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Assertiveness is in the Eye of the Beholder

How mentalization efforts will provide guidance as to which nonverbal and verbal behaviors will be the most effective and appropriate when it comes to attaining instrumental and relational goals.

A couple of years ago I was conducting job interviews for an international organization that recruits employees from all over the world. The candidates were to be assigned to development projects far away from their home country. These assignments are typically tough as the candidate is working within an unfamiliar culture, with limited means, in an environment with low living standards, and far away from friends and family. You can imagine that the risk of people failing to complete their assignment was high, so the selection procedure required a more thorough assessment of the candidate’s psychological makeup than with typical jobs.

These interviews were always conducted by two interviewers in order to gain more than one perspective on the candidate's performance. The main objective of this part of the selection procedure was to gain a clear picture of the candidate's soft skills (for instance, their ability to work in a team; their culturally sensitive; their resilient and resourceful; and their problem-solving skills. It was not easy to assess candidates on their competencies and behavioral tendencies during the interview, with cultural differences adding an extra layer of complexity to the process.

Before starting an interview we would discuss cultural differences that we might encounter so that we could take them into account during the interview, and in our later recommendations to the selection board. Nowadays, it is becoming increasingly difficult to apply presumptive cultural rule. For instance, we regularly needed to interview Japanese candidates. The culture of Japan, like most cultures around the world, has changed greatly over the millennia, from the country's prehistoric Jōmon period, to its contemporary modern culture, influenced by other parts of the world. In addition, the candidates who we interviewed had a blend of cultural backgrounds, as they generally had been educated at universities in Europe or the United States, and were working for international organisations like Accenture and Randstad.

One difference I noticed when interviewing candidates from Japan, in comparison to European or American candidates, was the long silence after we asked them a question. Initially, I misinterpreted these silences as the candidate's failure to understand the question, or I assumed that it made the candidate feel uncomfortable. Thanks to the interviewing experience that I had gained during my years in Kenya, and later in India, I learned to evaluate soft skills within the cultural setting of the candidates. This helped me to quickly correct my initial assumptions and understand that these silences reflected the inclination of Japanese people to listen very carefully and to think long and hard about how to answer the question in the best possible way. I was often impressed by the clarity and completeness of their answers.

As you might know, the organizational constitution of Japanese businesses is more hierarchically structured than is the case with occidental organizations. In addition, the desire to avoid loss of face for one’s superior, one’s organization, or for oneself tends to be a primary motivational force behind many behaviors found in Japanese organizations. These behavioral strategies - to save face - can be somewhat puzzling to westerners, and this became an interesting point of discussion between my colleague and me.

During one of our interviews a Japanese candidate explained that he foresaw that decisions of his superior were likely to impede the progress of a project. He also understood, however, that he was dealing with a superior who still adhered rigidly to the conservative Japanese ways of addressing a superiors. Therefore, the candidate decided not to confront his superior, but to go around him and discuss the matter in a covert but clear way with somebody else within the hierarchical system who would be able to address the issue with his superior, without anybody losing face.

After the interview my colleague and I shared our first impressions of the candidate.

While my colleague found him to be insecure because in her estimation he didn’t come across as having well-developed assertiveness skills, I had come to the opposite conclusion, finding his assertiveness skills to be more than adequate.

To understand why we came to such different conclusions we did two things: first, we discussed what signals and cues we look for in candidate’s behavior to assess assertiveness and how these indicators could look very different in the Japanese culture; and second, we read through the answers we recorded during the interview to see how the candidate described his behavior.

Eventually we came to the conclusion that the candidate showed quite a good level of assertiveness, but in a way that was appropriate within the Japanese culture.

How can we explain the initial difference between my perspective and that of my colleague?

Although we both shared a similar background, growing up in the same country, we still came from very different worlds. My colleague had worked and lived in the Netherlands, and had spend the major part of her working life selecting Dutch nationals for businesses and organizations located in the Netherlands. I also grew up in the Netherlands but, as I previously mentioned, I had lived and worked in foreign countries where I needed to conduct job interviews. At the beginning of my career abroad I too had missed the signals that indicate assertiveness with foreign candidates too. Soon, however, with help from my foreign colleagues, I began to learn that assertiveness can take different forms in different cultures.

How is assertiveness defined within the occidental culture?

On the website of the American Psychology Association the word assertiveness is defined as:

an adaptive style of communication in which individuals express their feelings and needs directly, while maintaining respect for others. A lack of assertiveness may contribute to depression and anxiety, whereas maladaptive approaches to assertiveness may manifest as aggression.

On the same website, the training of assertiveness is described as follows:

a method of teaching individuals to change verbal and nonverbal signals and behavioral patterns and to enhance interpersonal communication generally through techniques designed to help them express emotions, opinions, and preferences—positive and negative—clearly, directly, and in an appropriate manner. Role play or behavior rehearsal is often used to prepare clients to be appropriately assertive in real-life situations. (1)

Learning certain behavioral patterns that are appropriate within western cultures might be a good way to teach people assertiveness, however, the same verbal and nonverbal behaviors might not be suitable in other cultures. To illustrate, Ito, Gobel, and Uchida discovered in their research that

when the Japanese university club culture focused on goal attainment, leaders’ [nonverbal behavior] was characterized by restraining from assertive nonverbal signals. Naïve Japanese observers judged targets who showed nonverbal restraint as more suitable and worthy of being possible club leaders.(2)

Comas-Diaz and Duncan conducted a study on assertiveness training with Puerto Rican women and discovered that

[t]he assertiveness literature has placed a great deal of emphasis on the power of the actor to behave assertively and less emphasis on the power of the environment to enhance or inhibit assertive behavior.”(3)

Increasingly, we learn from contemporary research on assertiveness training that it is crucial to make cultural factors an integral part of training programs to make sure that the training is applicable and the new skills will be practiced. How can we do this?

Assertiveness is applied to attain two primary goals:

  1. Instrumental Goals (I need a pay raise) - also referred to as content goals - involve the distribution of resources and how we want them to be distributed. “These goals influence communication in ways that attempt to get the receiver to deliver what the source asks for” as Canary, Cody, Manusov explain in their book. (4)

  2. Relational Goals (I want to stay friends or at least on good terms with the other) involve how we want to affiliate with others, how we want to treat others and how we want to be treated by them. These goals often elicit more emotions as they are very personal.

The first step is to understand in detail what your instrumental and relational goals are and what the goals are of the person who will be on the receiving end of your assertive behavior. This requires well developed strategic mentalizing competencies that help you to infer the mental states (affect, desires, beliefs and knowledge) of yourself and others from which you can deduce intentions and motivations. In other words, you need to understand what is going on in your own mind and in the minds of others to be able to select the most appropriate and effective verbal and nonverbal behavior to attain your goals.

Curiously, mentalizing about the person who will be on the receiving end of the newly learned assertiveness skills is often not included as part of assertiveness training.

As research shows, however, this is where an important factor lies that mediates the application and the further development of those skills.

The second step pertains to the application of our assertiveness competencies. The moment we address matters with another person we need to keep everyone's instrumental and relational goals in mind, both our own and those of other. Parallelly, as we assert our desires or our point of view, we need to monitor how the interaction is going.

The moment you detect that emotions are interfering with the chances for a good outcome - a basic mentalizing skill - you need to apply affective mentalizing competencies that will prevent any of the participants from reacting with fight, flight or freeze behavior. These competencies entail: first, empathizing with others so that you can show compassion and reconnect with them; and second, employing affective social competencies that help you and the other to explain how you are feeling and how you want to continue.

Affective mentalizing is critical, as high levels of affective arousal take mentalizing off line, making people focus on themselves instead of trying to take each other's perspective. Needless to say, this polarization will hinder you in your attempts to attain a satisfying outcome. Moreover, it can cause irreparable damage to a relationship.

In sum, our mental states are always embedded within the context, and influenced by our cultural background and upbringing. In addition, they are influenced by our temperament and personality.

Even if we grow up in the same neighborhood, we can still have very different beliefs, desires and knowledge. Affective mentalizing efforts will provide guidance as to which nonverbal and verbal behaviors will be the most effective and appropriate when it comes to attaining instrumental and relational goals. These insights will also reveal possible avenues for broadening your assertive verbal and nonverbal behaviors. This is particularly true when you are dealing with people from a disparate cultural backgrounds.

There is one more observation I would like to share regarding assertiveness trainings. In general, assertiveness training tends to focus on personal confidence. In my opinion, if you don’t feel confident, don’t pretend you are, as people tend to pick up on your insecurity.

There is nothing wrong with showing that you feel uncertain with what you are trying to convey. Also, there is nothing wrong with admitting that you need help in getting your message across.

In some cultures, or within certain hierarchical relationships, it is even better to show hesitation rather than brash confidence, as hesitation may be interpreted as a sign of respect.



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