How to Become More Assertive?



Do you have trouble saying No even when you feel others are asking too much of you? Do you always lend money to your friends even when you're barely making ends meet? Do you ruminate over complaints you never make and feel used, stressed, and overwhelmed?

If your answer to any of these questions is Yes, you’re most likely not assertive enough! 

But there’s no reason to worry! You’re not alone in this since saying No and setting one's boundaries is quite challenging, and many people struggle with it. In this article, we'll re-examine what exactly assertiveness is and how you can work on certain communication skills to adequately express your needs and desires.

What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness is a skill or ability to communicate your own feelings, needs, and opinions in a manner that is direct but respectful of other people’s needs and feelings. It implies being firm and clear about what you want or don’t want without attacking other people or criticizing them.

Assertiveness can also be observed on a continuum, where passiveness is at one end,  referring to difficulties expressing emotions, asking for services, advice, or information, rejecting requests from others, and so on. At the other end of the continuum is aggression, which implies focusing only on oneself and disrespecting people around you. 

Therefore, assertiveness is a point of balance between these two extremes. An assertive person is direct and open in their communication, while, at the same time, trying to understand feelings of others and their points of view. Assertive people can handle stressful situations more easily because they know how to de-escalate unpleasant situations and overcome them through mutual understanding and negotiation.

What assertiveness is not?

Assertiveness is not success at any cost! The goal of assertiveness is good communication and achieving healthy interpersonal relationships without manipulation or violation of boundaries. Sometimes, you need to balance your needs with the needs of others. Therefore, assertiveness alone does not guarantee success, and its goal is not to achieve an advantage over other people.

Also, being assertive doesn't mean that you must always, and in every situation, be 100% open in expressing everything you think and feel. It is crucial to assess the situation and tailor your response to it. In some cases, you will determine that it is better for you to withdraw, which doesn't mean you are passive, but responsible towards yourself and that you have assessed what's most appropriate in a given circumstance.

Always being persistent in expressing your opinions can also be counterproductive, and it's not equal to being assertive. It's possible that after learning different arguments in some situations, you redefine your goals or change your intentions. Again, this is not a sign of passivity, but a reflection of your right to make your own choices and to change your mind.

What makes assertiveness difficult?

The ideal scenario, where you express your mind firmly and clearly without trampling on other people's feelings and rights, is often elusive. When it comes to communicating one's needs and desires, people usually struggle to maintain that true win-win attitude and train of thought. It's only natural since people aren't diplomatic and rational machines but rather emotional beings whose feelings can easily cloud their abilities to state their thoughts and needs with conviction and clarity.

Becoming assertive is, therefore, not as simple. What often stands as a barrier to more assertive behavior is our misconceptions or our core beliefs that it's not safe to express our feelings, thoughts, and needs. As children, we are being taught to suppress, hide or minimize these needs because they simply don't matter or can be perceived as weaknesses or burdens to others. 

As a result, we carry these beliefs into adulthood and, thus, in our personal and professional lives, we struggle to put our needs ahead of others.' For this very reason, we develop feelings of guilt and regret, which hinder conveying our message across decidedly and coherently.

Another obstacle to becoming more assertive is certainly our fears of how others might react if we stand up for ourselves or voice our feelings and opinions honestly. The other person might reject us, take it the wrong way, or become angry, hateful, or rude. Sometimes this fear leads to passive behavior, when we're holding back. Or, in contrast, it can lead to us acting aggressively, when we become overly defensive.

How can we overcome the barriers to assertiveness?

Essentially, assertiveness is a skill, and like any other skill, it can be learned. But first and foremost, we must identify those core beliefs that feed our anxiety, guilt, and feeling of unworthiness and try to shift them and replace them with beliefs that can help us access new ways of responding more readily. 

This is a gradual process as it implies changing the core beliefs that we developed as rules while growing up. However, recognizing the need to change is the first and fundamental step that will later make room to work on whatever obstacles of our natural assertion.

Once we’ve understood and accepted the core of the problem, we can move on to the more practical strategies that will help communicate our assertiveness in a more effective way. Some of these strategies include:

Learning to value yourself and your rights: Understanding yourself and your inherent value is crucial for self-confidence and assertive behavior. Once you realize you deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, it will help you gain the confidence to protect your boundaries and stick up for your rights. 

Accept that you can’t control other people’s behavior: It's best not to react if other people act resentful or angry towards you as a response to your assertiveness. You can't control other people, but you can control yourself. If things get tense, make every effort to stay calm and respectful. 

Be open to both criticism and compliments: Be positive and humble and accept both negative and positive feedback politely. However, you should always voice if you don't agree with the criticism you received, but do that without getting angry or defensive.

Remember that you always have the right to say No: We all have the right to our own choices, our own reasons, and our own boundaries, and we do not have to justify ourselves to others for the choices we think are best for us. Continually adapting to other people’s expectations usually leads to the exact opposite effect - others respect and like us less.

And finally, you can make use of different assertive communication techniques. There’s a variety of simple but effective tricks and techniques you can use to communicate your assertive stance in a more confident and clear way, such as:

Using “I” statements: These usually consist of three parts. The first part should state your feelings - I felt quite uncomfortable; the second part should explain that feeling - …because you were late for dinner with our friends; and the third part should offer a solution and the change you want to happen - I would love it if you would try to show up on time in the future.

Understand the other person’s point of view: Always try to empathize and recognize how the other person views a particular situation. You can express what you want from them, after stating that you understand their situation and how they feel - I know the traffic is quite jammed at this time, but you could have at least sent a message.

Be a broken record: It's about a persistent and steady repetition of your message, without additional explanation, anger, or other emotions. If people keep asking things of you even though you've already said you're not available, repeat your message plain and simple every time they want something new from you.

Role-playing: Keep practicing these skills and strategies in a safe environment with a friend, partner, or psychologist through role-playing. Then ask for their feedback on your words, body language, and tone.
Once you adopt these assertive strategies and beliefs, your behavior will become more assertive as well. 

To understand each other, we have to talk to each other. To give others a chance to change, we have to let them know how their behavior affects us. Only through healthy communication can we develop meaningful relationships and true friendships.

Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.

- Brené Brown


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