Balancing gentleness with assertiveness

Sometimes, however gentle we are, we need to kick the ball. Photo by Md Mahdi on Unsplash

We all have different situations which we need to adapt to.  Some situations require forcefulness, and some situations require empathy and gentleness.  You can’t play football by stroking the ball with your hand; and you can’t kick a cat.  The behaviour needs to match the needs of the situation.


The problem is, we divide into different types, different styles.  As a person, perhaps you infinitely prefer a gentle approach, and can’t stand arguments or confrontation.  On the other hand, some people thrive on conflict and challenge.


Whatever your preference, there will be times when the opposite approach is necessary, and you will feel profoundly uncomfortable.  Gentle people need to learn to be strong; and forceful people need to learn to back off sometimes.

In general, we need to train ourselves to have different behavioural skills for different situations.  In my own life, for instance, I have to be able to behave with the gentleness and empathy necessary for person-centred counselling; but I also have to behave with the forcefulness necessary for business and getting things done.


Does this mean we have to be chameleons, changing our personality at the drop of a hat?  Not at all.  That could easily confuse the people we know, who wouldn’t know who or what they were dealing with.  It means that our job is to develop a personality that is clearly us, but is flexible enough to deal with a variety of situations.  We can be authentic, but adaptable.


One of the hardest transitions I work with in counselling, is helping gentle, empathic, passive clients to behave more assertively and forcefully.  It goes against their felt nature to impose upon other people, but that often leaves them at a disadvantage, cowering while others force their will upon them.


It can be a great bonus to learn to assert oneself more fully in situations where it matters.  This is not selfish – it’s common sense, since there will always be situations when our welfare is threatened by other people’s poor behaviour, and we will need to hold them to account.


Here are three ways in which, if we are gentle souls, we can learn to assert ourselves more:

  1. TRY SMALL SITUATIONS FIRST – Choose a small unresolved situation first, and try out one small assertive step.  Perhaps it will be to ask a friend to help you.  or perhaps it is asking for a refund, or to return a product.  If successful, this gives you courage for bigger things.
  1. FIGHT FOR WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN – Choose battles which lie close to your dearest-held values.  This automatically makes you more courageous.  If you believe in justice, then hold that in your mind as your motivation.  In being assertive, it helps to be clear with yourself exactly why you are bothering to ruffle feathers.
  1. BE CLEAR IN YOUR REQUESTS – It is very common for unassertive people to garble their messages in an unclear format, and not to get to the point.  This is because they don’t want to offend, and so skirt around the thing that needs saying.  We can practice in typed messages, by starting with an action we want performed, and making a straight request.

All this will seem torture to a well-rehearsed gentle person.  But by starting small, working close to our values, and learning to be very clear in our requests, we can get on the road to having more flexible behaviour.  We, and those who rely on us, need some forcefulness in order to forge a safe, constructive life, and to avoid being taken advantage of.