Take a Lesson from Kids in Assertive Communication

Helping Hand in The Medical Post
May 5, 2009

While it is true that adults teach children, it is also true that adults have a lot to learn from children.  Teaching is not a one way process. Children have a special, innocent way of viewing the world. They have taught me to laugh more, enjoy the moment, be curious, use my imagination, accept differences, and be spontaneous.  More recently, I learned that they have skills that we sometimes  have to re-learn as adults.

I had just finished a workshop for colleagues on communication skills, including assertiveness, which is the expression of feelings and needs, asking for what you want, stating views with directness and honesty, while being respectful of others. We had discussed how being assertive can help to strengthen relationships, and prevent stress arising from conflicts and resentments.  We explored why it is so hard to set limits or say ‘No”.  It can be difficult for us to be assertive, to stop pleasing others and start to set limits clearly to protect our time for self care.  We feel we have to justify our decisions, to ensure people do not judge us as uncaring or lazy.  We do not want to be disliked, or be seen as bossy or rude.  We do not want to risk upsetting others.  Sometimes, we feel that our own needs are not as important as those of others.  Some of us are very uncomfortable with conflict, and will acquiesce just to avoid conflictual situations. 

In the workshop, we described strategies to become more assertive in a productive way.  As some of you have heard me say in the past, I encouraged the use of the “Three Easy Steps to Saying No” – 1.Open your mouth, 2. Say ‘No’, 3. Close your mouth.  I explained how ‘No.” is a complete sentence.  

After the workshop, I visited my sister and her family. I watched my young nephew, Logan.  At 2 years of age, he is the picture of confidence, strutting about his space, knowing exactly what he wants, without compromise.  He could be the poster boy for assertiveness, being persistent, determined, and clear about his viewpoints.  In fact, at times, he can save energy and state his wants clearly, without even speaking.  He has this amazing gesture of raising his bent right arm from the shoulder and pushing his elbow out, shrugging off an unwanted suggestion.  When asked what that meant, Logan unabashedly explained “I don’t want to”! Time to leave the park and go home?  Out goes the elbow.  How about peas with the mashed potatoes?  There goes the elbow again.  Can Aunty give him a kiss?  Not unless she gets past the elbow!

Recently, I have started sharing my nephew’s technique of limit setting with patients – calm, clear, direct, and honest.  Without excessive emotion, it clearly communicates what he is or is not willing to do.

I ran into a colleague last week, who proudly told me how he had “pulled a Logan” with success.  After recognizing that he was feeling overwhelmed, he had finally reorganized his responsibilities to lessen the burden, and was starting to enjoy exercising regularly, have time for friends and family, and explore a new hobby.  He was asked to assume a more senior position in the department.  Keeping Logan in mind, he did the ‘elbow elevation’ and was thrilled with the results.  “I just looked him in the eye, and confidently and calmly said “Absolutely not!”  Look for opportunities to use it; it works!

Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at mgautam@rogers.com. Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.