Assertiveness: A complete guide on this social and communication skill

Assertiveness. Imagine that you are living the following situations:

  • You lend a friend one of your books. She returns it with pages missing.
  • Your friend always asks to borrow a few dollars when you go out, but he never repays you. You begin to resent that he does this all the time.

How do you act? Do you say something to your friend? How would you say it? In this article we will learn about what assertiveness is, the differences between passiveness, aggression, and assertiveness, the importance of being assertive, plus techniques and exercises to become more assertive.


What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness is a social skill that involves being confident and self-assured without being confrontational or aggressive. Being assertive means that you can get your point across without upsetting others or becoming upset yourself. The response of being passive or aggressive from time to time, which we all can be, is a result of a lack of self-confidence. This is why assertiveness is often associated with self-esteem. Assertiveness also respects the opinions and thoughts of others.

  • Cognitive assertiveness means to not have many anxious thoughts- especially when under stress.
  • Behavioral assertiveness is about asking for what you want while still respecting others.
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The Oxford Dictionary defines it as, “forthright, positive, insistence on the recognition of one’s rights”.

“A form of behavior characterized by a confident declaration or affirmation of a statement without need of proof; this affirms the person’s rights or point of view without either aggressively threatening the rights of another (assuming a position of dominance) or submissively permitting another to ignore or deny one’s rights or point of view.” -Dorland’s Medical Dictionary

Essentially, these definitions mean being able to stand up for yourself or someone else’s rights in a calm way.

Some research has shown that gender can affect how assertive behavior is perceived. It is said that men are more likely to be rewarded for being assertive than women. A study done on female Taiwanese nurses found that after splitting them into two groups, one with assertiveness training and the other not, those who had assertiveness training (during the four-week study period) found a strong correlation between being assertive, and treating stress and non-assertive behaviors.

Although the idea and act of being assertive have existed for all of the time, assertiveness became a bigger and bigger phenomenon during the second half of the 20th century. It was taught as a behavioral skill by personal development experts, and by (cognitive) behavioral therapists. It became popularized through books like Your Perfect Right: A Guide to Assertive Behavior (1970) and When I Say No, I Feel Guilty: How To Cope Using the Skills of Systematic Assertiveness Therapy (1975).

What does assertiveness mean?

Assertiveness has different types of behaviors and traits. There is a sweet spot for being assertive. If you’re above that sweet spot, you won’t get your way (passive). If you’re below the sweet spot, you won’t get along with others (aggressive). Some behaviors and traits associated with assertiveness are:

  • Being open to yours and others wishes, thoughts, and feelings
  • Listening to others’ points of view and to respond properly, whether you agree with them or not
  • Accepting responsibilities and being able to empower others
  • Expressing appreciation and gratitude for what others have done or what they are doing
  • Behaving just, fair, and equal to others
  • Being able to maintain self-control
  • Being able to admit mistakes and apologize

Assertiveness vs. Passive

To be passive means to respect others wishes and to undermine one’s individual rights and self-confidence. Many people act passively because they want to be liked by others. Being passive means placing the wishes and feelings of others before your own and not being able to communicate your thoughts or feelings effectively in order to advocate for what you want. In reality, it’s saying “yes” when all you want is to say “no”. For example, your spouse asks you if you have time to pick up the kids from school. A passive response would be “Yes, but I will be quite late because I have a meeting until 5 pm.” An assertive response is “No, I can’t because I have a really important meeting with my boss until 5 pm.”

Assertiveness vs. Aggressive

It can be difficult to define assertive behavior because there is a fine line between assertiveness and aggression, and this line can be confusing. Assertiveness is based on balanced while aggression is based on winning. Being assertive requires the consideration of the feelings of others while being aggressive means you disregard others thoughts and feelings. Aggressive actions encourage the other person to respond in a non-assertive way, either passively or aggressively. Sometimes when people respond to a non-aggressive action in an aggressive way, it leaves the other person wondering what they did wrong and why they deserved the aggression. If thoughts or feelings are not stated clearly, in an assertive way, manipulation can happen. Manipulation is seen as a form of aggression although humor can also be seen aggressively. It’s important to keep in mind how aggression is seen. In numerous cultures and in many workplaces, passivity and assertiveness are seen as better responses.

For example, your boss places a pile of work to be done right away on your desk right before you are set to go on vacation. This is an aggressive act because your boss is disregarding your needs, feelings, and the fact you’re going on vacation. It’s possible to respond to your boss in an aggressive way by being hostile, angry, or rude. You could also respond with assertiveness by telling your boss that the work will get done, but after you come back from vacation- non-aggressively asserting your own rights while recognizing the fact that there is work to do.

Importance of being assertive

It often pays to be assertive. Assertiveness helps you become more self-confident and thus, helps you gain an understanding of who you are and your value, your worth. However, it is not necessary to always be assertive- assertiveness should be used when you feel it best.

Assertive people tend to:

  • Make great managers because they get things done by using justice and respect. In a study about what makes a good and effective leader, assertiveness ranked high on the scale.
  • Be less anxious and stressed because they don’t feel threatened or victimized when things don’t go to plan.
  • Be good negotiators by finding “win-win” solutions to problems. They can find common ground with their opponent.
  • Be good problem solvers and are better do-ers because they feel empowered to do whatever needs to be done in order to find the best solutions to their problems.

What are skills needed to be assertive?

Not everyone is born assertive, but luckily there are some skills we can use to help us develop our assertiveness. Assertiveness can be learned. Some experts believe that the key is to first understand the context, assess your behavior and that of those around you, and then to make the right adjustments.  

Some examples of these skills include:

  • Seeing the value of yourself, your rights, and your beliefs. Assertive people have a good understanding of themselves and recognize the value of themselves, their rights, and their beliefs by having a strong basis of self-confidence. Self-confidence will help them recognize that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, which leads them to be able to stick up for the wants, rights, and needs of themselves (or others).
    • It’s important to not allow your self-confidence develop into self-importance (which can turn into aggression) because your rights, thoughts, needs, and beliefs are equally as important as everyone else’s.
  • Voicing your wants and needs with confidence. Being able to work at your full potential, it’s important that your wants and needs are met.
  • Understanding that you can’t control other people’s behavior. People are in charge of how they react, not you.
  • Expressing themselves in a positive way.
  • Being open to both compliments and criticism.
  • Being able to say “no”. This is one of the most important skills needed in assertiveness because it’s vital to know your own limits in order to stand up for yourself.

What are some exercises to help assertiveness?

  • Don’t wait for someone else to recognize what you want or needs. Either do what you want or need yourself, or tell someone else explicitly what you want or need.
  • Avoid phrasing requests in a way that sacrifice others’ needs for yours. If you want people to help you, it’s important to ask for things in a way that isn’t too pushy nor overly aggressive.
  • Stay as calm and even-headed as possible. If people act resentful towards you, use assertiveness to not react towards them in the same way.
  • Say what is on your mind, but be sensitive and aware of how your words might affect others. Being in charge of your emotions is key.
  • Be able to accept and acknowledge both positive and negative feedback well by being gracious and humble about it. If you disagree with a criticism, be able to disagree, but do so without getting defensive or angry.
  • Know that you can’t do everything and it’s important to protect your workload and your time by saying “no” when it’s necessary. If you need to say “no”, try and find a win-win solution in which everyone can benefit.
  • Be able to assess your own level of assertiveness.
  • Set practicable goals to be able to make small changes in your behavior to achieve a higher level of assertiveness.

What are some techniques to help assertiveness?

  • Use “I” Statements. “I” Statements are statements that convey your feelings without imposing on the other person. For example, “I feel”, “I want”, and “I need” are all “I” Statements.
  • Being empathetic. Using empathy means you understand how the other person feels about and views the situation, and take their point of view into consideration.
  • Taking action. If your attempts at assertiveness aren’t successful, then you may need to become firmer while still being respectful.
  • Ask for more time. Sometimes we are put into situations that catch us off guard or we might not feel calm enough to respond respectfully. It’s okay to ask for time to compose your thoughts and to compose yourself.
  • Pay attention to the verbs you use. Some verbs “sugar-coat” a message to the point that sometimes the other person doesn’t realize what you are asking of them. Try using verbs like “will” instead of “could” and “should: “I will do this” rather than “I should do this”. Try using “want” instead of “need”: “I want you to be ready in five minutes” rather than “I need you to be ready in five minutes”. 
  • Repeat. It’s fine to be a broken record and advocate for yourself by repeating the message, in the same words, if people don’t realize your genuine intentions.
  • Think about what you will say prior. Prepare what you want to say in advance.
  • Forge relationships outside of work with your colleagues in order to feel more comfortable with speaking up and asserting yourself in the workplace.

What do you do to become more assertive? Let us know in the comments below!

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