An Overview Of Assertiveness Skills

If you're shy or unconfident you may have trouble asserting yourself. Of course, that's a problem if it causes you to get overlooked or walked all over, in ways large and small. Also, if you want to live a more unconventional social life you're going to need to get the hang of standing up for what you want and resisting pressure from other people.

Assertiveness skills are often talked about in terms of intimate relationships or the workplace, when you may need to let your partner know how their behavior is hurting you, or tell your coworker they can't take credit for your project. However, there are lots of more day to day social situations where assertiveness is needed too:

Obviously assertiveness has many benefits. Your self-respect can't help but be higher if you know you're willing and able to look out for yourself, and guard against being disrespected or cajoled into doing things you'll regret later. It provides you with a sense of self-confidence and control. It makes your life more rewarding because you're able to get your needs met, go after what you want, and steer clear of activities you don't find fun.

Definition of assertiveness

As you may already know, assertive communication is when you look out for or stand up for your rights and needs, in a self-assured, direct manner, while also being respectful toward the person you're talking to. I'll break down that definition:

...look out for or stand up for your rights and needs... - Everyone has implicit rights in interpersonal situations, such as:

Everyone also has various needs and preferences, ranging from what they need from a friend to feel happy in a friendship, to what type of restaurant they'd like to go to that night. a self-assured, direct manner... - When you communicate assertively you're being open about what you want and how you're feeling. That doesn't mean you have to spill your entire soul every time though. Someone could be assertive just by saying, "Hey, cut it out" in a tone of voice that showed they were serious, or by going, "Well it was nice meeting you..." with a firmness that says, "I'm done talking with you now."

...while also being respectful toward the person you're talking to. - Assertive communication allows you to protect your rights, but respects those of the people you're speaking with. It's different from aggressive communication, where you look out for your own rights but trample over someone else's (by insulting, threatening, or badgering them, etc.).

Passive communication

The opposite of assertiveness is a passive communication style. That's when you don't look out for your needs and rights, and people often unintentionally or purposely disregard them.

Facets of passive communication:

Possible consequences of being passive too often, and subsequently getting walked all over:

Improving your assertiveness skills

Come to believe that your needs, rights, and worldview matter

One big reason people aren't assertive is that deep down they don't believe their needs are important or worth standing up for. Similarly, they may not have enough faith in their own values, opinions and preferences, and let other people override them (e.g., they don't like nightclubs, but have swallowed the idea they're weird and anti-social for feeling that way, so they let their friends talk them into going).

How can you develop a mentality that your needs and worldview are valid and worth protecting?

Question your beliefs and fears about what being assertive means

Reason #2 people have trouble being assertive is they have the wrong idea about what it involves. If you have these kinds of thoughts, you need to replace them with more adaptive alternatives:

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Practice being assertive until you get comfortable with it

Reason #3 people have difficulty being assertive is that it can simply be scary and uncomfortable at first. It can feel strange to communicate in such a new and different way. You worry about getting a bad reaction. If someone pushes back at you it can feel tense and awkward to stay in the disagreement.

Like with a lot of fears, getting your thinking and beliefs sorted out will only take you so far. In the end you've still got to face them in real life and get used to them firsthand. If asserting yourself is a stronger fear you'll need to wade into it gradually.

To get used to being more assertive you could start by role playing scenarios with a friend, support group, or counselor. There might be assertiveness classes in your area you could sign up for. In real life you can start with situations you can handle (e.g., straightforwardly telling a cashier you aren't interested in their store's credit card). When you've got some smaller victories under your belt you can start to tackle harder interactions.

Know some techniques for asserting yourself

It's important to know some basic assertiveness techniques, so you can deliver and stick to your message in a calm, self-assured way. Sometimes this is easy, like if you're just speaking up about where you'd like to eat. However, if you're asserting yourself because someone is stepping on your rights, you've got to know how to avoid getting flustered and giving in, or getting angry and having your communication to slide into more aggressive, confrontational territory.

Say what you want in a confident, straightforward way

Once you've gathered up the nerve to do it, the act of initially being assertive is pretty simple. Like the heading says, to be assertive you need to plainly state what you want in a composed, self-possessed manner. You don't need to add a ton of explanations and justifications. For example, if you're at a party and your friends are bugging you to drink more than you'd like, you can say, "No thanks, I'm not drinking any more." If you're out with a friend and they're paying more attention to their phone than you, you can say something like, "Can you please save that for when we're not in the middle of a conversation?" Again, don't feel you have to be exaggeratedly firm and forceful. If someone is really stepping over a line that may be appropriate, but you can often be assertive in a friendly, casual manner.

"I" statements

A standard piece of assertiveness advice is that if you're asking someone to stop doing something that bothers you you should phrase your message so that it keeps the focus on you and how you're feeling. That's better than attacking them, which violates their rights, puts them on the defensive, and makes it more likely a pointless argument will break out. For example, if your friend sometimes gets a little too cutting and personal when they tease you an "I" statement could be: "When you bring up my personal flaws to tease me it hurts my feelings and makes me feel insecure about myself. I'd like you to stop."

That's all well and good, but a lot of people feel like "I" statements are forced and unnatural in a lot of contexts. I think you don't always have to use them. As long as you're still being respectful to someone, it's fine to make your message fit the communication style you'd normally use with them. For example, if you're a 17-year-old guy asserting yourself to your immature, broish buddy you could say something like, "Dude, knock it off. You go too far sometimes when you poke fun at me."

The broken record technique

A lot of the work of being assertive comes from having to hold your ground when people push back after you've delivered your initial statement. They'll argue, pester you, question your character, get angry, lay on the guilt trips, subtly imply they'll stop hanging out with if you don't give in, insist you have no choice but to go along with them, and on and on. It can be tough to resist all the social tension this creates. The broken record technique is to keep repeating the same assertive phrase over and over again until they give up. You're giving them nothing to work with so an argument can't break out. One of its advantages is you don't have to do any thinking under pressure. You just need to mindlessly repeat yourself.

Here's an example set at a bar (I know I'm beating this point into the ground, but imagine the assertive person delivering all these lines while smiling, but with an underlying conviction in their voice):

Agree but don't give in

This is when you say you agree with the other person's arguments, but keep on point. Example:

A bonus add-on tactic is to phrase your agreements in an over-the-top humorous way. It won't always work, but if you can get a laugh out of whomever's bothering you it can reduce a lot of the tension and help get off the subject.

These techniques work the same if you're asking something of someone else. State what you want, and then keep repeating it if they argue against you. It won't guarantee they'll give you what you're asking for, but at least from your end you won't let yourself get pulled off course.

Have a plan for the odd cases where the other person keeps haranguing you

Being assertive and standing your ground doesn't mean you have to be a monk who serenely absorbs endless abuse. If someone keeps pushing an issue you'll need another response. If they're really being disrespectful of your wishes the right thing to do may be to leave or let them know they're acting out of line. If you have friends who repeatedly step on your rights even after you've asked them not to, the best call may be to end the relationship. Sometimes people are nasty to their friends because they take it for granted that they'll stick around no matter what they do to them.

Most people go overboard when they're first learning assertiveness skills

People who are new to assertiveness tend to stand up for themselves in an exaggeratedly firm, indignant style. They may also try to assert themselves at times where it's not really appropriate. Like they may bite someone's head off for making an innocent mistake about who was next in line at the bank. Someone can do this simply because they're beginners and haven't worked out when and how to use assertiveness properly. For some people the ability to finally stand up for themselves is like an exciting new toy they want to play with as much as they can. Someone may also overdo it because they've built up so much resentment over the years that when they do learn to assert themselves they take their pent-up anger out on unwitting strangers.

You may get some pushback from people when you first start acting more assertively

If your friends, family, and coworkers are used to being able to push you around they may not like it when you start sticking up for yourself. They might make remarks about how you've become selfish or rude, or ratchet up their pressure tactics when they want something from you. It's not necessarily that they're evil and liked it better when you were soft and timid, just that people are sometimes thrown off by change and will unconsciously try to force you back into behaving in the way they expect. Although there may be a rough transition period, for the most part everyone will respect you more once you've established that you're going to stick up for yourself from now on. If you lose the odd exploitive or disrespectful friend it's not exactly a loss.