Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Assertiveness without aggression

If you're not a psychologist, you probably haven't heard the term "strategic umbrage" or for that matter "line-crossing illusion".

They are important concepts for anyone who finds it difficult to say "No", nicely.

You'll find them in the work of Columbia University psychologists Daniel Ames and Abbie Wazlawek, who have added a good deal to the literature on assertiveness.

In his paper, Pushing up to a point: The psychology of interpersonal assertiveness, Ames suggests that one of the great challenges of social life is being appropriately assertive. Being seen as pushy can be just as bad as being regarded as a pushover.

And these judgments don't just affect someone's personal life. They can determine their success or failure in leadership positions. Columbia Business School, where Ames works, puts a lot of effort into coaching students in getting the balance between appropriate assertiveness and outright aggression right.

These researchers point out that at best, people are only modestly aware of how their peers rate their assertiveness (or lack of it).

What they discovered is that people who are actually regarded as quite reasonably assertive tend to feel that they've "crossed a line" and been too pushy. That's "line-crossing illusion" at work, and it affects more than one third of people, judging from research responses.

And a major reason people have it is "strategic umbrage" - a tactic deployed by some parties in negotiations to make people feel that they're being unreasonable, when in fact they're quite within their rights.

These cues might be verbal - suggesting for example that "You've got to be kidding!" - or non-verbal, such as rolling their eyes in mock disbelief at your effrontery.

The line-crossing illusion is particularly dangerous for negotiators because they invariably try to repair the damage they thought they had done. This generally produced worse deals for both parties.

Understanding these things and learning how to handle them are important elements of our class in assertive communication. I highly recommend it.