- If you’ve ever had to express your needs directly to another person, you know it can be hard to do. Our wishes aren’t always aligned with the other person’s, like when we ask for a refund for something we bought, or try to end a conversation with someone who just won’t stop talking.
Asking for what we need is the principle behind assertiveness. This idea is often confused with aggression, as if being assertive means demanding that others give us what we want.
On the contrary, though, being assertive falls between being passive or being aggressive, as Alberti and Emmons make clear in their classic book, Your Perfect Right. It can be a fine line to walk, but one worth practicing because of the benefits that come from greater assertiveness.
An life example for a experienced person:
“A few years ago I experienced some of the downsides of not directly expressing what I needed. I was about to go into a therapy session with a patient at the treatment center where I was working. I knew my boss had been looking for me but hoped it could wait so I wouldn’t be late to my session. I thought about telling my boss I’d be free in an hour but I was afraid he’d be annoyed with me for not being available, so instead I started my session and put up my “Do Not Disturb” sign.
After a couple of minutes there was a knock at the door. I was instantly irritated and ignored the knock as I continued with my session, hoping he would realize I wasn’t available. A moment later there was another knock, this time louder. When the third knock came I stood up angrily, threw open the door, and said to my boss, “Could you please stop knocking on my door?”
Only after the words had left my mouth did I see the director of the agency standing next to him, so I had not only barked at my boss but had just embarrassed him in front of his own boss. It would have been uncomfortable to handle the situation sooner and more directly, but doing so would have spared me a mini-outburst that caused a serious rift between my boss and me—not to mention some awkwardness for the person I was treating.”
This example also highlights a common outcome when we’re not assertive: Our frustration builds as we say nothing, until we finally explode and express ourselves aggressively.
The assertive thing to do would have been to let my boss know that I’d be free in an hour if that would fit his schedule. Appropriate assertiveness is about balancing our own needs with those of others.
Many benefits of being more assertive of our needs. They include:
Social anxiety improves with greater assertiveness; as we face our fear of upsetting others and let them know what we want and need, our fears diminish. In the process, we often discover that we don’t get the upset reaction we expected from the other person.
Asking for what we need can lead to greater need fulfillment, which can lift our spirits.
We practice self-respect when we honor our own needs, which can enhance our view of ourselves. We also provide validation of our perspective by asserting our needs to others.
Greater Sense of Agency.
It’s easy to feel like a powerless pushover when we’re passively swallowing our needs. By exercising our ability to advocate for ourselves, we reclaim control over our lives.
Research shows that greater assertiveness actually improves relationships, making them more harmonious and satisfying. Good things happen when people express their needs directly to one another.
If you don’t see yourself as an assertive person, take heart: Assertiveness can be learned. My go-to self-help book on the topic is Your Perfect Right, which is often recommend to individuals who could benefit from more assertive communication.
Ready to start practicing today? Here are some principles to follow:
- Be honest with yourself. What do you need in a particular situation? Beware of any tendency to discount your wishes.
- Be direct and unapologetic as you let the other person know what you need.
- Aim to be positive, expecting a positive response from the other person. This approach can help the interaction get off on the right foot.
- Take responsibility for your need rather than making it about the other person. For example, let your partner know that you’d enjoy spending more evenings together, rather than criticizing him or her for being unavailable.
- Remind yourself that you are perfectly within your rights to have needs and to express them to people in a position to respond.
- Keep in mind the balance you’re aiming for—honoring your wishes and those of the other person.
- Tend to your non-verbal behaviors. As the authors of Your Perfect Right point out, only part of assertiveness has to do with the words we use.
Assertive behavior also is about:
- Eye contact—neither avoiding the person’s eyes nor staring them down.
- Facial expression—one that matches the words we’re saying (e.g., not smiling if we’re describing frustration).
- Posture—standing up straight and facing the person directly, rather than “apologizing” through our body language.
- Physical distance—too close signals aggression; too far away, passivity.
- Gestures—moving in a relaxed and fluid way that suggests confidence (whether or not we feel it).
Steps to Improving Your Assertiveness
1.Identify the problematic situations you want to work on. Think about how you can normally deal with these situations.
2.Identify any unhelpful thinking associated with these situations For example: “If I say no, she will think I am mean and selfish and she would hate me.”
3.Come up with a more assertive way of thinking about the situation Use a *thought diary if necessary.
4.Identify any unhelpful behavior you have been using when you have tried to do the task before. Remember to look at both verbal and nonverbal behavior.
5. Come up with a more helpful behavior.
6.Rehearse what you are going to say about and will do. It can be very much helpful sometimes to write down what you want to say.
7. Do the task you have identified.
8.Once you have done task praise yourself for what went well about the one you want and then work out what you might want to improve on the next time.
9.Keep practicing until you feel comfortable being assertive in the situation. (source)
Myths about Assertiveness
There are a number of myths about assertiveness. Some people use these as the support for why they shouldn’t try and be more and very assertive. It is worth having a look at these myths in more detail.
“Assertiveness is basically the same as being aggressive”. Debunking the myth: Some people who are aggressive think thewhy are being assertive because they are stating what their needs are. There are many differences in the words used, the tone taken that include, and the body language you used in being assertive compared to aggressiveness. We will discuss these differences in more detail in the section on the verbal and nonverbal characteristics of each of the communication styles.
“If I am very much assertive I will get what I want”. Debunking the very common myth: Being assertive does not mean that you always get what you always want. In fact being the assertive is not guarantee of any outcome at all. Being the assertive is about expressing yourself in way that respects both needs of yours and the needs of others. Sometimes this means you get what you want, sometimes you won’t get what you want at all and sometimes you will come to a mutually satisfactory compromise.
Myth 3 :
“If I am very assertive I have to be very assertive in every situation” Debunking the myth: Understanding how to be assertive provides you with choice of when to be assertive. It does not mean that you have to be so assertive in every possible situation. You may come to realization in certain situations that being assertive is not most helpful way to behave. For example, if you are in a bar and someone begins to be very aggressive or very violent, then being assertive at that place may place you at risk as the other person is not being very rational. In this case you may make decision that a passive approach is most beneficial. (source)
Although some people may have personality traits that make it easier to be assertive, assertiveness itself is not a personality trait. It is a communication style — anyone can learn how to communicate in this way.
The myth that you are born with an assertive personality or you’re not often stops people from trying to develop their assertiveness.
There are a variety of techniques you can use when communicating with others that can help you be more assertive. The stuck record technique and the fogging technique are especially helpful — and anyone can learn how to do it.
Developing these skills is hard, and in some situations, you will find it was not possible to be assertive. That’s okay. Nobody can be perfectly assertive all the time. What matters is that you are trying to create healthy personal boundaries and see yourself as an equal to others.
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