Assertiveness: What is is, what it isn’t, and how to practice it

Assertiveness has been defined ‘as standing up for one’s rights without anger’, and aggression ‘as standing up for one’s rights with anger’ (Hauck, 1991a, p.207).  When you act with assertiveness, you recognise that the other person has rights too, and you act accordingly to try to come to a solution that satisfies both sides. However, if you behave as if only your rights counts, you are much more likely to behave in an intimidating, manipulating or demanding manner – your aim is to come out on top at the expense of the other person. This is acting with aggression.

If you intend to act assertively, it’s probably wise to ask yourself a couple of questions, just to check you aren’t straying over the line into aggression:

  • Is your intent to offer you opinion or to force it on to them?
  • Is the outcome likely to be a compromise, or is your objective to humiliate the other person?

People often sign up for assertiveness training in the hope that will help them to be mores elf-confident, get more control of their lives, and therefore help to remove feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. However, assertiveness won’t do all that for you – seeking to control your life to such an extent is, to a large extent, a wild goose chase. Behaving assertively won’t mean you get everything you want. Nor will it solve all your problems. Equally, behaving assertively doesn’t mean that you must act in this manner all the time, nor will it make you an all-round superhero and good person. However, it might help you to get more of what you want and less of what you don’t want. It will undoubtedly help you to solve some of your problems. Being prudent and smart about how you use your assertiveness skills will also enable you to know when to keep silent, or to take a low-key approach. Sometimes, to steal a phrase from  Walen, ‘discretion may be the better part of assertion’.

Let’s cut to the chase. Here’s how to act more assertively.

8 steps to self-assertion (adapted from Dryden, 1992, Life coaching, a cognitive behavioural approach).

  1. Get the person’s attention. If the object of your assertion is locked into watching the Olympics on TV, you might want to pick another moment.
  2. Describe objectively the behaviour of the other person that you have a problem with. That means describing it without making accusations or snide asides e.g. You always put the TV on when you know I want to talk to you, or, Of course you’re going out. Also, make sure your comments are short. The longer they are, the more likely it is that the other person will stop paying attention.
  3. Express constructive feelings. Anger, hurt and jealousy are most likely to undermine your attempts to be assertive. Disappointment and annoyance might work better, as do I feel … statements, rather than You make me feel … statements.
  4. Check your interpretations and invite a response. Your interpretation isn’t a fact – so you need to check them out. Once you’ve said your piece in a It seems to me that we are growing apart… format rather than You know we are growing apart, invite a response: What do you think about this?
  5. Listen to the other person’s response and give feedback. Listening means paying attention in an open-minded way, not simply dismissing their point of view as invalid. Listen carefully, and then offer a reply, whether you agree with the response or not.
  6. State what you would prefer, clearly and specifically. Be clear about what you want from the other person, and it is always good to point out the potential positive consequences for you both.
  7. Request agreement from the other person. If they agree, work out the details. If they don’t, ask them what they are prepared to do.  If they aren’t prepared to make changes, and this is a key concern for you, you need to figure out the pros and cons of continuing in that relationship, be it a friendship or something else.
  8. Communicate any information and further recurrences. Tell the other person what you will do if the problem comes back again. Ask the other person how they would like you to flag the problem again e.g I’d like you to tell me calmly without jumping up and down about it. Ask them what they will do differently next time.

Remember, it won’t solve everything, but practicing assertiveness can get you more of what you want. Good luck!

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