Assertiveness

Introduction: The Importance of Assertiveness

Expressing your thoughts, feelings, and opinions and standing up for your rights is important. You are your first and biggest supporter, so it's important that you speak up for yourself.

Whether your behavior is unassertive (passive) or overassertive (aggressive), it is possible to change. But it is also important to understand the difference between expressing yourself in a self-confident manner (being assertive) and forcing your ideas on others and intimidating them (being aggressive).

Making the Change

Assertion is not a trait that people are born with. It is something that is learned and developed over time. It is also dependent upon the individual and situation - people react differently to different situations. The same incident may cause one person to respond in an aggressive manner, while someone else may be passive, while yet another person may be assertive.

Even if you think that you are 'too passive' or 'too aggressive' and don't know how to be assertive, chances are, you do respond assertively to at least some things in your life. For example, you may feel comfortable speaking up when a cashier in a store gives you the wrong change, but you may not say anything if a waiter in a restaurant brings your food late or cold. The trick is to recognize those areas where you are assertive, identify your skills, and apply them to other areas of your life.

Everyone can expand upon their assertiveness skills, no matter how limited they think they are. You just need the desire to change your behavior and value yourself more. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I want to change my behavior?
  • Do I believe in myself, as well as others?
  • Am I willing to set reasonable goals and take reasonable risks?
  • Am I open to new ideas?
  • Can I accept the facts that things may not change overnight and not everything will always go my way?
  • Am I willing to make the effort, practice, and have patience while building my new skills?

If your answers to the questions above are "Yes", then you are already on your way to being a more assertive person!

What is Assertiveness and Why be Assertive?

TO ASSERT -- To state an opinion, claim a right, or establish authority. If you assert yourself, you behave in a way that expresses your confidence, importance or power and earns you respect from others. - From the Oxford English Dictionary

Assertiveness is standing up for your right to be treated fairly. It is expressing your opinions, needs, and feelings, without ignoring or hurting the opinions, needs, and feelings of others.

Because people want to be liked and thought of as 'nice' or 'easy to get along with', they often keep their opinions to themselves, especially if those opinions conflict with other people's. But this sometimes leads to being taken advantage of by people who are not as nice or considerate. Asserting yourself will stop others from cheating you and you from cheating yourself out of what you deserve.

Assertive behavior includes:

  • Starting, changing, or ending conversations
  • Sharing feelings, opinions, and experiences with others
  • Making requests and asking for favors
  • Refusing others' requests if they are too demanding
  • Questioning rules or traditions that don't make sense or don't seem fair
  • Addressing problems or things that bother you
  • Being firm so that your rights are respected
  • Expressing positive emotions
  • Expressing negative emotions

Assertive Versus Unassertive and Aggressive Behavior

Many people are concerned that if they assert themselves others will think of their behavior as aggressive. But there is a difference between being assertive and aggressive.

Assertive people state their opinions, while still being respectful of others. Aggressive people attack or ignore others' opinions in favor of their own. Passive people don't state their opinions at all.

The chart below gives some examples of the differences between passive, aggressive, and assertive behavior.

Differences Between Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive Behavior. Passive Behavior (The Passive Person) -- Aggressive Behavior (The Aggressive Person) -- Assertive Behavior (The Assertive Person).

Passive Behavior: Is afraid to speak up
Aggressive Behavior: Interrupts and 'talks over' others
Assertive Behavior: Speaks openly

Passive Behavior: Speaks softly
Aggressive Behavior: Speaks loudly
Assertive Behavior: Uses a conversational tone

Passive Behavior: Avoids looking at people
Aggressive Behavior: Glares and stares at others
Assertive Behavior: Makes good eye contact

Passive Behavior: Shows little or no expression
Aggressive Behavior: Intimidates others with expressions
Assertive Behavior: Shows expressions that match the message

Passive Behavior: Slouches and withdraws
Aggressive Behavior: Stands rigidly, crosses arms, invades others' personal space
Assertive Behavior: Relaxes and adopts an open posture and expressions

Passive Behavior: Isolates self from groups
Aggressive Behavior: Controls groups
Assertive Behavior: Participates in groups

Passive Behavior: Agrees with others, despite feelings
Aggressive Behavior: Only considers own feelings, and/or demands of others
Assertive Behavior: Speaks to the point

Passive Behavior: Values self less than others
Aggressive Behavior: Values self more than others
Assertive Behavior: Values self equal to others

Passive Behavior: Hurts self to avoid hurting others
Aggressive Behavior: Hurts others to avoid being hurt
Assertive Behavior: Tries to hurt no one (including self)

Passive Behavior: Does not reach goals and may not know goals
Aggressive Behavior: Reaches goals but hurts others in the process
Assertive Behavior: Usually reaches goals without alienating others

Passive Behavior: You're okay, I'm not
Aggressive Behavior: I'm okay, you're not
Assertive Behavior: I'm okay, you're okay

Tips for Behaving More Assertively

If you want to be more assertive, but aren't sure how, here are some tips to get you started. But remember, the best way to become more assertive is through practice.

Speak up when you have an idea or opinion.

This is one of the biggest steps toward being more assertive and can be easier than you think. It may be as simple as raising your hand in class when you know the answer to a question, suggesting a change to your boss or coworkers, or offering an opinion at a party (even if it's just your opinion of a new movie or book.)

Stand up for your opinions and stick to them.

It can be a little harder to express opinions and stick to them when you know that others may disagree, but try to avoid being influenced by others' opinions just out of the desire to fit in. You may change your mind when someone presents a rational argument that makes you see things in a new light, but you shouldn't feel a need to change your mind just because you're afraid of what others may think. Like as not, you'll gain more respect for standing up for yourself than you will for not taking a stand.

Make requests and ask for favors.

Most people find it hard to ask for help when they need it, but people don't always offer without being asked. As long as your requests are reasonable (for example, "Would you mind holding the door while I carry my suitcase to the car?" as opposed to "Would you mind carrying my suitcase to the car while I hang out and watch TV?") most people are willing to help out. If your requests are reasonable (meaning, would you agree or respond kindly if someone asked the same of you?), don't feel bad about asking.

Refuse requests if they are unreasonable.

It's perfectly appropriate to turn down requests if they are unreasonable or if you don't have the time or resources. For example, if someone asks you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable or you think is wrong, it's fine to simply say no ("I'm sorry but I don't feel right doing that" or "I'm sorry but I can't help you with that.") It's also fine to turn down someone if you feel overwhelmed. If you are concerned that you aren't being fair to others, ask if their favors are fair to you (would you ask the same of them? would you expect them to say yes every time?) You can always offer to help in the future or help in another way ("I'm sorry but I don't have time to help you with that today, but I could help you tomorrow" or "I won't write your report for you, but I'd be happy to talk to you about it and read it over when you're done.") As long as you don't turn down every request that comes your way, you shouldn't feel guilty.

Accept both compliments and feedback.

Accepting compliments seems easy, but people often make little of them because they are embarrassed ("Oh it was nothing" or "It's not a big deal".) But don't make less of your accomplishments. It's fine to simply say "thank you" when people give you compliments -- just don't chime in and begin complimenting yourself or you'll lose their admiration pretty quickly! ("You're right, I AM great!") Similarly, be prepared to accept feedback from others that may not always be positive. While no one needs to accept unwarranted or insulting advice, if someone gives you helpful advice in the right context, try to accept it graciously and act upon it. Accepting feedback (and learning from it) will often earn you respect and future compliments.

Question rules or traditions that don't make sense or don't seem fair.

Just because something 'has always been that way' doesn't mean it's fair. If you feel a tradition or rule is unfair to you or others, don't be afraid to speak up and question why that rule exists. Rather than break a rule or law, find out the reasoning behind it. If you still think it's wrong, talk to friends or coworkers, work with counselors and legislators, and see if there is a way to change it. While some rules are less flexible and should be respected (for example, a family's decision not to allow cigarette smoking in their house or the state laws about drunk driving), others may be open to debate (for example, why a public place doesn't have wheelchair access or your school computers aren't compatible with assistive technology.)

Insist that your rights be respected.

While you want to choose your battles carefully (the right to equal pay in the workplace is probably more important than your right to wear your Hawaiian T-shirt to work on Fridays), you do have basic rights that you should feel comfortable standing up for. Some of these rights may be guaranteed you under law, such as your medical, employment, and educational rights. Other rights may involve basic courtesy - such as the right to be treated fairly, equally, and politely by friends, coworkers, and family.

Tips for Behaving Less Aggressively

If you want to be assertive but are concerned that others may find you too aggressive (or others have told you that you are too aggressive), here are some recommendations for turning aggressive behavior into assertive behavior.

Give others a chance to speak.

It's important to express yourself, but if you're the only one speaking or you constantly control conversations, you may not be giving others the chance to express themselves.

Respect others' opinions.

You may disagree with other people's opinions (and some of them may be outrageous!), but everyone has a right to their opinion and the right to express it. If you disagree with someone, try to discuss your differences rationally.

Be diplomatic.

Expressing your opinion is important, but not always at the expense of others. If you know what you are going to say could be painful, yet you feel it still needs to be said, try:

Saying it in a kinder way (for example, "I disagree" instead of "You're wrong");

Cushioning your comment with a compliment (for example, "Mary has had some great ideas, but I just don't think this one will work" instead of "That's stupid"); or

Recognizing it's a difficult topic and handling it discreetly (for example, "You know, I really don't want to hurt your feelings, but I think you should know ... ")

Choose assertive (not aggressive) language.

Focus on specific behavior and facts instead of opinions (for example, "These documents weren't filed in order" instead of "You're sloppy and disorganized")

Avoid exaggerations (for example, "You were late for the third time this week" instead of "You're never on time")

Focus on "I" not "You" language (for example, "I would like a chance to say something" instead of "You're always interrupting")

Avoid bullying and demanding behavior.

When making requests, avoid phrases that may make people feel bullied like "you must" or "you have to" and focus on language like "I think it would be better if ... " Also, think about what you are asking of others -- are your requests reasonable, or are they are unrealistic, unfair or selfish?

Avoid physically aggressive behavior.

Behavior such as glaring, shouting, slamming doors, throwing things, or invading others' personal space (for example by speaking 'in their face', pointing or jabbing them, or grabbing their arm) is physically aggressive. This behavior both scares and alienates people. No matter how angry or passionate you are about an issue, it is important to exercise physical control. Others won't respect you if your behavior indicates that you don't respect them.

Asserting Yourself in Important Situations

Everyone has rights, some of which are protected by law, others that are basic courtesy. Asserting your rights is important, especially when they may affect your health, career, or relationships. Some things to remind yourself when faced with important decisions:

Healthcare

You have the right to:

Ask questions.

Don't be afraid to ask a doctor, nurse or counselor, about a diagnosis, recommended treatment, or prescribed drug. You may worry that their time is important but so are your time and your health. You have a right to ask and receive a full explanation about anything pertaining to your health.

Get a second opinion.

Doctors, nurses, and counselors are not infallible. If you are concerned about a diagnosis or recommended treatment, even after a healthcare professional has explained it to you, it's your right to go see someone else. (Although you may have to discuss this with your insurance company before doing so.) If the information you're being given could drastically affect your life, don't feel as though you have to rely on one person's word. Healthcare professionals are right more often than they are wrong (otherwise they wouldn't be practicing), but it doesn't hurt to see other professionals for their opinion.

Refuse treatment and/or seek alternative treatment.

This is often a scary and difficult decision, but if you are a competent adult, you do have the right to refuse medical treatment. You may choose to do so because you have received a different opinion from another expert in the field; you may do so because you are afraid the drawbacks of the treatment will outweigh the benefits (for example, undergoing chemotherapy when there's only a small chance your cancer will spread); or you may do so for other, personal reasons. Deciding to refuse treatment or seek alternative treatments against your healthcare professional's advice can be very risky and should be considered very carefully. If you have doubts about a treatment or diagnosis, even after getting a second opinion, consider doing research (focusing on reliable resources!), talking to others who have experienced the treatment or diagnosis, and getting even a third or fourth opinion.

Stay Informed.

Some of your options may be limited by time, availability, or what you or your insurance is willing and able to pay, but your right to be informed doesn't have to be limited. Your local library, the Internet, health care and community centers, and advocacy groups are all good places to look for more information. Just remember to assess the validity of the information you find -- ask questions like, "Who is distributing this information?"; "What is their agenda?"; "What are their credentials?"; and "What are they not addressing?"

Work and School

You have the right to:

Equal opportunity

No matter what your race, gender, or abilities, the law guarantees you equal access to jobs and an education. You cannot be turned down for a job or be rejected from a school based simply on your physical attributes. You cannot be denied the same opportunities available to others.

Equal rewards

Just as you have the right to the same opportunities, you have the right to the same rewards. If you perform as well as others at work or at school, you deserve the same compensation (be it in the form of a grade or a paycheck.)

Family and Friends

Sometimes, asserting oneself around people you care for can be harder than asserting oneself elsewhere in life. That's because these are people you care for and depend upon. However, that doesn't mean you don't deserve to be treated fairly by them. Just as you expect fair treatment from your boss, coworkers, or teachers, you should expect the same from those who care for you. That includes:

Equal treatment

You deserve to be treated the same as other family members and friends when it comes to responsibilities (such as doing chores, sharing, or taking turns) and rewards (such as choosing which movie you'll see with your friends or the right to time on the family computer.)

Respect

Just like everywhere else in your life, you also deserve to be treated with respect. While family members and friends may be casual around each other (that's part of the comfort that comes with friendship), if their actions or behaviors offend you or hurt your feelings, you have the right to tell them and ask them to change those behaviors.

Role Playing and Sample Situations

The best way to learn assertive behavior is through practice. But not everyone is ready to practice in real life.

Below are a number of experiences people may run into that require assertiveness. Try practicing your responses to the situations below with a relative, friend, or advisor who you feel is assertive.

Asserting Yourself With Friends and Family

  • 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.
  • A relative calls you late at night just to talk. You are tired and have to get up early in the morning.
  • Your friend comes to you with a problem you don't know how to handle. You know your friend has a counselor that she likes and you recommend that she talk to them, but your friend keeps asking you what she should do.

Asserting Yourself in Medical and Personal Safety Situations

  • Your doctor prescribes a medicine but doesn't tell you what it is for or if there are any side effects.
  • You are eating lunch and the person next to you smokes throughout the meal; this really bothers you.
  • You went to a party with some people but the person who was driving had too much to drink and refuses to let anyone else drive.
  • You are walking home with a friend and realize it is getting late. A car pulls up and asks if you want a ride. Your friend is tired and wants to take the ride but you think it's too risky.

Asserting Yourself in Social and Everyday Situations

  • Someone in the van you are riding in decides to sing and does so for 15 minutes. It begins to get on your nerves and you politely ask her to stop, but she doesn't.
  • The new shoes you bought three weeks ago are already starting to fall apart. You take them back to the store where you bought them.
  • You bring your car to a garage for service. You ask the mechanic to call and let you know how much it will cost before doing the work. He doesn't call and when you call him he tells you he has already done the work and your bill is $250.

Asserting Yourself in Work and School Situations

  • A counselor at the school you want to attend is interviewing you. The counselor notices that you haven't worked or taken any special courses for the last two summers and asks why.
  • Someone in your class asks you to work with him on his homework after the teacher has specifically told the class that the assignment should be done without any help.
  • You are being interviewed for a job in a new field and the director asks, "Why should I hire you when you have no experience?"

Assert Yourself Regularly!

Assertiveness is something that you develop and strengthen over time. Practicing assertive behavior regularly and reminding yourself that you have value is an important way to build that assertiveness.

Review the statements below on a regular basis to remind yourself that your thoughts and opinions are important. Every time you agree with these statements, you're building your assertive skills.

  • I am honest and direct about my thoughts and feelings.
  • I speak up and share my views if I disagree with others' opinions.
  • I am confident about my opinions and decisions.
  • I am able to accept that someone else may have a better idea or solution to a problem than I do.
  • I can accept positive criticism and suggestions.
  • I ask for help when I need it.
  • I am able to turn down requests that seem unreasonable or unfair.
  • I directly address things that bother me.
  • I speak confidently about things that matter a lot to me.
  • I consider my needs as important as others.

Conclusion: How Assertiveness Can Change Your Life

Being more assertive can lead to a more rewarding life. It can improve upon existing aspects of your life (such as better relationships with friends and family) and completely change or introduce other aspects (such as personal or career opportunities.)

While the decision to develop your assertiveness is a personal one, the rewards can be much greater than the personal satisfaction that being assertive brings. Being assertive not only improves your self-respect, but also earns you respect from those around you. The change in your behavior can positively influence those around you, both in their behavior toward you and also in their behavior toward others. For example:

You and your friend go to the store to return a piece of broken merchandise. After being turned away by the clerk, you ask to speak to the manager and convince her that the store should return your money. The most tangible reward of your assertive behavior is that you get your money back. At the same time, you feel good about standing up for your rights, and your friend is impressed with the way you handled the situation. The next day, you feel more confident at work and suggest an idea for a new project. Your boss likes the suggestion and asks you to oversee it. Meanwhile, your friend, who doesn't understand a bill she's received, remembers how you handled the situation in the store yesterday and calls the billing company for an explanation. She feels better about herself and more confident about speaking up the next day at work, and so on ...

While returning one item to a store may not get you a big promotion or drastically change the lives of those around you, the combined effects of multiple acts of assertiveness will increase your confidence in multiple areas of your life. And the more positive and fulfilling interactions you have with friends, family, and coworkers, the more these areas of your life will improve.