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How To Combine Compassion and Assertiveness

Guidance from Dr Rick Hanson
November 2018

based on his book Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom, Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications (2009), pp. 137-155

“Compassion infuses warmth and caring into your assertiveness. Assertiveness helps you stick up for yourself and others, and to feel confident that you can still get your needs met even while being compassionate.” (p. 154)

Empathise with the person.
Note that “empathy is neither agreement nor approval. You can empathise with someone you wish would act differently”. (p. 138) Empathy is “the basis of true compassion, since it makes you aware of the difficulties others face […]. It helps you “understand another person's inner workings.” (p. 154)

Don't try to change them:
“if you communicate in order to fix, change, or convince another person, the success of your communications will depend on how she reacts to you, and then it's out of your hands. Plus, the other person is likely to be more open to you if she doesn't feel pressed to change in some way.” (p. 150)

Focus on your own experience.
“No one can argue with your experience; it is what it is, and you are the world's expert on it. When you share your experience, take responsibility for it, and don't blame the other person for it.” (p. 150)

Choose your tone and words carefully, avoiding anything that may be heard as criticism.
Dr Hanson highly recommends Marshall Rosenberg's method of Nonviolent Communication which “essentially has three parts: When X happens [described factually, not judgmentally], I feel Y [especially the deeper, softer emotions], because I need Z [fundamental needs and wants].” (p. 150)

Correct what you can.
“Take maximum reasonable responsibility for the other person's issues with you. Identify what there is to correct on your part, and correct it unilaterally – even if that person keeps blowing it with you. One by one, keep crossing off her legitimate complaints. It's fine to put some attention on trying to influence her behaviour, but focus mainly on being honourable, benevolent, and increasingly skilful yourself. This is definitely the road less travelled, but it's the one that's both kind and smart. You can't control how she treats you, but you can control how you treat her: these are the causes you can actually tend to. And doing what's right regardless of her behaviour is a good way to encourage her to treat you well.” (p. 152)

Try to stay compassionate and kind.
“You can differ vigorously with people while simultaneously holding them in your heart.” (p. 153)

Further reading:

a) Sherrie M Vavrichek, The Guide to Compassionate Assertiveness: How to Express Your Needs & Deal with Conflict While Keeping a Kind Heart, Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications (2012).

b) For a quick introduction to her approach, see How To Be Assertive While Keeping A Kind Heart