posted by griphus at 2:12 PM on October 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Also, don't spew or be mean or go above and beyond what you need to do. There's a large contingent of people out there who will react appropriately to an situationally appropriate amount of assertiveness ("stop or you will be banned"), but push back twice as hard if you start trying to intimidate them ("hey asshole, shut up or I'll shut you up.")
posted by griphus at 2:23 PM on October 11, 2013

If people are used to you being a people-pleaser, they're going to push back pretty hard when you begin asserting yourself. You're changing the rules. Think of it like a pendulum swinging - it's going to swing hard the other way (with you wanting to be mean and asshole-ish and them trying to put you back in your passive place) before it finds its center (you being confident and not reacting with either passivity or aggressiveness to the responses of others). Your assertiveness muscle is weak, and you'll strengthen it by using it more, not less. Just take it easy.
posted by headnsouth at 3:18 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are there people on the forum who have your back? One of the awesome things about this site is that there is a designated area to have a discussion about the handling of a thread without derailing the thread. If you have control over the forum the forced time-out is battle-tested.

As for pushback from being assertive, yeah, you'll get that, and you have to be okay with having people not like you. It helps if you recognize the people getting personal are doing it because they are immature and have a sense of entitlement that you're running afoul of.

An attitude I've taken with colleagues is along the lines of, "You can continue to have demonstrably false beliefs about how I'm going to do my job all you want, and continue getting upset all you want at the fact that I continue to do my job this way. I'll be over here, and maybe we can be friends when you accept reality and calm down." I never articulate this, mind you, but that's the gist of it.
posted by alphanerd at 5:07 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Being assertive isn't easier or more pleasant in the short term. The way I look at it is you want to stop a problem before it gets bigger and more unpleasant. Part of being assertive is also backing up your words with action. Yeah, it does kind of suck sometimes short term but it makes your life easier in the long run.

I don't think the people on your forum are being huge jerks. They just have a different idea of what they thought the forum should be (chatty as well as academic). That's one of those annoying parts of life. I've run forums before and it is hard to know where to draw the line but it's your forum. Be polite, try to be understanding of someone else's point of view but decide what rules you want, post them and then enforce them. If people really want to gossip or gripe, they can set up their own forum.

Ruthless Bunny examples are something you can use and add/modify to get what you want. You might also want to look for a co-moderator for your board who shares your view. It's less stressful to share the duties, have someone who you can get a 2nd opinion from when you're on the fence and will back you up when you're getting some push back.

Being assertive is new to you and it's going to be uncomfortable right now. Keep at it and you'll get more confident with it. It will always probably feel a little awkward to you but it will make your life better in the long run.
posted by stray thoughts at 6:31 PM on October 11, 2013

It sounds like you told people they could either shut up or get out. Trying to direct the conversation and then threatening to pull the plug if they don't do things your way isn't assertive so much as controlling, in my opinion. Using civil language and having the (nominal) authority of being the forum creator/admin might have mitigated the disrespect that your forum participants were feeling, but mitigation =/= erasure. I'm not surprised people gave you push back, and to be honest, I probably would have, too.

If you actually want to be more assertive, maybe think of it more as being "straight forward" or "direct" or "frank." Being assertive isn't the same as being aggressive or in charge.

People are going to do what they want; to get your way, you either need to give them an incentive so that "what they want" is also what you want, or you need to give them a way (or place) to do what they want so it doesn't interfere with you. In this case, I would follow larger forums' lead and create another thread/mini-forum where the participants can chat however or about whatever they like, and then when they bring that casual or personal stuff into the more academic areas you can tell them to shift that talk back over to the Meet Market/MetaChat/Whatever.

Being assertive doesn't mean you're more likely to get your way. If your goal is just for people to do what you want, then passivity, manipulation, and threats are all pretty likely to be successful. The downside to those not-assertiveness tactics isn't that they don't work. If what you *really* want is to make sure you can control the forum/conversation and being more assertive or inclusive is only a secondary concern, I would just censor/edit the comments you don't like, publicly shame and then ban still-unruly participants, and if nothing else works, shut down the forum and start a new, smaller one with your minions. The resulting forum will be much more polite and easy to direct, albeit it'll also be much smaller and duller.

I don't know that modeling and therefore encouraging assertiveness is really compatible with being in control of a semi-public/collaborative space like a forum, so you may have to figure out your goals here.
posted by rue72 at 7:55 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I can't help you with managing a forum because I've never done that, but I can recommend a book called Nice Girls Just Don't Get It by Lois Frankel and Carol Frohlinger. It is very practical and has proved to be immensely helpful to me...a recovering people pleaser. I hope it helps you as much as it has me! Good luck :)
posted by scairdy chicken at 12:37 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

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