How can I be more assertive?

There are times in our lives when we are faced with situations in which we must stand up for ourselves. It may involve a friend who continuously borrows money from us. It may be a noisy neighbor playing his music too loud. Or a poor performance rating at work that you feel you don’t deserve. When faced with these situations, there are generally three ways that we may respond. We may be passive, aggressive or assertive.

How would you respond to these situations?

You may be passive and accept the situation even though you want to say no – “Sure, let me just stop by an ATM and get the money for you.”

You may be aggressive and yell at your neighbour – “SHUT THAT NOISE OFF!”

You may be assertive and express your view firmly without offending the other person – “I’d like to understand why I got such a low performance rating when I got the highest revenues in the whole team. Could you please explain it to me?”

Assertiveness involves being open in expressing your wishes, thoughts and feelings and encouraging others to do likewise; listening to the views of others and responding appropriately, whether in agreement with those views or not; accepting responsibilities and being able to delegate to others; maintaining good boundaries with others; being firm without being rude; regularly expressing appreciation of others for what they have done or are doing; clarifying disputes immediately without letting them build up; being able to admit mistakes and apologize; maintaining self-control; and behaving as an equal to others.

Being assertive falls right in the middle of being passive and being aggressive. If you are passive, you will never get to vocalize your needs; if you are aggressive, you will look like a bully and provoke a lot of resentment from others; but if you are assertive, you will be able to express your desires while respecting the needs of others and you will have a better chance of getting what you want and deserve.

Can you be assertive all the time? Maybe. But it helps to know that assertiveness is contextual. All of us behave passively in some situations and aggressively in other situations and this could be perfectly acceptable in society. For example, if you are in an extremely competitive job, you would be required to be aggressive in getting business deals. In our Indian culture, we are taught at a young age to be obedient to our elders. So if your parents or grandparents were to ask you to do something for them, you might do it without asking too many questions simply because society expects it of you or because it is considered your “role” in the context of family, society and work.

Does this then mean that you should be a “pushover” when it comes to your elders in society and superiors at work? Not necessarily. The important thing here is to be able to express our own feelings, opinions, thoughts and desires to the other person without offending him or her. If your own and other people’s boundaries, rights and morals are being compromised in any way, then chances are that you are no longer assertive but aggressive.

As you can see, there is a thin line between being assertive and being aggressive. You may think that you are standing up for yourself, but you may actually be behaving aggressively. Let’s explore some of these instances.

If the way that you are being assertive sounds a little aggressive, you can’t help but convey the message that “my perspective is more important than yours and should be given top priority.” In such instances, you’re simply unwilling to consider that the other person’s position is – in the world of their experience – just as sincere, authentic, or heartfelt as yours.

If you are convinced that your way of thinking is the “only” right one, you may inadvertently be dismissive of others’ viewpoints. This failed assertiveness is not only discourteous and disrespectful, but almost certain to defeat your purpose. When you adamantly stand up for yourself, it can be quite offensive to the other person. This may prompt the other person to similarly be attacking or defensive towards you or may cause them to withdraw from you altogether.

If you are too insecure to look within your own possible weaknesses or wrongdoing, you may feel compelled to stubbornly defend your viewpoint even though it may be irrational. You may not be able to realistically assess whether it is you who needs to reconsider your position or to change in some way. As long as you feel this way, you may close yourself off to what the other person has to say.

How can you check if you’re doing it right? One way is to try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to see things from his or her perspective. Would you then still behave the same way?

It also helps to think about how much you really need to justify or explain yourself. Is it possible to agree that you have different viewpoints and leave it at that? Do you always need to win every argument?

Non-attackingly clarifying your perspective to the other person without being self-righteous or too defensive may also help. Can you put your point across without offending the other person?

Familiarizing yourself with the facts of the situation may also help so that you have a firm foundation to stand on when you are standing up for yourself. Are your arguments based on facts? Is there a possibility that they could be irrational?

Observing how other people react to you once you’ve started being assertive may also help in checking your own behaviour. Do they respect you more now? Are they hurt or offended? When you’ve learned how to mindfully stand up for yourself, you’ll find that you’ve greatly increased the odds that whatever you have to say will be better understood — and given more weight — than may ever have been the case previously.

Does all this seem difficult to put into action? Maybe so at the beginning. But once you begin to practice assertiveness consciously on a daily basis, you may find that it becomes easier with time and may even come naturally to you at some point. If you would like further help in learning how to be assertive and finding that delicate balance between assertiveness and aggressiveness, our professionally qualified counsellors at TalkItOver will be more than happy to help you.

Talk It Over


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About Shireen Stephen

Dr. Shireen Stephen has a Ph.D. in Health and Counselling Psychology and Masters in Applied Psychology. Over the last 7 years, she has worked in the capacity of a research scholar, counsellor and lecturer. Some of her areas of expertise are research, coping with lifestyle changes and relationship counselling. To this end, she has conducted numerous online workshop modules on choosing the right life partner. She has worked almost exclusively with employees of the BPO industry by helping them understand and cope with the various unique health effects of working at odd hours. She uses a problem focused and action oriented approach to dealing with problems and her primary therapy orientation is using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy techniques. She strongly advocates positive psychology and holds the humanistic view that each individual has the potential for self-actualization and possesses the necessary tools to lead a satisfying life.