Read the following definitions and reflect on your own behavior. Which of these definitions comes closest to describing you? On one end of the continuum is passive behavior, and on the other end is aggressive behavior. Assertive behavior is right smack dab in the middle of the two.
Assertive Behavior includes standing up for your rights without infringing on the rights of others. Assertion involves expressing beliefs, feelings and preferences in a way which is direct, honest, appropriate and shows a high degree of respect for yourself and for others.
Passive Behavior is when someone gives up their own rights and (directly or indirectly) defers to the rights of another person. Passive behavior includes violating your own rights through inaction or by failing to express your thoughts, feelings or desires.
Aggressive Behavior is when someone stands up for their own rights without regard for others. Aggression is self-expression which demands, attacks or humiliates other people, generally in a way which shows lack of respect for others.
A fourth type of behavior exists, known as Passive-Aggressive behavior. Passive-Aggressive Behavior occurs when someone acts out aggressive impulses in an indirect way. When people act passive-aggressively, they attempt to get what they need or want indirectly or manipulatively. Passive-aggressive behavior is an indirect attempt to control or punish others.
So what keeps us from communicating assertively? Most people report that what makes it hard to be assertive is a fear of hurting another person's feelings, and perhaps risking rejection by that person. Before you decide to act assertively in a given situation, you have to decide if you can live with the consequences. Although assertive behavior usually will result in a positive response, some people might react negatively to it. For example, if your boss is completely unreasonable and is known to go ballistic if anyone dares question his orders, even non-aggressive, respectful, assertive behavior might set him off and you could lose your job. If that's your situation, then you may decide you can't afford to be assertive, and learn other stress management techniques.
Where else might non-assertive behavior come from? Many of us are taught that we should always please and/or defer to others, that it is not nice to consider our own needs above those of others, or that we shouldn't "make waves", that if someone says or does something that we don't like, we should just be quiet and try to stay away from that person in the future. Cultures vary in how acceptable it is to communicate directly. Some find assertive communication uncomfortable due to cultural norms, gender norms, or social norms.
Here are some specific things people might tell themselves that holds them back from getting their needs met in relationships. Often times our self-talk has an irrational component to it. As such, you will also find accompanying alternative perspectives.
"If I assert myself and people do become angry with me, I will be devastated. It will be awful."
•Even if others do become angry and unpleasant, I can handle it without falling apart.
•I don’t have to feel responsible for the person’s anger. It may be he/she who has a problem.
•I don’t have to be vulnerable to other people’s moods.
"Although I prefer others to be straightforward with me, I’m afraid that if I am open with others and say “no” I will hurt them."
•Other people may or may not feel hurt.
•If I prefer to be dealt with directly, it is quite likely others will too.
"If my assertion hurts others, I am responsible for their feelings."
•Even if others are hurt by my assertive behavior, I can let them know I care for them while also being direct about what I need or want. I am not responsible for anyone’s’ feelings but my own.
"It is wrong and selfish to turn down legitimate requests. Others will think I’m terrible and won’t like me."
•Even legitimate requests can be refused assertively.
•It is OK to consider my own needs, sometimes before those of others.
•I can’t please all of the people all of the time.
“At all costs, I must avoid making statements and asking questions that might make me look ignorant or stupid."
•It's okay to lack information or make a mistake, I’m human.
"Do not act superior to other people."
•You have as much right as other people to show your abilities and to take pride in yourself.
•It is healthy to own both your strengths and limitations in life.
•Everyone’s opinion is just that - an opinion.
Thankfully, assertive behavior is a skill that can be learned and maintained with practice. One hint is to use "I" language instead of "you" language. For example, "When you __(behavior)__ , I feel / think ___________ ; So, I would like __(new behavior)__ .“ Also, remember to maintain direct eye contact, speak clearly and audibly, and use facial expressions and gestures to add emphasis to your words. Finally, if you're planning to try assertive behavior, remember that other people are used to you behaving in a certain way, and may be thrown for a loop or thoroughly confused when you change your communication style. Why not tell the other person up front what you're trying to do? You might say something like, "I need to tell you something and I'd like you to hear me out before you comment. I've noticed lately that after we've been working on a project together, I find myself feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. I've been thinking about it and I've realized that I often go along with your ideas, without insisting on considering some of my ideas as well, because I'm afraid of upsetting you. From now on I'm going to try something different. When I start to get those frustrated feelings, I'm going to ask that we stop before making a final decision and be sure we have considered all the options. I know that will be a change for you, but I really think it's fair and I know I'll do a better job and feel better about myself if I can tell you about my ideas." How can anyone argue with that statement?
Lee M. Stillerman, PhD
Lee M. Stillerman, PhD