What is Assertiveness?
Assertiveness is standing up for yourself in a way that does not violate the rights of another person. It is a direct and honest expression of your feelings and opinions. Your rights and the rights of others are equally valued, expressed, and respected. Acting assertively can increase your chances for honest relationships, help you to feel better about yourself, and give you a sense of control in everyday situations. However, asserting yourself will not necessarily guarantee you happiness or fair treatment by others. Just because you assert yourself does not mean you will always get what you want. By developing an ability to express yourself, however, you may be able to reduce your stress, increase your feelings of self-worth, improve your decision-making abilities, and feel more self-confident in relationships.
When confronted with difficult situations, people can sometimes respond passively or aggressively. Passive people tend to be distrustful of their own thoughts and feelings. They often think about appropriate “comebacks” or “what I should have said” long after the situation has ended. This person often feels inhibited, anxious, and allows others to depreciate their value. Other individuals may respond aggressively to difficult situations. Aggressiveness is a way of standing up for yourself that violates the rights of other people. It results in humiliating and putting down the other person. The aggressive person may get what they want, but they may lose the respect of others in the process. Assertiveness falls in between these two responses, between acting like a doormat and acting like a bully.
Components of Assertive Behavior
There are several important factors that contribute to assertiveness – it involves not only what you say but also how you say it. Keep in mind that there are cultural variations in what is considered appropriate for assertive communication. Many of the factors listed below are derived from a Western context, where self-assertion is considered valuable in developing more direct and open communication and a greater sense of equality in relationships.
What To Say
There are ways to express the content of your message so that the other person will be more likely to hear you. Express yourself and your feelings, and take responsibility for them rather than labeling or blaming the other person. You do not need to put someone else down to express yourself. Remember that assertiveness includes the expression of affection as well as feelings of anger or frustration. Specifically:
1. Be as specific and clear as possible about what you want, think, and feel. Vague or tentative statements will likely lead to misinterpretation. The following statements project this preciseness:
“I don’t want to…”
“I have mixed reactions. I agree with these aspects for these reasons, but am distressed about these aspects for these reasons.”
2. “Own” your message. Acknowledge that your message comes from your frame of reference and your perceptions. You can acknowledge ownership with personalized (“I”) statements such as “I don’t agree with you” as compared to “You’re wrong”. Blaming statements such as this, rather than a statement of ownership, will likely foster resentment and resistance rather than understanding and cooperation.
3. Ask for feedback and then listen carefully to the other person. “Am I being clear?” Does that make sense? How do you see this situation? What do you want to do?” Asking for feedback can make it clear to the other person that you are expressing an opinion, feeling, or desire rather than a demand. Listening to their feedback and engaging in a discussion can correct any misperceptions either of you have. Encourage others to be clear, direct, and specific in their feedback to you.
How to Say It
1. Eye Contact: Looking directly but comfortably at the person to whom you’re speaking helps communicate your sincerity and interest. Looking away or staring too intently can be uncomfortable for the other person.
2. Body Posture: Turning towards an individual feels much more personal than turning away or to the side. A slumped, passive stance makes it difficult to stand up for oneself – both literally and figuratively.
3. Physical Contact and Distance: Closeness is a nonverbal form of communication that varies greatly across cultures. In western cultures, standing or sitting closely or touching suggests intimacy in a relationship (unless you are in a crowded space). Being too close or too far away may offend someone and have an impact on his or her ability to listen openly to you.
4. Facial Expression and Gestures: Your expression should match your message. When you are angry, the most effective way is to deliver your message with a straight, non-smiling facial expression, not with a big smile and jovial gestures.
5. Voice: A level, even tone of voice is both clear and convincing without being intimidating or ignorable. Consider your tone, inflection, and volume when speaking.
6. Timing: Generally, the best practice is to respond in the moment. It will allow you to focus on your feelings at the time. However, it is never too late to return to a person at a later time to share your feelings about an interaction.
7. Listening: Actively listening and attending to another person is a reflection of assertive listening. It reflects a commitment to understanding and respect for another individual’s needs and wishes. It may mean that you avoid expressing yourself right away so that you can fully listen.
Barriers to Assertiveness
Many people struggle to develop assertiveness because they believe that they do not have the right to be assertive, lack the skills to express themselves effectively, or feel highly anxious or fearful about asserting themselves. They may also struggle due to social and cultural factors. Since assertiveness tends to require a sense of safety and belonging, individuals who feel different or that they cannot be themselves, may be less apt to act in an assertive manner. In other words, when people are afraid or uncomfortable, they often hold back. For instance, individuals who are a member of a cultural minority group (whether ethnic, gender, or sexual orientation) may fear being judged or rejected and thus keep their views or other important parts of themselves hidden. Women, for example, are generally not taught to directly communicate their wants and needs the same way that men are. And when they do communicate their needs, they are more likely to be viewed as aggressive rather than assertive. Assertiveness thus extends beyond individual skills and into the community. Ultimately, being assertive is about creating an open and accepting environment that welcomes a diversity of styles and perspectives, thereby enabling others to live and act in an authentic, assertive manner.
Examples of an Assertive Student
Scenario 1: Your roommate is driving you up a wall—she never cleans up her messes, she uses your things without asking, and often has her boyfriend over without asking you first. What do you do? Instead of shooting her dirty looks (that don’t seem to work) or complaining endlessly to your parents and friends, try talking with her in an assertive manner. Consider the following possibilities:
Passive response: Say nothing, but get upset when you clean up her messes.
Aggressive response: “You’re such a rude person to leave your filthy clothes and dishes all over the place! I wish I had a single room.”
Assertive response: “I was hoping we could talk about keeping our room clean. I get frustrated when you don’t do your dishes. Maybe we could come up with a reasonable solution together.”
Scenario 2: The partner you have been assigned for a group project is frequently late to meetings and doesn’t seem to do his share of the work. He just showed up 15 minutes late for your meeting at the library.
What do you do?
Passive response: “Hi, let me show you what I’ve been working on so far” [while inside you’re thinking: once again, I’m doing all the work!].
Aggressive response: Late again?! I wish I hadn’t gotten paired with someone so irresponsible.
Assertive response: Before we start, I’d like to talk to you about our meetings. I have been irritated when we don’t start on time. We were supposed to meet at 8:30 and now it’s 9:00. Can we discuss this, so that we can work well together?
Learning to Become More Assertive
As you learn to become more assertive, it may be helpful to work with a therapist, friend, or family member whom you trust. Remember to use your assertive skills selectively. It takes time and practice, as well as a willingness to accept yourself as you make mistakes, to reach the goal of acting assertively. It can be helpful to keep a special notebook and log entries including self-examination, readings, goals, etc., as well as the situations, people, attitudes, behaviors, and obstacles you encounter as you practice expressing yourself. Observe your own behavior, keep track of your progress, and set realistic goals. As you practice your techniques, it is often helpful to have accepting relationships and a supportive environment. People who understand and care about you are your strongest assets. Once again, becoming assertive is a process that unfolds over time, and practice and patience will help you on your journey to become more assertive.
adapted from content on the websites of the University of Illinois/Champaign and the University of Texas/Dallas.