Assertive communication

Being assertive is an essential communication skill if we want to be respected and understood, especially by those we love. Being assertive means that you are able to express yourself openly and directly and stand up for yourself without fear of being judged. It is about being able to assert your point of view, without violating the rights and beliefs of others. It can:

1. help improve your self-esteem and self worth

2. earn you the respect of others

3. help you with stress management

4. cut down your tendency to take on too many responsibilities

5. prevent you from constantly feeling the need to please others

6. help you if you have a hard time saying no.

Assertiveness does not mean that you express yourself aggressively, by making unreasonable demands or meeting your own needs at the expense of others. Nor does assertiveness mean that you continually exercise your rights at all costs, without considering the consequences. It is about achieving a sense of balance between both parties and communicating in a way which seeks a mutually satisfying resolution. Even in an argument. In this sense, assertiveness requires an act of communication which is honest and confident, but also non-judgemental and open to understanding the views of others.

Assertiveness is not necessarily easy, however, because it can lead to confrontation or being challenged by others, but it is a skill that can be learned to improve your life. Developing your assertiveness starts with a good understanding of who you are and a belief in your own value and self-worth. When you have the ability to take ownership of your beliefs and actions you have the basis of self-confidence and self-awareness, because you are taking responsibility. Assertiveness helps to build on that self-confidence and provides many other benefits for improving close relationships at home and at work.

In general, assertive people move towards outcomes which are "win-win" as they see the value in their opponent’s point of view and in his/her position, quickly finding common ground. They are often better problem-solvers – as they feel empowered to take calculated risks and do whatever it takes to find a resolution. They are less stressed because they are more aware of their personal power and they don't feel threatened or victimised when things don't go as expected. They do not procrastinate because they are proactive and they get things done because they know they can.

When you act assertively you act fairly and with empathy. The power you use comes from your self-assurance and not from an ability to use your power to intimidate or bully. When you treat others with such fairness and respect, you get that same treatment in return. You are well liked and people see you as a leader and someone they want to work with because they can trust you to be consistent and honest with your beliefs, feelings and behaviours.

You cannot be an effective communicator all the time and sometimes you need to accept compromise. You may be more assertive with strangers or casual acquaintances, but find it harder to do so with loved ones and co-workers. There are times when it is good to be aggressive in your communication. For example, if your life or property is in danger, it might not be the best time to practice assertive communication. There are also good times to be more passive, such as when you are being reasonably and appropriately reprimanded by someone in authority for making a mistake.

You can learn to choose when it is more appropriate to assert yourself, and when it is best to use other forms of communication. Learning these skills takes time and practice, but learning how to use assertive communication effectively can pay real dividends when people trust you to speak your mind. Even when they don’t like hearing what you have to say.

The skills of assertive communication tend be characteristics which are identifiable according to the qualities outlined below:

Verbal characteristics:

  • Firm, relaxed voice tone.
  • Fluent conversational style with few hesitations and an even steady pace.
  • A voice tone which is middle of the range, rich and warm.
  • Being sincere and open with a clear voice.
  • Using “I” statements (“I like”, “I want”, “I don’t like”) that are brief and to the point "To my mind", "I believe that..."
  • Cooperative phrases which invite feedback e.g. “What are your thoughts on this”.
  • Emphatic and decisive statements of interest, e.g., “I would like to”.
  • Distinction between fact and opinion e.g. “In my experience...”
  • Suggestions without “shoulds” or “musts” e.g. “How about…” or “Would you like to…”
  • Constructive criticism without blame, e.g., “I feel irritated when you interrupt me”.
  • Seeking others opinions, e.g., “How does this fit in with your ideas”.
  • A willingness to explore other solutions and alternatives, e.g., “How can we get around this problem?”
  • Evaluating the issues more considerately and reflectively; accepting there are alternatives.

Non-verbal characteristics:

  • Being receptive and responsive listening.
  • Using direct eye contact with a steady gaze.
  • Having a steady, open body stance.
  • Using open hand movements and gestures.
  • Smiling when pleased.
  • Frowning when angry.
  • Facial features which are steady.
  • Posture relaxed and upright.

Thinking styles: 

  • I won’t allow you to take advantage of me and I won’t attack you for being who you are.
  • My feelings are valid and reasonable when I express them, but not necessarily right.
  • It is OK for me to express negative feelings if they are appropriate to the situation

The payoffs of assertiveness: 

  • The more you stand up for yourself and act in a manner you respect, the higher your self-esteem.
  • Your chances of getting what you want out of life improve greatly.
  • Expressing yourself directly at the time means that resentment doesn’t build up.
  • If you are less driven by the needs of self-protection and less preoccupied with self consciousness then you can see, respect and love others more easily.

The cost of assertiveness: 

  • Friends and family may have benefited from you being passive and may try to sabotage your new assertiveness, or they may be conditioned to an aggressive response from you and still feel defensive in your presence.
  • You are reshaping beliefs and values you have held since childhood and it can feel very risky adopting a new way of communicating.
  • There is no guarantee of the outcome and there is often some confrontation involved in being assertive as you stand up for yourself.

How to develop assertiveness:

Developing your assertiveness is not only an essential skill to improve your communication, it leads to a less stressful life. Some people are naturally more assertive than others. If your disposition tends more towards being either passive-aggressive or aggressive, you need to work on the following skills to develop your assertiveness:

Value yourself and your rights – understand that your rights, thoughts, feelings, needs and desires are no less or no more important than anyone else's. You are therefore more willing to recognise your rights and protect them. You begin to believe you deserve to be treated with respect and dignity at all times. But not at the expense of others. You stop apologising inappropriately because you have the confidence to believe self-interest (not selfishness) is fair and just.

Identify your needs and wants, and ask for them to be met – do not wait for someone to recognise what you need and do things for you. This is learned helplessness and leads to dependence. You need to understand that to perform to your full potential, your needs must be met. We all need to feel fulfilled. So attempt to find ways to get your needs met without sacrificing the needs of others in the process.

Acknowledge that people are responsible for themselves – do not make the mistake of accepting responsibility for how people react to you. Being assertive and seeing to your own needs is not aggressive or selfish. Do not accept statements like: ‘you make me feel so angry’, because you are not responsible for how others react to you, they are. You can only control yourself. As long as you are not actively and intentionally violating someone else's needs, then you have the right to say or do what you want.

Do not swallow your feelings, express them openly and without fear or favour – express negative thoughts and feelings in a healthy and positive manner. As long as you do not intend to burden others and coerce them to accept responsibility for your feelings, you need to express negative feelings. If you cannot express anger, sadness, frustration or resentment they will leak out in your communication in other ways or you will snap. This means that people will find it difficult to trust you.

Expressing difficult emotions is not always negative. For example expressing anger can be impulsive and destructive if you shout, scream and use violence. But if you express anger early on, in a meaningful way it can protect you from harm, establish appropriate boundaries and motivate you to stand up for your rights. Allow yourself to be angry, but always be respectful. Say what's on your mind, but not in ways that protect the other person's feelings. Manage and regulate the intensity of your emotions. Stand up for yourself and confront people who challenge you and/or your rights.

Receive feedback, criticism and compliments positively – accept feedback from others positively. Be prepared to say you don't agree but do not get defensive or angry. You may learn something completely new about yourself and be far more likely to trust a person who is open and honest with you. Allow yourself to make mistakes and ask for help. If you are to gain self-acceptance and respect, you need to own your strengths and weaknesses. Do not seek to blame yourself or others, but take responsibility and act to correct your mistakes or put things right. Also accept other people’s compliments graciously.

Learn to say "No" when it’s appropriate – be aware of your limits and what will cause you to feel manipulated or taken advantage of. Be aware that you cannot please everyone all of the time, or do everything to everyone’s satisfaction. This often leads to more dissatisfaction as we please no one. Instead, go with what is right for you, even if it means you may upset others, not because you intend to. Occasionally, suggest an alternative for a win-win solution between you and the other person.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Greg Savva - Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree

I am an experienced counsellor at Counselling Twickenham, Enduring Mind. I've been profoundly affected by my work with other people as a psychotherapist, anthropologist and writer. I'm captivated by the interior lives of others and the cultures they live in. Please visit my website for resources on counselling, self-help tools and resources.… Read more

Written by Greg Savva - Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree

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