All of us should insist on being treated fairly — to stand up for our rights without violating the rights of others. This means tactfully, justly and effectively expressing our preferences, needs, opinions and feelings.
Psychologists call that being assertive, as distinguished from being unassertive (weak, passive, compliant, self-sacrificing) or aggressive (self-centered, inconsiderate, hostile, arrogantly demanding).
Because some people want to be “nice” and “not cause trouble,” they “suffer in silence,” “turn the other cheek,” and assume nothing can be done to change their situation. The rest of us appreciate pleasant, accommodating people but whenever a nice person permits a greedy, dominant person to take advantage of him/her, the passive person is not only cheating him/herself but also reinforcing unfair, self-centered behavior in the aggressive person.
Assertiveness is the antidote to fear, shyness, passivity, and even anger, so there is an astonishingly wide range of situations in which this training is appropriate. Research into assertiveness has suggested several kinds of behavior are involved:
- To speak up, make requests, ask for favors and generally insist that your rights be respected as a significant, equal human being. To overcome the fears and self-depreciation that keep you from doing these things.
- To express negative emotions (complaints, resentment, criticism, disagreement, intimidation, the desire to be left alone) and to refuse requests.
- To show positive emotions (joy, pride, liking someone, attraction) and to give compliments.
- To ask why and question authority or tradition, not to rebel but to assume responsibility for asserting your share of control of the situation — and to make things better.
- To initiate, carry on, change and terminate conversations comfortably. Share your feelings, opinions and experiences with others.
- To deal with minor irritations before your anger builds into intense resentment and explosive aggression.
Four Steps to Building Assertiveness
There are four basic steps that can help you become more assertive in your every day interactions with others.
1. Realize where changes are needed and believe in your rights.
Many people recognize they are being taken advantage of and/or have difficulty saying “no.” Others do not see themselves as unassertive but do feel depressed or unfulfilled, have lots of physical ailments, have complaints about work but assume the boss or teacher has the right to demand whatever he/she wants, etc. Nothing will change until the victim recognizes his/her rights are being denied and he/she decides to correct the situation. Keeping a diary may help you assess how intimidated, compliant, passive or timid you are or how demanding, whiny, bitchy or aggressive others are.
Almost everyone can cite instances or circumstances in which he/she has been outspoken or aggressive. These instances may be used to deny we are unassertive in any way. However, many of us are weak in some ways — we can’t say “no” to a friend asking a favor, we can’t give or take a compliment, we let a spouse or children control our lives, we won’t speak up in class or disagree with others in a meeting and so on. Ask yourself if you want to continue being weak.
One may need to deal with the anxiety associated with changing, to reconcile the conflicts within your value system, to assess the repercussions of being assertive, and to prepare others for the changes they will see in your behavior or attitude. Talk to others about the appropriateness of being assertive in a specific situation that concerns you. If you are still scared even though it is appropriate, use desensitization or role-playing to reduce the anxiety.
2. Figure out appropriate ways of asserting yourself in each specific situation that concerns you.
There are many ways to devise effective, tactful, fair assertive responses. Watch a good model. Discuss the problem situation with a friend, a parent, a supervisor, a counselor or other person. Carefully note how others respond to situations similar to yours and consider if they are being unassertive, assertive or aggressive. Read some of the books listed at the end of this method. Most assertiveness trainers recommend that an effective assertive response contain several parts:
- Describe (to the other person involved) the troublesome situation as you see it. Be very specific about time and actions, don’t make general accusations like “you’re always hostile… upset… busy.” Be objective; don’t suggest the other person is a total jerk. Focus on his/her behavior, not on his/her apparent motives.
- Describe your feelings, using an “I” statement which shows you take responsibility for your feelings. Be firm and strong, look at them, be sure of yourself, don’t get emotional. Focus on positive feelings related to your goals if you can, not on your resentment of the other person. Sometimes it is helpful to explain why you feel as you do, so your statement becomes “I feel ______ because ______.” (see the next method).
- Describe the changes you’d like made, be specific about what action should stop and what should start. Be sure the requested changes are reasonable, consider the other person’s needs too, and be willing to make changes yourself in return. In some cases, you may already have explicit consequences in mind if the other person makes the desired changes and if he/she doesn’t. If so, these should be clearly described too. Don’t make dire threats, if you can’t or won’t carry out them out.
3. Practice giving assertive responses.
Using the responses you have just developed, role-play the problem situations with a friend or, if that isn’t possible, simply imagine interacting assertively. Start with real life but easy to handle situations and work up to more challenging ones expected in the future.
You will quickly discover, if your friend plays the role realistically, that you need to do more than simply rehearse the assertiveness responses. You will realize that no matter how calm and tactful you are, it will still sometimes come out smelling like a personal assault to the other person.
The other person may not be aggressive (since you have been tactful) but you should realize that strong reactions are possible, such as getting mad and calling you names, counter-attacking and criticizing you, seeking revenge, becoming threatening or ill, or suddenly being contrite and overly apologetic or submissive.
Your friend helping you by role-playing can act out the more likely reactions. In most cases, simply explaining your behavior and standing your ground will handle the situation. But there are additional techniques you might consider trying if standing your ground doesn’t work.
In most interactions, it is not just one person assertively asking for changes, but rather two people wanting to express their feelings, opinions or wishes (and maybe get their way). So, each of you must take turns being assertive and then listen with empathy. That’s good communication if it results in satisfactory compromises.
Another technique to try when confronting especially difficult situations or people is called the broken record. You calmly and firmly repeat a short, clear statement over and over until the other person gets the message. For example, “I want you to be home by midnight,” “I don’t like the product and I want my money back,” “No, I don’t want to go drinking, I want to study.”
Repeat the same statement in exactly the same way until the other person “gets off your back,” regardless of the excuses, diversions, or arguments given by the other person.
4. Try being assertive in real life situations.
Start with the easier, less stressful situations. Build some confidence. Make adjustments in your approach as needed.
Look for or devise ways of sharpening your assertiveness skills. Examples: Ask a friend to lend you a piece of clothing, a record album or a book. Ask a stranger for directions, change for a dollar, or a pen or pencil. Ask a store manager to reduce the price of a soiled or slightly damaged article, to demonstrate a product, or exchange a purchase. Ask an instructor to help you understand a point, find extra reading, or go over items you missed on an exam. Practice speaking and making small talk, give compliments to friends and strangers, call up a city official when you see something unreasonable or inefficient, praise others when they have done well, tell friends or co-workers experiences you have had, and on and on. Keep a diary of your interactions.
Read more about building assertiveness in Psychological Self-Help’s Chapter 13: Assertiveness Training.
This excerpt reproduced with permission from Psychological Self-Help and has been edited for length and clarity.