Can you assert yourself and be truthful at the same time?

‘Say what you mean, and mean what you say.’ This venerable and oh-so-true expression reveals a lot about the importance of integrity, honesty and keeping your word. It also says a lot about how to interact with others in your day-to-day life.

Years ago, I had a neighbor who felt it necessary to request favors by saying something like: ‘What are you doing this morning?’ On the surface, it seemed like an expression of concern or interest in what you’re doing—nothing more, nothing less. Yet, as the conversation continued, you’d gradually realize that she was asking you to run an errand (or some equivalent favor) for her. Instead of coming right out and simply asking, ‘Would you be willing to pick something up for me from the grocery store?’ she would instead go the back-door route. Several of her friends confronted her about this pattern of behavior and she replied, with all sincerity, ‘Well, I didn’t want to inconvenience you. If you said you’re already doing something this morning, then I wouldn’t ask you to run the errand for me.’

As far as I’m concerned, this makes absolutely no sense. You either ask for something, or you don’t. If you’re going to ask, then go ahead and ask—directly—without the sneaky hidden agenda. Don’t be so presumptuous as to decide for someone else what he or she can or cannot do for you.

The knee-jerk reaction might be that this woman’s behavior is considerate and sensitive. I say that it’s insulting and manipulative. By calling her behavior sensitive, the assumption is that it’s HER responsibility to recognize what’s in YOUR best interest in either offering, or refusing, the favor. Well, it’s not. The person who ends up agreeing—or refusing—to do the favor is responsible for deciding for him- or herself what’s most convenient. Who knows’I might actually prefer doing a favor for my friend this morning rather than what I had previously planned to do. The right to make this decision belongs to me, not to her.

Self-help professionals talk about the merits of assertive (as opposed to passive-aggressive or aggressive) behavior. Assertive behavior means, in part, ‘saying what you mean, and meaning what you say.’ In other words, ‘Ask for what you want—nothing more, and nothing less.’ Then leave it up to the person you’re asking to be honest and truthful about what he or she is able and/or willing to do.

So many people ask me how they can be more assertive when they are asked to do things. My response is to challenge them to establish, for themselves, what they’re ABLE and WILLING to do, and then clearly convey that to the person who’s asking for the help. It works in reverse, too. If you’re wondering how you should ask for something, the direct approach is always best: ‘Are you able to do such-and-such for me?’ The question not only implies an understanding and acceptance that the answer could be ‘no,’ but also a recognition of the person’s right to decide for him- or herself.

It all boils down to being forthright and real, especially with the people in your life who matter. Nobody likes being manipulated or verbally ambushed. Nobody wants another person to decide for them whether or not they’re willing to do something. Even if you’re chronically indecisive and have trouble saying ‘no,’ I think you’ll still agree it’s insulting to have someone assume what you may or may not want to do for them.

We’re told throughout our lives that honesty is the best policy, yet most of us are sent mixed and opposing messages. Researcher Robert S. Feldman, of the University of Massachusetts, makes an interesting point about authenticity and honesty in relationships. He states, ‘We are given excuses to lie, such as: The truth will hurt other people’s feelings. We are told that if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything (as if it is ‘nice’ to lie).’

The problem here is that many of us assume there’s a conflict between being ‘mean’ and being honest. While it is indeed possible to be both mean and truthful, it’s just as possible to be nice, forthright and sincere at the same time.

A lot of people assume you have to abandon your sensitivity in order to tell the truth, so they opt for the ‘easy way out;’ lying, or being less than forthright about requests, opinions and feelings. Isn’t it more insulting and insensitive to outright lie to somebody—hiding behind this alleged ‘sensitivity’—only because you don’t want to expend the energy to assert yourself?

Give honesty a chance. Sensitivity and integrity need not be mutually exclusive. Work at being honest while still being sensitive. What can be better than being fair to yourself, AND, at the same time, truthful with your friends and family? Start by thinking about what you’re really able and/or willing to do, so that when confronted with a request, you can say what you mean and mean what you say. In all honesty, there’s simply no other way to live.