Have you ever had trouble speaking up in a meeting? Asking for a raise or other benefits? Letting a loved one know you need them to do something differently?
All of these and more can be a challenge, especially for women. From Lean In to The Female Brain, experts from diverse fields, with varying degrees of success, have tried to empower women to best understand their feelings and behaviors and act accordingly. The Assertiveness Guide for Women, by psychotherapist and clinical social worker Julie de Azevado Hanks, follows in a similar vein, with the particular goal of helping women improve their communication, set healthy boundaries, and benefit their personal and professional relationships.
It is important to note de Azevado Hanks’ areas of expertise in considering this book, because they have a significant impact on her approach. Her method is thoroughly embedded in psychotherapeutic technique and theory, which may limit the scope of its applicability. Indeed, a book that is more concerned with childhood attachment types than the societal obstacles women face each day may not work for everyone.
Which is not to say that The Assertiveness Guide for Women completely neglects such questions — de Azevado Hanks devotes most of the third chapter to these “barriers to assertive communication,” as she calls them. However, her psychotherapeutic focus mostly leaves them aside, instead centering an individualistic approach to assertiveness that relies more on self-exploration than social change. This choice certainly benefits some readers who will enjoy the opportunity for self-discovery, but its limited scope will likewise alienate others who see systemic barriers and cultural influences as worthy of more discussion.
Unsurprisingly then, the bulk of The Assertiveness Guide for Women is devoted to exercises aimed at determining one’s attachment and communication styles. de Azevado Hanks has devised a five-part system to developing assertiveness, including self-reflection, self-awareness, self-soothing, self-expression, and self-expansion, which develop our senses of clarity, confidence, calmness, connection, and compassion respectively. She defines these terms in the first chapter, “What Does It Mean to Be Assertive?” and develops them over the course of the book, using examples and helpful exercises.
de Azevado Hanks begins her process with a discussion of childhood attachment styles as a means of understanding one’s emotions in the second chapter, “Attachment, Emotions, and Assertiveness.” This approach of looking inward continues throughout the book with chapters such as, “Self-Reflection: Exploring Your Relationship Patterns,” “Self-Awareness: Identifying Emotions,” and “Self-Soothing: Mindfulness and Emotional Management.” Each of these corresponds to one of the five parts of her system, and they build to an examination of communication styles: the Doormat, the Sword, and, ideally, the Lantern.
In de Azevado Hanks’ words, this style of communication entails something like this: “I imagine inviting the person I am interacting with to step into the lantern’s light with me and ask this person to describe his or her experience and perspective.” It allows both parties to feel and offer compassion and empathy, making room for all points of view and giving individuals the opportunity to say “no,” which can be a difficult task, especially for women.
This cultivation of compassion is perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of The Assertiveness Guide for Women. As de Azevado Hanks points out, assertiveness, of course, is not aggression. However, it is also easy to imagine a situation in which such methods fall entirely short. No doubt many readers have had the experience of facing off against someone holding a communicative Sword who is unlikely to cede to the influence of the Lantern, no matter how much compassionate language we use.
Moreover, de Azevado Hanks’ method ill prepares her readers for many eventualities facing women, including discrimination in the workplace, abusive spouses, and harassment. In fact, in spite of its hot pink and power-pose emblazoned cover, The Assertiveness Guide for Women doesn’t seem to be particularly for women, as few of de Azevado Hanks’ exercises are specifically tailored for her supposed audience. The gender-influenced advice she does offer seems to be mostly for mothers in two-parent households, which may be a common demographic but also excludes many women who could also benefit from more assertive communication.
However, there are certainly many women who would benefit from the exercises found here. Self-reflection is, after all, useful for all of us, and everyone can gain from more clarity, confidence, calmness, connection, and compassion. de Azevado Hanks’ models for assertive communication are applicable in many situations and would transform a number of relationships, if both parties are willing to hold up their own Lanterns. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize the text’s limitations, and those looking for more than the usual psychotherapeutic remedies will likely be disappointed.
The Assertiveness Guide for Women: How to Communicate Your Needs, Set Healthy Boundaries, and Transform Your Relationships
New Harbinger Publications, August 2016
Paperback, 224 pages