REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION from the Florida Jewish News, January 27, 2006, pp. 16, 22.

Abusers are complete wusses. I’m serious. I’ve never met an abuser who knows how to be assertive. Abusers abuse because they have no skills at getting—the nice way—what they want and need in life.

All this stuff that abusers are “controlling” is utter nonsense. Let me ask you something. Why do your kids want the Nike sneakers? You know, the ones that they can roll down the street on? The answer is because those darn commercials worked. The commercials got those kids under their control, didn’t they? Isn’t that the same reason you want the Gucci bag? Don’t deny it. You want it because everyone “knows” it’s good. Marketing worked.

That, my friends, is control. That is real control. Control happens when someone gets you to do what they want—and you’re thrilled to do it. You want to do it. That’s control. Anything else isn’t.

The abusers, on the other hand, don’t have that skill. They wouldn’t know where to begin.

The best control is one that you don’t even know is happening. As another example, think of your most cherished beliefs. How did you get them? The answer is that somehow, in a loving and important way, the message of what those beliefs stand for got transmitted to you—and you accepted them. You would die for them. Now, that’s real control.

Only it doesn’t feel like it. Real control is pleasant and painless for both parties. Take another example. Take a child who is highly self-disciplined and a hard-working student. How did she or he get that way? Not by being beaten, yelled at, belittled, blamed, or scolded. (Unless she threw herself into schoolwork to escape abuse at home.) That’s what people think of when they say that someone is controlling.

Controlling-Type Behavior Causes Fear

But those behaviors don’t work, or let’s say they work temporarily, out of fear. Fear causes two things: escape or rebellion. In a marriage, escape means divorce, hiding, tuning out, daydreaming, or affairs. Rebellion may mean arguments, speaking to friends about the abuser, refusal to cooperate, or violence, a frequent result of escalation in conflict situations. Pick your outcome; none of them represents true control over the victim.

Now, let’s look at the flip side, true control. True control can be obtained (as the commercials demonstrate) through making rosy promises. Another, highly successful method of achieving true control is through assertiveness.

Assertive behavior is

all in a dignified and highly effective manner. And it is so very much easier than bullying. Let’s look more closely at the mechanics of it.

Elements Of Assertiveness

The first key ingredient is eye contact. Eye contact has been observed among animals as a vital part of communication. Looking directly into someone’s eyes transmits the following information:

(a) You are important enough for me to look at you.
(b) This conversation is important.
(c) I am not afraid of you.

All are very key messages because they elevate the speaker, the listener, and the relationship between them.

The second key ingredient is rate of speech. What I’ve noticed is that angry people speak rapidly. Have you ever witnessed a really angry person and thought to yourself: “Boy, is he/she out of control.” Or, “That guy is a lunatic!” You see? Behavior that we are used to calling “controlling” actually appears to us to be out of control.

And the key ingredient is the rapid rate of speech. A calm person, in contrast, seems unrattled. He or she speaks deliberately, and the message in the rate of speech is that “You are not getting to me because I am in control of myself.”

Rapid speech implies that the other person has, indeed, gotten to the speaker—which is just the opposite of being in control.

Practice in the car saying what you need to say—slowly and deliberately. For example: “Stop yelling.” Count to two between the two words. “Stop [beat-beat] yelling.” Can you hear the difference? Now combine that with eye contact. It’s powerful, no?

The next key ingredient of assertive speech is fewer words. For some reason, people who wish to get a point across go on and on. And what happens to their audience? The audience has lost the point—and lost respect for the speaker. The worst case scenario is called “rambling.” You don’t want to do that. The most effective delivery is a stealth attack: The point is made so swiftly, the listener has no choice but to “get” it.

If something is troubling you, and you really want to make this point to your spouse, here’s my recommendation: Practice it for some time, shortening and shortening the number of words you use until it’s concise and crystal clear.

The fourth key ingredient of delivering an assertive message—which means effectively putting you in control—is to ask questions. Don’t get so hung up on making your point. Sometimes the best way to make a point is to ask a question. Here’s why: When you try to make a point by explaining things, what can the other person do while you’re talking? Did you guess, “tune out”? If you did, you’re right. And people who don’t want to listen, don’t listen! So your wonderful, brilliant point is lost to the wind. But, when you ask a question and you pause, waiting for an answer, the other person is forced to articulate an idea. Now, obviously, you want to ask the right question.

Let’s take an example: A husband agrees that he has been abusive and wants to stop. His wife decides to be assertive, so she tells him that the worst thing is to hear him blame her. She looks in his eyes and says, slowly, “I want you to stop blaming me.” Then she pops the following question: “Do you want to stay an abuser?” Of course he doesn’t and tells her so. She then follows with another excellent question: “Then if you start to blame me, you’d agree it would be in your best interest if I stop you, right?” What can he say? She’s got him! And it’s good for both of them.

Various Ways To Use Body Language

But let’s say he tries to overpower her with his logic. Let’s say he interrupts her.

Now the fifth and perhaps most powerful technique of assertive behavior comes in to play. I’ve noticed that interrupters who are successful at it have one of two methods of dominating a conversation. Either they talk nonstop like a filibuster in Congress, or they interrupt with a volume so loud that you come to believe you can’t fight it. Both of these are out-of-control uses of body language. You, too, can use body language, only you can use it wisely.

  • One solution might be to turn your head away slightly. You don’t want to appear overtly rude. If you do, your spouse will become angry. On the other hand, a slight shifting of your focus—if subtle—will give him or her the subconscious message that something is wrong. Your partner may say, “You aren’t listening.” Your response should be s-l-o-w, as if to say “You’re right; I wasn’t.” Respond slowly with, “I was talking.”
  • As an alternative, put your hand up in a stop sign gesture. Remember the “few words” rule. One way to always be successful at implementing this rule is to use signals and gestures in a brief way rather than trying to overpower the speaker. Overpowering will escalate into a shouting match—and you will lose your dignity (as well as your edge in the conversation) that way.
  • Perhaps the best solution I’ve seen is to continue speaking, only make sure your volume is soft and low. This may seem unnatural, but that’s why it works! Instead of getting you sucked into an escalation, it shows that your bully has no control over you after all. As a bonus, it will de-escalate the intensity. Your conversation partner will eventually come up for air. At which point, you casually ask a question about what you were just saying, as if he/she had not interrupted at all. This will bring home the point that you weren’t listening to him (or her) and that he ought to have been listening to you.

As an aside, it is also true that some interrupters do it so automatically that they don’t even realize they were doing it and will deny it. They might even say, “I wouldn’t do that! I’m not rude!” Thus, they are not consciously trying to be controlling. That doesn’t make their behavior any nicer or easier to deal with, however. Your response should be, “I didn’t say you were interrupting. I really don’t know. I was just telling you that—-[you may repeat what you had been saying].” By not paying attention to the other person’s interruption you prevent a big fight. This method actually saves face for the other person while you retain your control of the conversation—and your dignity.

If You Keep Your Dignity, You Win

Dignity is a key word in this discussion. Someone who tries to force another person to bend to his way not only disrespects the dignity of the other person, but his (or her) own. Use this key concept to your advantage. When you plan to practice being assertive, start by working on yourself on the inside. That is, work on respecting yourself first and the behavior will seem natural. And you’ll get control.

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