How to be more assertive

To many people assertiveness is a thorny issue. It certainly was for me.  When does standing up for myself and my needs, turn me into a manipulator? Or worse, a bully? Why is it difficult to say no to my colleagues but easier to a stranger? How do I stop my naturally empathetic nature from working against me and turning me into a pushover? Like I said – thorny issue.

People struggle with the concept of assertiveness because there is such a fine line between being aggressive and being assertive.  If assertiveness is about standing up for yourself and your needs, how do you know that you are not being the aggressive one?

Take for example sharing an office with someone who insists on eating smelly food at their desk every day.  Is it okay to ask that the person to be more considerate by going somewhere else to eat their boiled eggs and fish? What about their rights to eat what they want, where they want?

When you look at the definition of assertive and aggressive behaviour, it becomes much clearer:

  • Assertiveness is communicating without putting someone else down, while standing up for yourself. It requires you to state your wants and needs in a non-confrontational way, whilst still being considerate of the wants and needs of others.
  • Aggressive behaviour focuses on winning. You state your wants and needs but it comes from a place of selfishness and with only your own interest at heart.

In the smelly scenario I described, assertive behaviour would be to tell the person that you find the smell unpleasant. Assertive behaviour would then go on to suggest that the two of you try to reach a  compromise. Aggressive behaviour would be to demand that the person stop eating boiled eggs all together. Passive behaviour is putting up with it day in and day out.

Passive behaviour and suppressing of anger, and the precursors to anger like irritation or frustration, are unhealthy practices with consequences for our self-esteem and health.

Have you ever felt angry at someone but only when they walk away do you remember all you wanted to say and berate yourself for not speaking your mind? When that happens you feel disappointed and maybe even angry at yourself. This affects your self-esteem and you struggle to be self-compassionate – all of which could lead to depression.  Unexpressed negative energy can also show up in the body as anxiety, stress, skin rashes, tension headaches, digestive problems and could lead to substance abuse.

If you had only spoken up!  

Here are a few ways in which you could learn to speak up for yourself and be more assertive:

Use “I” statements

Starting a sentence with “I” will remind you that you are in charge of how you feel.  For example “I need”, “I want” or “I think”.

You of course need to pay attention to the words following  the “I”- statement. “I feel hurt/angry/irritated because you acted like a jerk” is a blaming statement that will be seen as aggressive. By adding your thoughts (the person is a jerk) and not sticking to your feelings and how you want the situation to be different, you failed to communicate effectively. A better statement would be “I feel sad about the way you just spoke to me and I wish you would be more respectful.”

A good assertive statement always contains 1) an I-statement, 2) a detailed description of the troublesome situation which includes times and actions, and 3) what action you would like to stop or start.

Avoid manipulation

When you are still new to being assertive, it can be challenging to know how to respond when your newly learned assertiveness requests are ignored. Here are three techniques you can try.

  • Broken record. Keep on repeating your assertive statement. For instance, “The smell of tuna is overpowering and making me feel nauseated” Briefly acknowledge the other person’s response and continue to repeat the broken-record statement calmly. For example “Yes, I know, and my point is [broken-record statement]“ or “Yes, and as I was saying [broken-record statement]” or “Yes, but [broken-record statement].
  • Defuse the situation by ignoring the person’s anger and delaying the discussion until they have calmed down. Set a time and then continue the conversation again at the set time. It’s pretty pointless trying to have a constructive conversation with someone who is stuck in their anger.
  • Don’t get caught up in their strong emotions. Acknowledge the person’s anger but then express your own as well. For instance, “I can see that you are annoyed. I hear you saying that you like tuna. However, the smell is overpowering and we have to share an office.”

Noticing unpleasant feelings early

When you become conscious of negative feelings as soon as they appear (e.g. as soon as the lunchbox comes out), instead of pretending that they don’t exist or pushing the feelings down, practice being assertive with the “lesser” negative emotions like irritation, before you reach the point of anger. On an emotional guidance scale (which you can download for free on the Freebies page) the negative emotions that could escalate into anger if not dealt with or expressed adequately, are, in order of worsening feelings, frustration and irritation, feeling overwhelmed, disappointment, doubt, worry, blame, and finally discouragement before anger sets in. If small frustrations and annoyances are expressed assertively, you will soon find it easier to be assertive day-to-day.

Use your body to help you

The way we hold our bodies can trick our minds into believing we are confident and strong, even when we feel the opposite:

  • Hold eye contact but don’t stare as this comes across as intimidating, and don’t let the eyes wander as this appears as if you are not listening;
  • Speak slowly, steadily and firmly;
  • Pull your shoulders back and sit up straight. This posture will make you feel in control of the situation. If the person you are speaking to is sitting, you should sit down as well. If they are standing, you should be standing. The idea is to not appear submissive, but you don’t want to appear aggressive either.
  • Tone of voice is critical to effective communication. Speak firmly and don’t shout or yell. Equally, if you make a statement that starts with “I feel angry …” but your voice is soft and timid, that’s a passive statement.  

Being assertive might be difficult at first, but it can be learned.  Practice being assertive with the small annoyances in your life and then as the assertive muscle grows, apply it to the bigger issues. 

Assertiveness is not manipulating people to get your way. It’s expressing your needs and wants in a healthy way. You owe it to yourself to show others where you draw the line.