What is assertiveness?
What do we mean by assertiveness? People often confuse being assertive or being heard with being demanding, but they are two separate issues.
Assertiveness is about expressing your needs, preferences and feelings in a way which is neither threatening nor punishing to others. Assertiveness involves respect both for self and for others.
People sometimes say, “I’m worried that if I become assertive, people will just see me as one of those bossy, pushy people.” They fear assertiveness, thinking they will not be liked and that their assertiveness will displease others.
Assertiveness means being able to have your own opinions and views heard and feeling safe enough to have your own needs met in a clear and precise manner, but it is important to say that this should also occur without any intent to upset others and, as already stated, in a manner which is neither threatening nor punishing. Being assertive means you are able to take responsibility for yourself.
Typical assertive words
When being assertive we use “I” statements such as “I want”, “I think” and “I fear”. We also use open questions, rather than closed questions.
Open questions are those which invite detailed answers as opposed to closed questions to which the answer is either “yes” or “no”.
Being assertive is very different from being aggressive because when we are aggressive we put ourselves first, humiliate others and hurt their feelings.
Typical aggressive words
Phrases such as “you should”, “you ought”, “it’s your fault” or “you’re joking” are often used in aggressive behaviour.
What does being non assertive mean?
Conversely, when we are non assertive we perhaps find ourselves in the role of martyr or victim. Perhaps we have voluntarily given up responsibility. We have difficulty standing up for ourselves.
Typical non assertive words
Phrases such as “perhaps”, “never mind”, “I wonder if you could just…” are often used when a person is being non assertive.
Let’s look at some examples of these behaviour patterns:
If you are at a talk and are unable to hear, would you ask the speaker to speak more loudly or would you simply let him know at the end that it was probably very interesting but you couldn’t really hear? Choosing the latter option would be non assertive and the role of victim would be assumed.
If you are in a restaurant and the meal is cold or undercooked, would you say “yes” when asked if everything is to your liking? If so, you would be non assertive.
If you are queuing up to be served in a shop or bar and someone who came after you is served before you, an aggressive response would be to elbow them, get angry, shout or swear.
When a friend rings up and makes a request that feels unreasonable to you (for whatever reason), what would you say to refuse it? An aggressive response may be to tell your friend that he/she is stupid for even asking, but this would obviously belittle him or her. An assertive response may be simply to say, “that is not something I would like to choose to do.”
10 Questions to help me indentify my assertiveness patterns and areas on which I may need to work:
1. Do you usually have confidence in your own judgement?
2. Do you generally express what you feel?
3. Do you avoid certain situations for fear of embarrassment?
4. Do you insist that your partner or flatmate does his or her share of chores?
5. When someone has borrowed something from you and is late returning it, do you mention it?
6. Are you able to ask friends for small favours or help?
7. Do you finish other people’s sentences for them?
8. Do you try to hide in social situations?
9. Are you able to refuse unreasonable requests from friends?
10. When you receive a compliment, do you have difficulty in accepting it?
List typical situations in which you find yourself and how you feel in those situations.
An example of being non assertive
A man we know – let’s call him John – expressed an interest in a new business. His contact lived nearly 100 miles away. After phone conversations the contact arranged to bring the necessary paperwork and drove over one evening on the assumption that John would sign up for the business. During the meeting John was far from convinced he wanted to join but because his contact had driven so far on a wet and windy evening, he didn’t feel he could refuse. By failing to be assertive, John committed himself to something about which he was far from sure.
An example of being assertive
A friend of mine – let’s call him Paul – had a visit from a carpet cleaner salesman who was anxious to demonstrate and subsequently sell his product. He asked if he could clean Paul’s carpet to show how good the product was. “No problem,” said Paul, “but I’ll tell you now, I won’t be buying.” Thinking a wonderful clean carpet would sell the product, the salesman set to work but Paul would not be swayed and despite its obvious efficiency, the cleaner remained unsold. Paul remained firm to his earlier conviction.
What are some assertiveness techniques? How can we practise them?
Words are, of course, only part of the picture – your body speaks volumes as well. If your body language is not congruent with what you are saying this causes confusion. Your body language always makes an important impression both on others and on you as you speak. Notice how different you feel if you say something hunched up or mumbled compared to how you feel with good upright posture and clear voice tone.
Non verbal communication and how to be assertive
Assertive body language takes practice – think of tai chi for example. Be mindful of the messages your body language is conveying.
Notice your posture. Is it upright, centred and well balanced? Often people will stand on one foot when slightly embarrassed. If you are off balance physically you will not appear assertive.
It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Why do we say this? If someone does not look us in the eye, we sometimes feel that they are a bit “shifty”. Have relaxed eye contact; avoid staring or being intrusive or shifting your gaze.
Mouth and jaw
A clenched jaw can signal tension and aggression. A quick way to loosen the jaw is to circulate it in a chewing motion. Notice the false smile that really says “please don’t be angry” when you have some straight talking to do.
When we are nervous our vocal chords tighten and our voice can sound high pitched and whiny. Allow yourself time for a few deep breaths – there is no need to rush. Another area to notice for voice tone is your knees! Surprisingly, locked knees – standing straight with our knees locked back – can alter our voice tone a great deal. Kabuki actors in Japan keep their knees bent in order to tap into a deep vocal sound.
Notice your own favourites – the ones which you find natural and which enhance you, and the ones which are a response when you are nervous. For some people tapping is a common nervous response, while for others it may be scratching their head or ear. These can be distracting for the other person and for you! They can also give the other person the feeling that you are hesitant about what you are saying.
Interestingly the whole issue of body language doesn’t just apply to sighted people. I asked a friend of ours who is blind whether he would be aware of someone being “straightforward” as opposed to “shifty” and he said he would certainly be able to pick up on some of the signals.
Of course assertiveness must never override common sense. I say this as I’ve just finished writing this article and returned from the supermarket where a man rudely pushed in front of me. I could see he was drunk and buying more alcohol. I let that one pass!