When people describe me, assertive is the last word they use. This has cost me a lot, both professionally and personally, because of missed opportunities. But can we learn to be more assertive? And what is the right level of assertiveness?
Illustration: Tina Mailhot-Roberge
This post originally appeared on the Crew Blog.
I used to hate answering questions in class. I mean what if I got it wrong or what if I didn't say it right? Nope, too many risks. Instead of answering questions I would try to look very intently at the teacher. That way I could let them know, that I knew, but that I couldn't answer. Yah, that never worked.
Where Does Assertiveness Come From?
Use any other euphemism you want for being assertive, I would still want nothing to do with it. It truly terrifies me.
Assertive comes to us from the late 1560′s meaning "declaratory, positive, full of assertion." To understand what it means to be assertive, you have to figure out where you place on the spectrum of communication behaviours.
Assertiveness is a goal directed behaviour, meaning you utilise it in order to achieve something you view as desirable. But what's so useful about being assertive?
The Benefits of Being Assertive
Perhaps because of my proclivity towards introversion, socialisation, or any number of other variables, I grew up believing that assertiveness was not a desirable trait. I didn't want anyone to think I was pushy or domineering, so instead I just became extremely passive.
Being too passive can make you feel powerless. If you don't speak up for yourself, refuse to make decisions, or let others dictate your actions — well, that takes away your feelings of autonomy. It can make you feel like you are in less control of your ability to control outcomes and that's not good for self-confidence.
I find that my passivity seeps into everything I do. I apologise for everything, even though I don't always know what I'm apologizing for. This can cause people to view you as a pushover or someone who lacks in confidence, neither of these are exactly what one would call desirable.
On the flip-side of passivity is aggressiveness.
Aggressive individuals tend to appear as unapproachable and even hostile by their peers. Think of this as the "my way or the highway" approach to communication. While you may end up getting what you want, it reaps havoc on interpersonal relationships. Where does aggressiveness come from? Well, like passivity, a lot of it has to do with early life experiences.
"Individuals who were emotionally scarred by verbal aggression and hostility at a young age tend to demonstrate similar behaviours later in life. " — Andrew S. Rancer Ph.D.
People often associate aggressiveness with assertiveness but the two are extremely different. Assertiveness allows you approach situations with a more objective eye. It can also help us do the following:
- Boost self-esteem and confidence
- Communicate more effectively and clearly
- And all of this helps you to reduce your stress
Even if you are assertive and things still don't go 'your way' the benefits of sticking up for yourself remain. No, you can't always get exactly what you want, but you can make you wants and needs known.
The Right Amount of Assertiveness
People are really bad judges of how assertive they are or are not. We tend to view others as under-assertive and ourselves as being either over-assertive or just the right amount of assertive. A study showed that people tend to believe that they are being too pushy, even though that belief is not supported by their peers. The researchers dubbed this the 'line crossing illusion.'
"It turns out 38% of those whose partners thought well of their behaviour nonetheless were sure that they'd somehow crossed the line. Further research revealed that the partner's verbal and non-verbal behaviours — rolling of the eyes or saying "you've got to be kidding" — affected the individual's perception of his or her performance."
People base their assertiveness on what they perceive the intended outcomes to be. That's tricky, because we are such poor judges of how assertive we are, it can make it difficult for us to determine what the optimal assertive point is. We exaggerate others disappointment and the offence we imagine they have to messages we are sending them. Assertiveness isn't just about what you say, it's an entire range of verbal and non-verbal communication.
I know I'm passive. This awareness, didn't come overnight, I had to look back on a lot of my past behaviour to come to that conclusion.
If you want to understand what changes need to be made to your communication style take a look at how others treat you. If people tend to walk all over you, that's a sign that you are perhaps too passive. Here are some other questions you can ask yourself to find out if you are comfortable being assertive:
- Do you express anger and annoyance appropriately?
- Do you volunteer your opinions when you think or feel differently from others?
- Are you able to say, "no" when you don't want to do something?
Admitting that you might be passive or too aggressive, isn't exactly a proud moment, but it's a necessary first step in becoming more assertive. I find being passive to be much easier than being assertive, but knowing this gives me the power to change it.
It can be easy to put the blame on others, even when you don't necessarily mean to. Using the word "you" when making your point, tends to come off as accusatory. As a self-protection mechanism, people tend to close off and distance themselves when they believe they are being accused. To prevent this you can use "I" messaging.
Here is what successful "I" messaging consists of:
- Feelings: Tell others how you feel using the word "I".
- Action: Describe what the other individual or group does that is hurtful or problematic
- Request: Say what you need. This way people will be able to respond to your feelings in a proactive way as opposed to you just listing your problems without providing remedies.
Here are some examples:
"I believe if we work on this project together we'll have an easier time completing it on time."
"I feel disrespected when you talk back to me, can you please wait to respond until I am finished."
OK, so most of us don't talk like this. The point of this is to get you to think about how to phrase your feelings in a more direct manner.
Practise. Practise. Practise.
I have to constantly be reminded to stop apologizing for everything. I have to remind myself that answering the telephone isn't a contractual obligation and I shouldn't feel sorry for not being available 24/7. Like anything else in your life you want to improve at, practise is necessary.
- Rehearse and Role Play: Practice in front of a mirror, practice out loud or do it in your head, just get comfortable with using assertive language and gestures. Once you are comfortable using this language with yourself, try using it with a friend. It's easy to be assertive in your head but getting comfortable with using assertive language can take some time.
- Start small: For me, being assertive means ordering my own food at dinner. It sounds really silly, but it is a low-risk test that I can use to practice being assertive. Identify real life situations where you can work on being assertive, try giving praise to a coworker or tell a friend about an experience you have had. Take some time to identify what you did well and what behaviours might still need some work.
This isn't about completely forgoing everything that makes you, well… you. It's about identifying ways to communicate your "you" more effectively.
I remember the day I finally worked up the courage to answer a question in class. My face turned red, I started sweating, and you know what? I didn't die. It felt good to answer that question. From then on, it made answering questions a little better. Being assertive is never easy for me, but I am learning.
Assertiveness isn't going to solve all your problems and it's not appropriate for every situation — context is key. What it will do, is help you feel more confident and communicate more effectively when you need to. Expressing your true self and sticking up for your rights is empowering and it's something that the majority of us, should do a lot more.
How to Be More Assertive [Crew Blog]
Andrea Ayres is a writer with Crew, a creative marketplace connecting mobile and web projects with vetted, handpicked developers and designers.