What is assertive behaviour?
Assertive behaviour is being able to express your feelings, opinions, beliefs, and standing up for your own or other people’s rights while remaining calm and positive. It is a style of communication that involves being able to say what you want, need and feel, without hurting the feelings of other people.
Assertiveness involves expressing your needs honestly, directly and in an appropriate manner. Putting your point across without becoming aggressive, without denying the rights of others or passively accepting what you don’t want. It involves understanding the other person’s point of view and behaving logically.
Assertive behaviour is defined as a
“Behaviour which enables a person to act in his own best interests, to stand up for himself without undue anxiety, to express his honest feeling comfortably, or to exercise his own rights without denying the rights of others.” – (Calberti and Emmons 1974)
Assertive behaviour is often confused with aggressiveness behaviour. It is important to note that assertive behaviour does not involve physically or emotionally hurting another person.
While every situation may not lead to both parties getting what they want, adopting an assertive approach enables you to seek the best possible outcome for both parties and helps maintain a positive relationship. It involves seeking to equalize the balance of power and negotiating an agreeable compromise.
Assertiveness is a key communication and behavioural skill and the great news is that it can be learned. Assertive behaviour is very much concerned with not only what you say, but how you say it. Becoming more assertive will greatly enhance your self-confidence, make communicating with others much easier, reduce social anxiety and enable you to gain positive reactions from other people. Developing assertiveness is definitely a worthwhile investment.
Low self-esteem, depression, feeling unappreciated or social anxiety, are often associated with individuals who find it difficult to express their option’s assertively. If this is you, it may because in the past (as a child etc.) you were punished, by teachers or parents for expressing your opinions, especially when your opinions differ from others.
Characteristics of assertive behaviour:
- Maintaining an erect posture or standing tall
- Keep their emotions under control
- Listening to other people’s views and opinions with interest
- Maintaining direct eye contact but not staring
- “I want” or “I don’t want”
- Honestly expressing ideas and feelings
- Accepting responsibility and deal with problems rather than avoiding them
- Speaking clearly, calmly and audibly
- Being able to apologise and ask questions to find out the other person’s needs
- Using facial expression and gestures to add emphasis to your words
- Being able to behave in a manner that is equal to others
- Statements are clear, brief and to the point
- Being able to delegate to others
- An open body stance and using facial expressions to reinforce words
- “My experience is different” or “I would like to” or “Would you like to”
- “I feel irritated when you interrupt me”
- Using eye contact
- Expressing appreciation for what others have done
- “How does this fit with your ideas?”
- Admitting mistakes
People who are assertive won’t let others take advantage of them, but at the same time will not attack or put others down for being who they are. You feel respected and people view you as an adult, capable of making decisions and being honest. You may not always get what you want, but you don’t lose your self-respect. You believe that everyone has their own opinion and has the right to express it.
When you become more assertive you change and reshape beliefs that you established as a child. Lower levels of anger and resentment build-up, while your level of acceptance for other peoples needs, opinions and wants are heard more easily. You develop a greater understanding and love for other people.
What is passive behaviour?
Passive behaviour, or submissive behaviour, is where you don’t express your needs, opinions, to avoid upsetting other people. Submissive behaviour typically involves allowing other people to get their way so you avoid upsetting them or so you can gain their approval.
When you are being submissive or passive, you allow others to violate your rights. You express your thoughts in a self-effacing way, enabling others to easily disregard them. For example, you may really need help with something but you don’t ask for a favour or someone may ask you to do a favour but you are really busy. Instead of saying “No, I can’t do it today as I have lots of other things to do”, you reply “Yes, I will do that after I have done all my other tasks and jobs.” Being non-assertive is when you don’t let others know what you need or want, or when you let other people decide what is best for you.
Passive behaviour characteristics:
- Apologizing inappropriately for their behaviour or attitudes
- No eye contact and hesitant or maintain very little eye contact with the other person
- Not saying anything when other people’s behaviour upsets them
- Using words like “maybe”, “sort of”,
- Phrases like “I might be wrong”, “I’m terribly sorry to bother you”, “It’s not important”, “I’m hopeless”, etc.
- Tense posture
- Fidgeting with cuffs, pens, hair etc.
- Use “perhaps” or “possibly” a lot
- Looking down at the floor or at feet
- Nervous body movements
- Covering mouth with the hand
- Submissive people will not submit their own ideas or feelings and will often give in to other people
- Low voice
- Crossing arms for protection
- Jaw trembling
- “I don’t matter”
- “I don’t count”
- You feel little or helpless
- “I will be responsible for upsetting them”
- “People will not like me”
- “My feelings are less important than yours”
When you are passive you a prone to a lower level of self-esteem and to a build-up of anger and stress. Repressing your frustration can also lower your positive feelings. People who are passive tend to present themselves in a less positive light and put themselves down, which ultimately leads them to feel inferior to other people. People often see you as unable to make decisions, you don’t get what you want and you feel like you have been used.
What is aggressive behaviour?
Aggressive behaviour, or dominant behaviour, involves a more threatening, demanding, or punishing expression of your opinion, with little respect for the other person’s rights or feelings. You aim to achieve your personal goals regardless of how it may affect other people. Aggressive behaviour involves standing up for your rights in a way that is inappropriate and often involves obtaining superiority by putting others down.
Characteristics of aggressive behaviour:
- Condescending and may attempt to belittle others
- Ignore the rights of others to speak their mind
- Cold and harsh
- Rushing people
- Fist clenching
- Not listening
- Hands-on hips
- Pointing of finger or thumping table to reinforce what they are saying
- Pounding fist
- Standing too close to people and invading their personal space
- Shouting or speak loud and strident
- Jaws set firm
- Using phrases such as “You better watch out”, “Don’t be so stupid”, “You must”, “That is ridiculous”
- Use of words such as “always”, “never”
- Striding around impatiently
- Crossing arms
- Telling rather than asking
- Threatening questions such as “have you not finished that yet?”
- Ignoring others
- Leaning over someone when talking
Attitudes associated with aggressive behaviour:
- “The world is a battleground and I’m out to win”
- “I’m out for number one”
- “Attack is the best form of defence”
Oftentimes, aggressive behaviour can be associated with deeper feelings of inferiority. These feelings can contribute to a person feeling the need to put others down in order to compensate. In addition, aggressiveness creates enemies and resentment among those around you. You may get what you want, but you end up losing more in the long term. After displaying aggressive behaviour, you often feel alone, angry and that people avoid or dislike you. You lose friends and self-respect.
It is easy for a person who engages in aggressive behaviour to dominate a submissive or passive person. The submissive person is very likely to let the aggressive person have their way. This will lead to the aggressive person feeling the satisfaction of getting what they want, but the submissive person is likely to feel dissatisfied with their own behaviour and unhappy. They are also likely to feel resentful towards the other person.
What are your assertive rights?
- You have the right to judge your own behaviors, thoughts and emotions, and to take responsibility for their initiation and consequences upon yourself.
- You have the right to offer no reasons or excuses for justifying your behavior.
- You have the right to judge if you are responsible for finding solutions to other people’s problems.
- You have the right to change your mind.
- You have the right to make mistakes and be responsible for them.
- You have the right to say “I don’t know.”
- You have the right to be independent of the goodwill of others before coping with them.
- You have the right to be illogical in making decisions.
- You have the right to say “I don’t understand.”
- You have the right to say “I don’t care.”
- You have the right to say “no.”
- You have the right to do less then you are humanly capable of doing.
- You have the right to take the time you need to respond.
- You have the right to disagree with others regardless of their position or numbers.
- You have the right to feel all of your emotions (including anger) and express them appropriately.
- You have the right to ask questions.
- You have the right to be treated with respect.
- You have the right to ask for what you want.
- You have the right to feel good about yourself, your actions and your life.
- You have the right to exercise any and all of these rights, without feeling guilty.
What prevents people from being assertive?
Most non-assertive people have a belief that they don’t have the right to be assertive, or are fearful about what will happen if they are assertive. Other people feel that they lack social skills, or simply do not know how to effectively assert themselves.
One of the biggest reasons a person is not assertive comes down to their self-esteem and self-confidence. When these are low a person People will often deal with others in a passive way. This, in turn, leads to others treating them this way.
Stress and past experiences can also cause people to be passive. Stress can make people feel like they have little control over their lives and as a result, they behave passively or aggressively. Anxiety can also lead to a person behaving passively. Experiences that people have encountered in the past will further contribute to how you communicate with others. If your family dealt with conflict by yelling and arguing, then you may have learned to deal with conflict in the same way, or if they taught you to place the needs of others before yourself as a child, it may be difficult for you to assert yourself.
The type of relationship you have with the other person will further influence how you behave. For example, you may find it easier to be more assertive with your partner than your boss or work colleagues.
How do you become more assertive?
Assertiveness is not always easy, but it is definitely the most effective approach to communicating with others. With practice, assertive behaviour is a skill that can be learned and mastered. However, it will require you to be honest with yourself and analyze your own problems. Identifying your general behaviour when communicating will help you to establish whether you are being respectful of other people’s rights, or whether you may need to assert your own rights more.
Admitting that you might be passive or too aggressive is a necessary first step in becoming more assertive. Be committed to making the changes required to your behaviour and attitude. This is likely to involve changing your beliefs. If you believe that you are not good enough, or that you do not have the right to share your opinion etc., you must make a commitment to changing this belief. This is a fundamental element of being assertive. You must believe in your rights and know that it’s ok to pursue them. Likewise, other people have those rights too and you must respect them in the same way they should respect yours.
Some people find it useful to write down statements such as “I will stand up for myself in a respectful manner” and “I will express myself directly and openly” on a piece of paper and place them somewhere they can look at each day. This helps enforce your commitment to becoming more assertive and keeps your mind focused on the type of behaviour you want to achieve. Identifying and analysing your own emotional processes can further help you to change the way you communicate with others. By doing this, you will learn to effectively manage and express your emotions more assertively.
Becoming more assertive will take practice. Therefore a good idea is to rehearse or practice out loud assertive gestures or phrases so that you become familiar and comfortable with using assertive language. If this sounds too scary, start saying them in your head. As you become more confident, progress to rehearsing out loud in front of your mirror.
When you feel comfortable, try to identify small situations where you can apply your assertive behaviour and identify how well you did. Start small and identify simple areas where you can practice being assertive and progress further as you become more confident.
For example, when meeting new people take the opportunity to practice your new assertive skills. The most important aspect of meeting a person for the first time is to establish the right atmosphere. You should begin by introducing yourself and offering a firm handshake. It is a good idea to establish eye contact and smile while asking an open question to start the conversation. This can be about their journey or the weather for example.
There are many little tips and tricks you can implement to build on your assertiveness. For example, order your own dinner from yourself every evening. State exactly what it is that you want. It sounds silly, but listening to yourself clearly stating what you want is a great first step to take on this path of confidence.
If you’re ready to bring the practice outside of yourself, try giving coworkers praise on something they did well. Be concise and honest. This not only boosts your own confidence but that of your co-workers as well.
When being assertive:
- State what you want
- Ask for what you want
- Be honest
- Say what you’re thinking or how you’re feeling
- Say no when you do not want to, or cannot, do something
Many people struggle to say “no” when they know they should. This is usually because people fear the response they may receive by refusing someone. You may feel that by saying “no” you will lose their respect, friendship, or that it may result in a negative response.
It’s important to remember if you don’t want to do something, or do not have the time to do something, you should say “no”. This is your right. There will be many times when you will need to refuse a request. Everybody has the right to say no when asked by another person to do something. Just like that person has the right to ask you.
Learning to say “no” will help reduce stress, anger, resentfulness and avoid conflicts in the long term. When saying “no” it is important to be clear, polite, honest and demonstrate an understanding of the other person’s position without allowing the other person to make you emotional. Sometime you may need to be president with your refusal.
Taking responsibility involves analysing how you respond to a situation. You can’t control the behaviours of others, but what you can control is how you choose to respond to their actions.
Take ownership of your feelings. Blaming others for how you feel may be seen as an attack, resulting in the other person becoming defensive. When this happens communication becomes ineffective because the channels for communication have broken down.
Use appropriate body language
Your body language will play an important role in assertive communication. It is possible to think that you are being assertive when you are using assertive language, but your body language or nonverbal communication must match your language.
It is possible to think you are acting assertively when you are actually being passive or aggressive, because of your non-verbal communication style.
Clearly expressing opinions and using simple sentences
When you’re putting across your point of view or opinion, it is important that you clearly state that it is your opinion. By expressing your feelings or point as opinion, it will help others feel that their thoughts or views also matter and encourage them to share. This leads to effective communication.
To avoid being misunderstood and reduce conflict, it is important to use simple and clear sentences. This will help others understand what you are asking and avoid any frustration.
For example, don’t use hints and expect people to know what you’re talking about. This regularly leads to arguments as the other person gets frustrated trying to figure out what it is that you want. We’ve all seen examples of this in relationships and it’s important to make sure you’re being clear when communicating with everyone in your life.
Angry people can often be quite difficult to deal with. When these people are your manager or a customer, the situation can be difficult to avoid. In these situations, it is important to remain calm and avoid taking their anger personally.
If you find yourself in a situation where the other person behaves aggressively, you can use the fogging technique. This involves identifying some level of agreement, even if small, with the other person’s argument. By doing this you can diffuse the situation and stay in control.
Asking for more time
If you don’t really know what you want, or maybe you feel that you might be too emotional to make a decision right there and then, you can ask for more time. It can often be easier to postpone saying anything until you have had time to think it through. To do this just be honest by telling the other person that you need some time to gather your thoughts and that you will get back to them shortly.
“Bob, your question has caught me off guard. I’ll get back to you within an hour.“
This technique is often used when you have to deal with someone who is being persistent. It involves you repeating the same message repeatedly. For example, during a conversation, you may have to keep restating your message using the same language over and over again. This is done until the other person is clear that you are not going to change your mind.
Oftentimes people try to break down your resistance, but with a clear and consistent message, they will be unable and will eventually accept that you mean what you are saying. It is a good idea to have the message you want to convey prepared ahead of time and remain calm, polite and not become emotional. It is also important to demonstrate an appreciation of the other person’s difficulties.
If you find yourself becoming upset at any point take a few deep breaths as this will initiate your body’s calming process and help you stay in control throughout the conversation.
Manager: “I need you to work on the Simmons project.”
You: “I can see your urgency, but I cannot take on any more projects right now.”
Manager: “I’ll pay you extra for working on it.”
You: “I cannot take on any more projects right now.”
Manager: “This is really important and my boss insists this gets top priority.”
You: “I cannot take on any more projects right now, I am at full capacity.”
Manager: “Please, as a personal favour to me.”
You: “I value our professional relationship and would if it were possible, but I cannot take on any more projects right now.”
Negative assertion involves looking at your own behaviour and identifying negatives. When doing this you should accept these errors with the mindset of working on them. It is important not to become anxious or defensive, but instead, recognise your faults without apologizing.
An example of this would be:
Friend: “You’re not very good at listening to what I have to say.”
You: “You’re right. I don’t listen as closely as I should to what you’re saying.
The best approach to dealing with criticism is to listen carefully to what the other person is saying and demonstrate an understanding of the point they are making. If there is truth in what they’re saying agree with it or the logic of it from their point of view. You should accept your errors and not make excuses for them. Instead sympathetically agree with hostile criticism.
Anticipate other people’s behaviour
By anticipating other people’s behaviour you can prepare your responses in advance and practice your responses for different scenarios. This will greatly improve your self-confidence, enabling you to remain assertive.
“I” statements enable speakers to be assertive without making accusations. You are saying how it is for you or how you see things rather than how it should or shouldn’t be which helps prevent the listener from becoming defensive. “I” statements convey that you are willing to take responsibility for your own thoughts and behaviours.
The purpose of using the “I” statement is to improve the relationship and when used properly they can lead to effective positive communication.
- “I understand that”
- “I think that I”
- “When I think I’m not being heard I”
- “I enjoyed your presentation.”
- “I get really anxious when”
- “I would like”
- “I know you are busy, but I need your assistance.”
- “When you raise your voice, I feel threatened.”
- “When you arrive late, I have to wait, and I feel frustrated.”
- “If you are late again, I will be left with no choice but to pursue disciplinary action. I would prefer to avoid that.”
Avoid judgement and making assumptions
Being assertive involves avoiding making judgements and assumptions. Assumptions can lead to a world of inaccuracy and judgements can lead to frustration and defensiveness from the other person. To ensure assertive communication use very descriptive language.
You: “You could have made more effort to make it on time!”
Friend: “My babysitter didn’t show up, so I had to make other last-minute arrangements.”
This results in you feeling guilty. Remember, you never know what might have happened so give the other person the chance to explain it.
If you speak in generalizations the person you are speaking to is going to focus on the negatives. For example, if you tell someone that they’re always late, then chances are they’re not, but they’re going to focus on the ‘always’ rather than hearing your message.
Avoid applying labels
If you label someone, they’re going to be too focused on that label rather than the real issue. So if someone is late to work a lot and you state:
“You are very disorganized, if you sorted that out you’d be on-time more often.”
The person you’ve said this to isn’t going to hear the message about them being late, they’re going to focus on being called disorganized.
Listening is an important element of being assertive. Listening to what the other person has to say, asking suitable questions such as “what”, “when” “how” and displaying appropriate body language is essential to effective interpersonal communication. Asking questions enable you to develop a better picture of the situation.
This will enable you to demonstrate an understanding from the other person’s position and establishes a positive relationship.
Scripting is an assertive technique used to view a problem as if it were a scene from a play.
The four-pronged DESC approach:
The DESC script was developed by Sharon and Gordon Bower and is discussed more fully in their book, Asserting Yourself. DESC stands for Describe, Express, Specify, and Consequences.
- Explanation – Explain the situation as you see it.
- Feelings – Acknowledge your own feelings & empathize with the other people’s
- Needs – Outline what you want. Be realistic, be fair, and be prepared to compromise
- Consequences – What will happen as a result?
EXPLANATION: Tell the other person how you see the situation.
“Mary, production has overspent by 30% this month and you didn’t give me any indication that this was happening. I didn’t account for, or prepare for this massive overspend.”
FEELINGS: Describe how you feel about express your emotions clearly.
“This makes me feel frustrated as I feel that you don’t understand how important it is to have financial controls in place or the severity of going too far over budget.”
NEEDS: Tell the other person what you need so they don’t have to guess.
“I need you to be fully honest with me and to let me know when production is going over budget. In this way we can make contingency plans and be prepared
CONSEQUENCES: Describe the positive outcome if your needs are fulfilled.
“I am always here to help and will in whatever way I can, if we overspend I’ll account for it but I have to know. If we work together with trust and honesty, we will be able to turn this around and make sure that we’re working as efficiently as possible.”
This is an example of scripting in action and can be particularly useful if you’re worried about a certain situation. By using the DESC scripting method, you can prepare yourself in advance for multiple situations. This makes you feel much more in control and allows you to address the issue at hand.
The advantages of assertive communication
There are many advantages of assertive communication, which include:
- It helps you to feel good about yourself
- It helps you to feel good about others
- It helps to boost your self-confidence
- It leads to the mutual respect of others
- It allows you to handle any situation with efficiency
- It boosts our self-esteem
- Assertiveness provides others with a positive impression
- It helps you to achieve your goals
- It minimizes the risk of hurting and alienating other people
- It reduces anxiety and stress
- Assertiveness allows you to say the right thing in the correct manner
- It protects us from being taken advantage of by others
- It enables us to make better decisions and freer choices in life
- Strong and effective communication
- Faster and better decision-making skills
- Enables conflict resolution
- Increased self-respect
- You feel more in control of decisions and situations
Disadvantages of assertive communication
Some people will not like this type of communication as they won’t be used to it. Others will not like that you assert yourself when they prefer to be the dominant party. Others still, might not like the issues you bring to the fore or observations you make about them.
If you are being fair and respecting the other person’s viewpoint, you might not always get what you want. This is part of assertiveness, however, and remember it is the aggressive personality who insists on getting what they want all the time.
Sometimes, you will discover that a long-term belief or viewpoint your held is in fact wrong. This can be seen as a disadvantage but it is also a strong positive. The people who admit that they were wrong and are comfortable with reassessing their own beliefs are the people who are being assertive in the correct way.
On occasion, the onset of your new assertive behavior may be perceived as aggression by others. Stick with it, they are just not used to this version of you or maybe feeling aggrieved that they’re no longer able to assert their dominance over you.
There’s no guarantee of success by approaching a situation in an assertive manner, it does depend on the person or situation you’re dealing with. However, implementing the techniques in this article will give you the best chance of success and will also allow you to have the feeling that you tried everything you could to make a difference.
For more help with mastering assertiveness, watch the following video by Speak first.
These articles are created to give you a basic understanding of the topics. If you enjoyed reading and feel it will benefit others, please feel free to share.
Sources and recommended reading:
- Developing Your Assertiveness Skills and Confidence in Your Communication to Achieve Success, How to Build Your Confidence and Assertiveness to Handle Difficult Situations and People Successfully – by
- The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and in Relationships – by
- Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships (9th Edition) – by Robert E. Alberti and Michael L. Emmons
- When I Say No, I Feel Guilty – by