Assertiveness is one of those behaviours that many of us tend to shy away from talking about or developing. As if it’s somehow a negative, an undesirable and simply not us.
But those types of beliefs (and they are just beliefs) are inaccurate. And they’re limiting. Because in today’s world of less hierarchy, greater equality and meritocracy (we hope), and more competition for resources, assertiveness is a necessary skill.
It’s also a hugely rewarding behaviour: and not just in terms of achieving the things we’re standing-up for. Assertiveness is empowering, encourages psychological health and improves relationships. It is an authentic expression of our personal excellence.
Negative connotations on assertive behaviour come down to definition. So let’s start there.
Defining assertive behaviour
Being assertive is simply being confident and direct in dealing with others.
It’s about stating our views, expressing our feelings, enjoying our rights and asking for what we want. And it’s about doing all of that with integrity, honesty, directness and respect for others.
Assertive behaviour is focused on achieving that balance of upholding one’s own integrity and dignity whilst encouraging and recognising the same in others.
Finding the balance
In response to the tensions of any stressed social interaction, we have 2 primal reactions:
- Flight/Freeze: Our behaviour is non-assertive and we acquiesce, prioritising the needs of others ahead of our own.
- Fight: Our behaviour is aggressive and we put our personal needs first.
There is a third modern-day option: to be assertive.
Assertive behaviour finds the balance and acts accordingly. We make a conscious choice to prioritise the needs of others or give greater consideration to our own needs.
Assertive behaviour, then, is simply our considered response to difficult situations.
The challenge of being assertive
Aside from misunderstanding what assertive behaviour is, there are a number of other reasons (principally fear) why assertive behaviour is a challenge for many:
- Fear of conflict
- Fear of upsetting others
- Fear of rejection
- Feeling overly-responsible for the other person
And we support these beliefs with self-defeating mind games (generalising, mind reading, filtering, doomsdaying and so on) and unhelpful inner voices (the way we talk to ourselves strongly influences how we feel and how we behave).
But with a few simple techniques, we can learn to revel in the act of assertiveness and enjoy the process of standing-up for ourselves and what we believe in.
Assertive behaviours in practice
It starts with positive body language
Assertiveness doesn’t work without authenticity. And we can’t claim authenticity when our body language doesn’t match our spoken words.
Focus on a maintaining a relaxed and open posture; responsive expressions; high eye contact; and direct, friendly and well-moderated speech.
Learn to handle – and make use of – criticism
Criticism is simply feedback. And that’s useful because one meaning of our behaviour is the response it elicits in another person. But maintaining that positive frame can be easier said than done.
To hear, work-through and accept/reject criticism in an assertive way:
- Start by reminding yourself that not all criticism is useful, justified, fair or correct. Verify the details, first.
- Focus on thinking through, rather than fighting through, criticism.
- Watch for extrapolating criticism. It’s unwise and not useful to generalise from specifics.
- If the criticism is not about specific behaviour, then it’s not useful. Discard it.
Know how to disagree
In situations where assertive behaviour is most called for, there are likely going to be disagreements.
The assertive response is a constructive response that puts your case without getting emotional, surrendering your integrity or losing your respect for the other person.
Here’s a process you can follow:
- The Affirmative Statement. Start with “yes”: not to indicate agreement but to prepare your counterpart for what you’re about to say. Starting with a “no” puts others into argument mode, not listening mode.
- The Softening Statement. Our views are formed in the context of our background and experience. Recognise this within a softening statement, for example: “As someone with first-hand experience of this, I can understand where you’re coming from.”
- Setup the Explanation Process. If there is going to be any sensible discussion, you need to be allowed to put your case. Indicate how you’ll do that: “Can I take a moment to explain how I arrived at my viewpoint?”
- Give Your Reasons. Here, you can present a balanced view of pros and cons; or you can simply give your reasons or justifications. Either way, keep it direct, succinct, open and relaxed. And don’t feel the need to rush.
- The Disagreement Statement. Finish with strong, clear and unapologetic language (including matching body language) as you underscore your disagreement. Be professional and friendly, but be clear: “So I cannot agree with you.”
Have fun with negative assertions and enquiry
When we’re called names or given negative labels, the non-assertive instinct is to feel hurt and retreat; and the aggressive instinct is to defend ourselves and attack our attacker. There is a third (assertive) option: negative assertion.
Negative assertion is like jujitsu: using the power of your protagonist to turn the situation to your advantage. You do this by accepting the part of the attack that might be true in a matter-of-fact and light way.
Negative enquiry invites extra, more-specific, criticism which has the dual benefit of providing more feedback, but also challenging the worthiness of the criticism.
Here are a few examples:
- “If you think that, you must be stupid”
“I admit, I’m not the brightest person around.”
- “You’re always making mistakes.”
“Yes, I do make the occasional mistake.”
- “You’re so lazy!”
“Oh really? In what way, specifically?”
- “You’re always over-complicating the requirement.”
“Always? When specifically have I done that?”
The many benefits of assertiveness
Assertiveness is a necessary and hugely beneficial skill that enjoys the benefits both of non-assertion (e.g. fitting in, no feelings of guilt, no upsetting people) and of aggressiveness (e.g. high self-esteem, getting what you want, people no taking advantage), without the disadvantages of either .
Like any behaviour, it can be learned and developed. And is absolutely worth the investment.