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Minnesota State University, Mankato

Minnesota State University, Mankato

Q&A's about Assertiveness

Page address: https://www.mnsu.edu/counseling/students/assertiveness.html

What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness is a way of communicating to others in a direct, open, and honest manner about your individual rights and needs. In communicating with others in an assertive way you are able to express who you are, to respect yourself, and to value your own opinions and beliefs. Assertiveness is never done in a way that violates the rights of others and does not involve hurting others in physical or emotional ways. The goal of assertiveness is effective communication and mutuality in relationships-equalizing the balance of power in relationships through giving and getting respect and leaving room for compromise when the rights and needs of two people conflict.

What are the benefits of being assertive?

Assertiveness promotes self-confidence as you learn to make better decisions for yourself and increase the chances that you will get what you want from your life. It maximizes your sense of control of your life and your emotions as you learn to appropriately express your concerns instead of bottling up those concerns. Aside from personal benefits, assertiveness has a direct positive effect on your relationships. When you are appropriately assertive in your relationships, you will find that others respect you, that conflict is minimized, that others trust you because you have established boundaries and certainty about what to expect. Assertiveness with others increases the chances that they will give you honest and genuine feedback that will help you grow in your own life as well. Assertive behaviors also allow others to grow because you are able to give them open and honest feedback.

Are there any drawbacks to being assertive?

As with any behavior, there are also drawbacks to assertiveness. Asserting yourself will not necessarily guarantee that you are happy, that you are fairly treated by others, that all of your problems are solved, or that you will always get what you want. It certainly increases your chances for those things occurring, but it is not a guarantee. Additionally, others may have come to expect you to be non-assertive and may struggle with the changes you are making. Some may misinterpret your assertiveness as superiority and may then act overly apologetic or even intimidated around you. Others may become hostile after you disagree about something. Some may even have temper tantrums to try to convince you to change back to your old ways.

Though there are drawbacks, you can counter these difficulties by sticking to your assertion, ignoring childish behavior, expressing regret that someone is upset with your actions (but sticking to your assertion), being consistent so that people are not confused and then begin to ignore your assertions, and trusting that those who truly care about you will adjust to your new behaviors. You may consider letting those you care about knowing ahead of time that you are going to be making some changes and asking for their support, though you need to be careful about that as some will try to sabotage your efforts.

Why is it difficult to be assertive?

There may be several reasons that people may struggle to be assertive. For some, there may be an underlying belief that others will not like them if they do not do things as others want them to do. They may believe that others will be hurt or disappointed if they say no to a request. There may be a strong belief that others should come first. They may believe that they do not have the right to speak their own needs and opinions. For others, they may not know exactly what they want out of life and so they go along with others who have stronger opinions. These types of beliefs can be deeply ingrained but very limiting. Other barriers to assertiveness may include high levels of anxiety or fear about being assertive and a lack of skills for effective self-expression.

How do I become assertive if I don't want to seem mean or pushy?

Part of becoming appropriately assertive is recognizing more clearly what it is and is not. It is helpful to consider assertiveness on a continuum from passiveness to assertiveness to aggressiveness to figure out the boundaries between the behaviors and so you can realize that you will not ever be mean or pushy if you are being appropriately assertive.

  • Passiveness: Passiveness means that you may violate your own rights by neglecting to express your honest feelings, thoughts, and beliefs, which then opens the door for others to violate your rights. Passiveness can also mean that you express your thoughts and feelings in such an apologetic and self-effacing manner that others can easily disregard them. With passivity, the message that you send is that your feelings and thoughts do not matter and that only other people's feelings matter. The passive person often wants to appease others and avoid conflict at any cost. To others, the passive person may make indirect or no eye contact, may speak in a soft or whiny voice, may present themselves with stooped posture to make them seem smaller in appearance, may exhibit nervous or childish gestures, and appear inhibited. The passive person often does not achieve their own goals because they allow others to make too many choices for them, resulting in feelings of invalidation and low self-worth.
  • Assertiveness: Assertiveness means that you value yourself enough to speak your mind in ways that do not belittle or undermine others' beliefs. It means that you are thoughtful about how you say what you say to people and that you take responsibility for the consequences of what you say, whether those consequences are negative or positive. With assertive behaviors, you send the message that you place equal value on your own thoughts as you do on others' thoughts, that you are open to honest communication, and that you are receptive to compromise when conflict does arise. How it will look to others is that you display direct but non-invasive eye contact, you speak in a modulated voice, you have respect for spatial boundaries, you illustrate your points with appropriate and non-threatening gestures, and you typically have a tall but relaxed posture. Assertiveness will not guarantee that you get what you want but it will increase the chances for success. It allows you to choose what you want for yourself and, as a result, leads to self-enhancing feelings.
  • Aggressiveness: Aggressiveness means that you behave in ways that are selfish or that violate the rights of others. It is usually destructive rather than constructive as you stand up for your personal rights but in ways that are often dishonest, inappropriate, and humiliating to others. Aggressiveness may involve being physically or emotionally forceful with others, often resulting in anger, defensiveness, or aggression by others. The message of aggression is that your needs are more important than the needs of others-that you count and others do not. The goal of aggression is domination and winning by making another person weaker and/or defenseless. Those who are aggressive often display invasive eye contact, may speak in a loud and arrogant voice, may invade spatial boundaries, may illustrate their point with forceful gestures, and will appear stiff and as though they are towering over another person. The aggressive person may achieve their goals, though it will be accomplished by making choices for and hurting others. Though some aggressive people will feel self-enhancement because of their behaviors, others will feel guilt and confusion about why they are such a bully, especially when they see their relationships affected in negative ways.

How can I become more assertive?

You can try a variety of techniques to build assertiveness into your repertoire of behaviors. Some of the possible things you can try include the following ideas:

  • Take a self-assessment. Think or write about where you fall on the assertiveness continuum. What thoughts and feelings do you have about assertiveness? You may need to combat some of your fears and negative thoughts about assertiveness by educating yourself more about it and encouraging yourself to take care of yourself.
  • Be patient with yourself as you learn the new skills. Realize that you may struggle to find the appropriate balance between passivity and aggression.
  • Communicate with others in specific, clear, and precise ways. "I want to..." "Please do not do..." "I appreciated it when you..." "I have a different opinion. I think that..."
  • Use "I" statements to express that what you are saying is your opinion from your frame of reference. "I feel upset when I think I am being ignored...I'd prefer it if you could tell me you want to be alone for awhile." When you use "you" statements such as "You shouldn't ignore me...you make me so mad," as such statements make someone feel like you are pointing fingers and they are more likely to respond with a defensive reaction.
  • Consider following up a request with a compromise. "I would be willing to give you the time you need to be alone if you set a time to spend with me later."
  • Ask for feedback from others about how clear you are, about how the other person sees the situation, and/or about what they want to do about the situation. A lot of conflict arises when there are misperceptions of people's behaviors or misinterpretations of what is being said. Asking for feedback helps to clear up any misperceptions either of you have.
  • Be aware of your non-verbal behaviors. You communicate to others not just by what you say, but also by how you say it. Your non-verbal behaviors include your tone of voice, gestures, eye contact, facial expression, and posture.
  • Realize that saying "no" does not imply that you are rejecting another person-you are simply refusing a request. Work on reframing your assertiveness and it will be easier to give yourself permission to be assertive.
  • Prepare for others' responses to your changes. Know that it is normal for the other person to try to maintain the status quo, which is what is familiar to them. It may be harder to stick to your "no" the first couple of times you say it to people and they may even resort to pleading, begging, cajoling, compliments, or other forms of manipulation. Assertively stand your ground, let them know that you know it is hard to deal with your change in behaviors, and let them know you need to say "no" to be good to yourself.
  • Learn to take genuine compliments from others. A simple "thank you," "you just made my day," or "I appreciate you saying that" will suffice. Avoid negating yourself, automatically returning a compliment, ignoring the compliment, or rejecting it.
  • Learn to give and receive constructive criticism from others. Effective criticism consists of several components. It is due to a real issue and not a desire to get even. It is specific to a particular behavior that you do not like and that the other person does. It is to the point so that it is easy to understand and does not feel punishing. It is constructive and targets something that can be changed. It is also immediate and occurs as soon as possible following the problem behavior. Effective reception of criticism includes listening to what is said rather than preparing a defense or an attack, acknowledging the criticism by repeating it to show you have heard it, summarizing the criticism to invite further elaboration or clarity, following up with questions about parts of the criticism that are incomplete or hard to understand responding to the truth of the criticism, acknowledging and offering change when the criticism is appropriate.
  • Sharing positive feelings is part of assertiveness as well, as expressing your positive feelings towards others can be as hard as expressing your negative ones. Sharing your positive feelings helps foster healthy relationships. Consider saying things like "I like you a lot..." "I enjoy your company..." "I really appreciate your help. Thank you."
  • Watch out for pitfalls in communicating with others. Avoid making assumptions about what other people are thinking or feeling, about what their motives are, or about how they may react--check with them first. Avoid sarcasm, character assassination, or talking in absolutes ("never" or "always").
  • Evaluate your expectations about what you want from others. Do you have reasonable expectations? You may need to adjust them.
  • Seek counseling for additional support, as needed.

References

  • Alberti, R. and Emmons, M. (1994). "Your Perfect Right, 7th edition" Impact: CA.
  • Lange, A. and Jakubowski, P. (1978). "The Assertive Option," Research Press: IL.
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne Counseling Center (1984). "Assertiveness," Board of Trustees of the university of Illinois: IL.
  • Virtual Pamphlet collection