Improve Assertiveness

     Do you lack confidence when expressing your feelings and viewpoints? Would you like to be able to "hold your own" in an argument or class discussion? Do you want to be able to express your feelings (whether positive or negative) in a genuine fashion? Or, do you want to limit your tendency to lose control and get angry at those who may not deserve it? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions you may benefit from reading this article and learning how to become more assertive.

What is Assertiveness?

     Assertiveness is standing up for yourself in a way that doesn't violate the rights of another person. It is a clear, forthright expression of your feelings and opinions in which your rights and those of others are treated equally and expressed freely. Acting assertively can increase your chances for honest relationships, help you to feel more valued and thus better about yourself, and give you more control in common, day-to-day situations. It's not realistic, though, to expect that being assertive will always deliver your desired outcome (respect, fairness, comfort, etc.). Just because you assert yourself does not mean you will always get what you want. By developing an ability to express yourself assertively, however, you will feel more worthwhile, improve your negotiation and compromise skills, and experience more confidence and trust in your relationships.

     When their needs are being ignored, or their rights are being violated, people who find assertiveness difficult will usually respond either passively or aggressively. Being distrustful of your own feelings and thoughts leads to passivity. Passive people often think about appropriate "comebacks" or "what I should have said" long after the situation has ended. A passive stance allows other people to depreciate our importance and leads to anxiety and further inhibition, which, of course, is a pretty unhealthy cycle. Other people respond aggressively to difficult situations. Aggressiveness is a way of standing up for yourself, but it usually steps on the rights and/or feelings of other people. How? Humiliation, put-downs, intimidation, etc., have the effect of squelching others. Someone who has been silenced will usually not receive his/her fair share of what they need or want. The aggressive person may get what they want, but they eventually lose the respect of others. Assertiveness falls in between passivity and aggressiveness, 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. Note, though, that there are important cultural and ethnic variations in what is considered appropriate for assertive communication. Many of the factors listed below are derived from a Western context.

What To Say

     Direct expression of your needs, wants, and feelings, in which you take responsibility for your message rather than being accusing or intimidating, will greatly improve your chances of being heard. It is not necessary (or even effective, for that matter) to diminish anyone else when expressing yourself. Also, an often over-looked aspect of assertive communication is that its benefits apply to the expression of affection as well as feelings of frustration or irritation. Specific suggestions:

1. Be clear and specific about what you are requesting, feeling and thinking. Vagueness leads to misinterpretation. Some examples that project clarity and specificity:
"I feel . . ."
"I don't want to . . ."
"I have mixed reactions. I agree with these parts of what you are saying for these reasons, but disagree (or: am upset about) other aspects for these specific reasons."

2. "Own" your message. Acknowledge that your message comes from your frame of reference and your perceptions. You can demonstrate this with personalized ("I") statements such as "I don't agree with you" as compared to "You're wrong". Blaming statements will likely foster resentment and defensiveness instead of cooperation and compromise.

3. Ask for feedback and then give full attention to the response. "Do you see what I'm saying?" "What do you think about this?" "How would you like to handle this?" Requesting feedback makes it clear that you are expressing a feeling or desire rather than a demand and that you want to be constructive. Listening to feedback encourages clarity and an attitude of cooperation from both participants. Help others to be direct and clear in their feedback to you.

How to Say It

1. Eye Contact: Make direct, comfortable eye contact. Try not to stare intensely or look away for too long.
2. Body Posture: Directly face whomever you are speaking to, rather than turning to the side or away. Also, slumping will hurt your credibility with the listener and will induce in you a defeated feeling.
3. Physical Distance and Contact: You must adjust the distance from which you speak and the amount of physical contact with your listener depending on what you know about their personal comfort with these signals. Cultural and ethnic differences play a big role in comfort when it comes to distance and touching. In general, in Western cultures, touching suggests intimacy and physical closeness can signal either familiarity or threat, depending on the context.
4. Facial Expression and Gestures: Don't throw your listener off: match your facial expressions to your message. If you are angry, don't smile unless it really fits what you've just said. Your aim is for your listener to really comprehend your message; smiling usually induces the sense that you are not feeling what you say you are feeling.
5. Voice: Keep an even tone and regular volume to your voice. This communicates clarity and conviction without intimidation. A low volume suggests you are ignorable.
6. Timing: Although it's never too late to give feedback on something that has happened, it's better to respond in real-time.
7. Listening: Assertiveness allows for attentive listening on your part. Both people can and should speak in situations requiring feedback or compromise. Your goal is to be heard and, somewhat paradoxically, listening is very often the way to eventually be heard. This might even mean that you will accomplish your goals best if you delay expressing yourself until you have fully listened.

Examples of Assertiveness

Scenario 1: Your roommate is driving you up a wall - she doesn't clean up after herself, borrows your clothes without asking, and frequently invites her boyfriend over without first checking it out with you. What do you do? Complain to your friends and parents or find ways to annoy her as payback? No - better to talk to her assertively.

Consider the following possibilities:

Passive response: Let her dishes and pans pile up on the counter so that she will "see what a mess she is."
Aggressive response: "I can't believe how selfish you are! Why is your boyfriend here on a night when I have to study for an exam!"
Assertive response: "Let's talk about keeping the apartment clean. I feel disrespected when you don't wash your dishes and pans. Please try to do them more frequently."

Scenario 2: The partner you have been assigned for a group project is frequently late to meetings and isn't putting much effort into his assignments. He has just walked in 30 minutes late for a meeting at a coffee shop.

What do you do?

Passive response: You show him what you have accomplished on the assignment already, hoping he will "see how lazy he has been."
Aggressive response: "You never come on time! Do you even care at all about this project?"
Assertive response: "Let's talk about these meetings. I have been frustrated that we rarely start on time. How can we work together so that both of us feel comfortable and respected?"