Orthodoxy Today
Assertiveness and Christian Charity

The Spiritual Foundations of Assertiveness

The spiritual foundation of what clinical psychologists call assertiveness was laid down long ago in Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers. Moses and the Levites, the prophets and others, as well as Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ Himself and the Holy Fathers who followed understood and practiced assertiveness. So common is the concept in Orthodox Christian practice that even today it forms an important part of spiritual direction in Orthodox monasteries.

Consider the instruction of Moses towards the Israelites on the appropriate management of differences with their neighbor: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:17-18, emphasis added). The emphasis indicates the importance of settling the conflict using a moderate tone of voice and choosing non-inciting words.

Implicit in the instruction of Moses is the divine imperative that views must be communicated. We see it revealed between God and the prophets. Ezekiel recorded one example of this divine imperative, "So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me" (Ezekiel 33:7)

We see it revealed in the relationship between Christ and His disciples as well. Our Lord Jesus Christ counseled His disciples not to be passive, but to take measured action steps when confronting people committing sinful acts. Jesus said, "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (Matthew 18: 15-17).

The imperative is carried forward today. The spiritual father St. Joseph Volotsky in his book "The Monastic Rule of Iosif Volotsky" (Goldfrank, 2000) stated: "Rather if they see someone doing something improper, they shall correct him with humility and love without abuse. Indeed it is said in the Geronticon ("Teachings of the Elders"), 'A certain Father said: There is no greater commandment than to correct your brother without abuse.'"

Later St. Joseph quoted St. Dorotheos of Gaza: "If someone happens to see his brother doing something improper, he ... shall say to him with meekness and humility: 'Forgive me, brother, that I have seen your perversion; in truth, what has been done here is not good.' Say this without wanting to abuse or eject the brother, but to benefit him.'" St. Joseph also quoted an important lesson taught by St. John Chrysostom when reproving or exhorting someone. "It is not proper (to abuse and eject the brother) ... and be harsh towards the transgressions of those being judged." St John Chrysostom goes on to say that correction should be "to teach (and) advise ... with consideration and mercy ... "

Spiritual Foundations and Psychological Practice

Clearly the concept and practice of assertiveness has a long history stretching back many centuries. Further, just as we apply the knowledge of modern science to the healing arts, so too can we apply the findings of behavioral science to help us better understand how to properly apply assertive responses.

In recent years assertiveness has garnered much attention in psychological science. The National Institute of Mental Health (2006) records that assertiveness training has been applied to a variety of problems including: depression, eating disorders, employment-labor-management problems, family issues, marital dysfunction, sexual communication, social dysfunction, and substance abuse issues.

Assertiveness is a skill that can be acquired to communicate a necessary view or feeling in order to bring about a favorable psychological or spiritual result. This definition has two qualifications: 1) The assertive utterance should be socially acceptable; and 2) only when a minimal response fails to bring about the desired result should an escalation of words and communication pragmatics occur. For the Christian a third corollary applies: All assertive pragmatics must be done in the love of Christ which includes patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control - what is known in scriptural terminology as the "fruit of the Spirit" (Galatians 5: 22-23).

In a previous paper, the concepts of word content and pragmatics were discussed (Morelli, 2006e) based on the seminal work in linguistic theory developed by Roger Brown (1965). Brown reported that whenever we speak, the tone of voice and the manner in which words are spoken (technically called the pragmatics of communication or onomatopoeic analysis) do more to determine meaning of words than the definitions of the words themselves.

When applying the theory to the pragmatics of assertiveness however, not only must Brown's findings be taken into account, but special emphasis must be given to the exact meaning of the words employed. All too often assertive responses miss the mark because the words used are abstract and vague. For example, say a teacher tells a student, "I want your homework to be neater," or a parent says, "I want the chores done earlier," or a priest tells an altar boy, "I want you to dress more neatly." The problem with these requests is that their meaning is open-ended. Poor word choice creates ambiguity. Even if the exhortation was delivered in a gentle and gracious tone, the hearer has no clear idea about what specific action is expected.

Now compare the following responses with the examples above. The teacher tells the student, "I want your homework typed with 1 inch margins. Spelling has to be correct and I do not want stains and ink marks on the paper." The parent tells the child, "I want all the chores listed on this piece of paper finished by five o'clock when I come home from grocery shopping." The priest tells the altar boy, "I want you to wear dress shoes, a dress shirt with collar, and regular dress pants under your robe when serving on the altar. No sneakers, no shorts, and no polo shirts."

Which assertive statements are clearer? Obviously the second set. Another name for this focused word choice is "behavioral pinpointing" which was discussed in an earlier paper as a behavioral management strategy for parents (Morelli, 2006c,f). The words are concrete and apply to specific actions. This technique is an essential component of any assertive communication across many situations.

Once the words are clear we move to inflection. Brown (1965) concluded that if words are expressed in an angry or mean tone, the tone is communicated rather than the words. Hostile tones sabotage communication because the attention of the listener immediately shifts to the tone rather than the content of the message. Many people who must express an assertive request erroneously assume that they must start with a maximal response. This tends to provoke anger and confusion in the hearer. The purpose and point of the message gets lost. Hard feelings arise. The writer of Proverbs saw this years ago when he wrote, "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1).

Escalation (intensifying an assertive response) should take place only when the first socially acceptable utterance is disregarded. It can take place in two ways. First is the change from a soft conversational tone to a firm tone (although switching to a gentler tone sometimes has the same result). For example, say you are having lunch and the people in the table next to you are smoking despite the "No Smoking" signs posted about. An appropriate first statement might be, "Excuse me, but this is a non-smoking area. Your smoke is really bothering me. Could you please put out your cigarette or go outside? Thank you." If the smoker does not comply, the next step is to express the request more firmly. You could say, "Excuse me, I asked you politely to stop smoking. Please stop or I will report this to the manager." (The next step would be to call the police.)

Frequently I am called upon to use assertiveness in my pastoral ministry. During Liturgy one Sunday, the altar boy captain was ill and no experienced boys were present to take his place. The younger boys began to talk, poke each other, and play around as all young boys do. (Every priest recognizes how distracting and disrespectful such behavior can be during worship.)

At an appropriate time I approached the boys and in a neutral tone said, "Stop talking and poking, this is a sacred area. Jesus is here with us in a special way." Children being children (or even adults being adults), they did not comply at first. The next time I went over to the boys and motioned them aside and gently whispered the same words but added very softly and mildly, "If you talk or poke one more time I will point to you, you will take off your vestments, and go out and sit with your parents." I looked them straight in the eye and asked as gently as possible, "Do you understand?" They nodded "Yes." They behaved the rest of the Liturgy.

Later I had a small meeting with all the altar boys to teach them a bit about the theology of sacred space and how we should conduct ourselves during worship. No one was blamed or accused. I spoke quietly and moderately keeping in mind the biblical exhortation that the fruit of the Spirit is patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Barriers to Assertiveness

Two major barriers to assertive responses are first, the emotions of anxiety, anger and depression and second, skill deficits. The cognitive factors triggering these emotions have been described elsewhere (Morelli, 2006d,h,i). Cognitive therapy research has been shown to be very effective in restructuring the irrational thoughts and perceptions that trigger these emotions. Restructured perception occurs after the non-assertive individual works through reality testing questions such as: "Where is the evidence? Is there any other way of looking at the situation? Is the situation as bad as it seems?"

The dynamics that contribute to a lack of assertiveness and their resolutions include:

  • Emotional reasoning: Events are perceived to be "what they feel like." An individual may tell themselves something like, "I can only speak up if I am not anxious" or "Saying what I am thinking and feel should be easy." Non-emotional reasoning: "Just because I am upset doesn't make what I am saying wrong, in fact I may feel better after I get it off my chest."

  • Magnification: A person may erroneously tell themselves that telling others their views and feelings is more difficult than it really is. Realistic evaluation: "It may be tough to say, but it is surely not the end of the world."

  • Perfectionism: A person may set assertion statements that are unrealistically high. "I have to say this just right." Accepting performance level: "Every time I speak up I may get better at it, practice is a step in learning."

  • Mind reading: A person may think others will label them as "failures" if they 'stumble' in speaking up. They may also label themselves as "failures." Accepting only verified outlooks: "I have no evidence what other people are thinking, they may even be thinking more highly of me for speaking up."

  • Comfortable discomfort: A person may feel discomfort in being assertive. "Not speaking up sure feels better" he might reason. Accepting performance discomfort: "I can say what is on my mind, a little discomfort now will never kill me, and in the long run I may even feel better."

  • Devaluation or minimization: A person may minimize the importance of being assertive. This is especially true the closer they come to the actual assertive opportunity. For example, when considering if a poor job evaluation should be challenged a person may say, "Well it was not so important anyway," and thereby de-motivate himself from expressing his views or feelings. Realistic evaluation: "No, my boss, did not record the number of correct tasks I performed and it is just fair that this information be added to my evaluation. He may not change my evaluation but he should still know how I feel about the omission."

  • Should statements: A person tells themselves they "should, must, or ought" to be assertive, and respond with guilt when they observe their inaction (see: Morelli, 2006a). Would statements: "I don't have to say anything but it would be better, there is an advantage in speaking up."

  • Coercion reaction: A person may not want others to tell him what he should say and feel and be resentful when they do. Even in situations in which the person wants the same outcome, he will react in oppositional ways in order to maintain the feeling that he controls his life. Self-chosen reaction: "No matter what people may tell me, I decide what I will or will not say. People can say anything they want. I know I made the decision for myself."

  • Aversion perception: A person may simply dislike speaking up. He may find it distasteful and thus experience it as punishing. Favorable perception: "Ok! I dislike speaking up, but it doesn't mean I cannot do it, in fact there is a real benefit in doing so."

In clinical settings I have found an interesting reverse side to assertiveness and anger. When someone has strong concerns about something and keeps it buried within him, his level of anger frequently increases. In such cases I recommend a program that uses role-playing techniques (Kelly, 1955). I start with the patient imagining the setting in which a disturbing remark or action could take place similar to the one they experienced. I point out that the goal is to express their feeling and views and not necessarily to have the other person comply with their wishes. Patients who go through this process report significantly lower levels of anger and upset.

For example, one patient had a supervisor at work that repeatedly spoke to her in a hostile manner. We constructed a scenario with the patient playing the role of the offender so that I could get a sense of the words and tone used in the offense. Then I role-played an answer. It can be as simple as, "You know Joan, if I made a mistake I am happy to be corrected but I do not like the harsh way that you speak to me."

Various responses are attempted by trial and error and the patient is then given a response to try out as a homework assignment. Subsequent sessions monitor and refine the process. Particular pragmatics or paralinguistic areas to focus on include: response speed, volume, inflection (tone of voice) and dysfluency (stammering, etc.). Eye contact, facial expression, gestures, and posture (direction of leaning: forward, back, relaxed or stiff, etc.) are elements that can be practiced as well. Patients reported that they experienced less anger and upset and felt more empowered and confident as they learned these assertive skills. Sometimes the offenders even got the message and modified their behavior.

Among the cognitive distortions mentioned above, mind-reading is the greatest saboteur of assertiveness. Mind-reading is when an individual arbitrarily concludes what others are thinking and feeling about him (Morelli, 2006b,c,f). The non-assertive person usually thinks that the person they need to correct will be angry or judge him. However, since it is impossible to know the state of mind, thoughts, or feelings of other people the non-assertive person inevitably injects his own interpretation into this void. The tendency is to interpret ambiguous signals based on his private attitudes, thoughts, and feelings (Morelli, 2006d.f).

If left unchallenged, mind-reading easily devolves into a set of cascading scenarios that have no basis in reality. One scenario becomes the basis for the next with the progression becoming increasingly threatening, usually culminating in emotional paralysis and inaction.

For example (Scene I - reality based): "I told my boss I don't mind being corrected, but I don't like being yelled at. He said he was not angry." With no further information, the individual's feelings and thoughts should stop at this point. If he continues by creating a non-reality based scenario however, dysfunctional emotions are triggered that keep the process moving (Morelli, 2006d). Continuing (Scene II - no reality base): "He said he was not angry, but now he will give me a poor evaluation." It generally ends with a catastrophic result leading to inaction: (Scene III - no reality base): "I will loose my job." The process is broken when the first scenario is cognitively challenged and realistically restructured (by reality testing through direct questioning). The subsequent scenarios are then revealed as baseless and tumble down.

A warning to the Christian

Another barrier for proper assertiveness, especially among Christians, is a misguided sense of Christian charity. This misconception has two sides. It can be used to inhibit the kind of communication described above ("If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault ... "), or it can be construed as license for verbal abuse or corporal punishment. (Morelli 2005c,e,g,h). Both misconceptions violate the Christian commandment to love the neighbor.

To offer advice or counsel to our neighbor is a nuanced process that requires prayer, humility and discernment. Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov (1997) offered a warning that Christians should heed. "We will observe that the Fathers forbid us to give advice to our neighbor of our own accord without our neighbor's asking us to do so. The voluntary giving of advice is a sign we regard ourselves as possessed with spiritual knowledge and worth, which is a clear sign of pride and self deception." The Holy Bishop referenced St. Peter of Damascus and other holy Fathers on this topic.

Bishop Ignatius went on to explain the proper social contexts for advice and counsel and charged that anyone who has responsibility over others is obligated to be assertive albeit in ways informed by the correct understanding of Christian charity. " ... (S)uperiors and authorities ... are obliged at all times and whenever necessary, even without being asked, to teach the brethren entrusted to their care." His counsel applies to all authorities that have people under their charge, not just religious leaders.

He cited St. Timothy as to how the counsel is to be properly applied: " ... convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience ... " (2 Timothy 4:4). Patience, St. Paul taught, is a characteristic of love. "Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things ... " (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). Note how St. Paul conjoins kindness with patience thereby granting it equal moral weight.

The lesson drawn from these teachings is that assertive responses must be practiced in the context of authentic love expressed as patience and love. The Fathers wrote that assertive responses driven by anger or arrogance could offend the brother to whom the reproof is offered thereby transforming a bad situation into one of spiritual peril. Those who offer assertive responses in this debilitating spirit suffer from a spiritual malady of the first order that the Fathers term "delusion" and "beguilement" (Philokalia IV). Here the words of St. Ephraim (1977) are instructive: "If your brother is angry with you, then the Lord is also angry with you ... thus make peace with the Lord with those who are offended."

Assertiveness in the Church

Assertiveness in the Church ought to be a noble enterprise. It can bring about our own deification (becoming more Christ-like) when offered as unselfish, self-emptying (kenotic) love that is directed toward the good and welfare of others. Proper assertiveness is never employed in order to elevate one person over another. The model of Christ as servant must be our model as well.

Who is called upon to be spiritually assertive? All Christians by virtue of their baptism in Christ possess this authority provided they have the maturity and wisdom to exercise it properly. Further, fraternal correction is not only a "top-down" affair. It works side to side, and bottom to the top as well. Church workers can practice assertiveness with each other, lay persons to clergy, priests to bishops, and so forth.

What are the necessary steps to proper assertiveness in the Church?

Get the facts

Accurate knowledge is the foundation of assertiveness. This point is non-negotiable. Extra care must be taken, facts checked and rechecked, before any behavior that might need correction is corrected. Unfortunately, too often people are predisposed to believe the worst about someone else merely on hearsay. Image how trust is destroyed and hard feelings created if a priest or bishop accuses someone under their care of mismanagement or malfeasance without a full investigation of the facts of a complaint. From the other direction, imagine how the authority of a priest or bishop or any other leader is undermined when hearsay replaces fact.

Harshness models the evil-one

Assertiveness and intimidation are two different things; a distinction all too often lost on people in leadership. Authority absent of charity can degenerate into monstrosity, especially in religious circles. How would my altar boys view me for example, if I approached them whenever they misbehaved with harsh and accusatory tones pointing the finger of blame and shame? They may not see me as Frankenstein, but they would think that I lived in his neighborhood.

Moreover, for clergy and bishops in particular, reproof by intimidation rather than charity puts their own souls in danger. They model Christ, and the Christ of Scripture was harsh only with the Scribes and Pharisees (other religious leaders who imposed harsh burdens on others in the name of God), but never with the people he encountered day by day. In fact, Christ said that if a leader offended a little one, then the fate that awaited him was worse than having a millstone tied around his neck and being thrown into the sea. May God have mercy on the man who uses his authority to lord over others rather than serve them.

St. Paul's exhortation has to be heard again and taken very seriously:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right (1 Corinthians 13:1-6).

Assert with facts and charity

One final point bears repeating: Anyone in a vertical and horizontal chain of authority must assert with facts. Facts are the greatest assertive communicator of all and facts can be presented with kindness.

This applies to parents as well. Many people are familiar with the advice in the book of Proverbs: "Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. If you beat him with the rod you will save his life from Sheol" (Proverbs (23: 13-14). Enough scientific behavioral research has been done on the deleterious effects of child beating to reveal that anyone who reads this passage as a license to beat children doesn't come close to understanding it properly.

Instead, the procedures outlined above should be used. The "rod" is really what in modern behavioral terms is called the "consequences of behavior" (see: Smart Parenting, Part II, Morelli, 2005). Inappropriate behavior is met with unfavorable consequences but only in ways that respect the inherent dignity of the child.

When my altar boys misbehaved, I did not slap them. I did not overwhelm them in a rush of anger and invective. Instead, I calmly and with patience told them that choosing to continue the misbehavior would result in removal from the altar area. The reproof had great psychological and spiritual power in ways that did not harm the child because I applied it in love.

Love affirms a person but intimidation breaks him. "A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit," the writer of Proverbs tells us (Proverbs 15:4). St. Ephraim the Syrian taught: "If you want to conquer anger, acquire meekness and generosity, and keep in mind how much evil the malefactors did to Our Lord Jesus Christ; yet He, the man-befriending God, did not become angry with them; but on the contrary He prayed for them, saying, "Father, forgive them their sin, for they know not what they do." The lesson is clear: We must always assert in love.


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Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: July 2, 2006

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