Attention on Assertiveness

Understanding that you have the right to ask for what you want is the key to becoming a more assertive person. Assertiveness helps you feel better about yourself and your self-control in everyday situations, and increases your chances of having honest relationships.

But, how can we be assertive without being selfish – and what is the difference between the two?

What is Assertiveness?

Simply put, assertiveness is the ability to express your thoughts and feelings in a way that clearly states your needs, while keeping the lines of communication open with others.

Assertiveness is thus an attitude and a way of acting in any situation where you need to:

  • Express your feelings;
  • Ask for what you want; or
  • Say no to something you do not want.

Assertiveness, therefore, involves being aware of your feelings and needs, and knowing what you want. It also involves believing that you have a right to those feelings and needs. Being assertive means you give yourself and your particular needs the same respect and dignity you would give anyone else’s.

Benefits of Being Assertive

By being assertive, you develop self-respect, self-worth and self-confidence. You will also gain the respect of others.

Being assertive increases your chances of having honest relationships. It helps you feel better about yourself and your self-control in everyday situations. This in turn improves your decision-making ability, and possibly your chances of getting what you really want from life.

Other benefits include:

  • You are more clearly understood.
  • You are more effective – no need to resort to aggression, sarcasm or deviousness.
  • You waste less energy in anger, frustration and anxiety – and are therefore more productive.
  • You are able to set limits on how much work you take on.
  • You enhance your ability to progress in your career.
  • You will be able to ‘fix’ relationships that have become stuck in an unsatisfactory pattern.
  • You will have enhanced relationships (family, social and business).
  • You will be able to stand your ground when necessary or be flexible when appropriate.
  • You will be able to combat depression.

You will also experience:

  • A decrease in anxiety;
  • A decrease in stress;
  • An increase in self-esteem;
  • An increase in self-acceptance;
  • An increase in confidence.

Being assertive will not necessarily guarantee you happiness or fair treatment by others. Nor will it solve all your personal problems, or guarantee that others will be assertive and not aggressive. Just because you assert yourself does not guarantee that you will always get what you want. However, a lack of assertiveness is often one of the reasons why conflicts occur in relationships.

Basic Rights

When you are assertive, you are conscious of your basic rights as a human being. As adults, we all have certain basic rights. Often though, we have either forgotten them, or else were never taught to believe in them in the first place.

To be assertive, remember that you have the following rights:

  • The right to decide how to lead your life. (This includes pursuing your own goals and dreams, and establishing your own priorities).
  • The right to your own needs for personal space and time.
  • The right to have your needs and wants respected by others.
  • The right to ask for what you want.
  • The right not to have to justify or explain your behaviour to others.
  • The right to be treated with dignity and respect (and to tell others how you wish to be treated).
  • The right to your own values, beliefs, opinions and emotions (and to respect yourself for them, no matter the opinion of others).
  • The right to express all of your feelings. (Note: This does not mean act them out).
  • The right to be angry with someone you love.
  • The right not to be responsible for others’ behaviour, actions, feelings, or problems.
  • The right to say “no”/”I don’t know”/”I don’t understand” or even, “I don’t care” (without feeling guilty).
  • The right to ask for information or help (Without having negative feelings about your needs).
  • The right to change your mind, to make mistakes, and sometimes to act illogically (with full understanding and acceptance of the consequences).
  • The right to have positive, satisfying relationships within which you feel comfortable and free to express yourself honestly (and the right to change or end relationships if they don’t meet your needs).

Many people feel that attending to their legitimate needs and asserting their rights is being selfish. Selfishness, however, means only being concerned about your rights, with little or no regard for others. Implicit in your rights is the fact that you are concerned about the legitimate rights of others as well.

Remember you have the role of both the receiver and the giver of these rights.

Non-Verbal Behaviour

The effectiveness of what we say is strongly influenced by how we say it. The quality of our voice and our body language, both have an influence on our words – they either reinforce or undermine what we are saying.

Voice

The quality of our voice changes with our emotions and reveals a lot about our emotional state. To be assertive you need to be aware of, and control, the quality of your voice.

  • Volume is how loudly we speak – we can whisper or shout;
  • Pitch is how deep our voice is – a deep ‘growl’ or high squeak;
  • Tone is the expression you put in your voice – warm and friendly, or cold and brusque;
  • Speed is how fast the words are said.

When we are anxious or nervous (for example, when we are feeling pressurised or making a controversial point) a variety of things happen – our pitch goes higher, we may talk in a hesitant murmur and we may speed up – as if to get the difficult sentence out as fast as possible. When we are angry, our pitch usually drops and our volume goes up.

However, when we are assertive, a slower, lower delivery is the most effective. The kind of assertive voice you use will depend on the situation. When you want to be assertively angry for example, you may want to speak a bit louder than when you are merely making a simple request.

Obviously, you don’t want to start talking in an artificial voice, so practice this type of delivery within your own personal range of pitch, volume etc.

Body Language

If you want to learn to become assertive, you need to become aware of the following:

  • Your posture;
  • Your use of gestures;
  • Your facial expression;
  • Where you are in relation to the person with whom you are speaking.

Posture

In general, the more we lift the spine and lengthen the back of the neck, release the shoulders and relax the limbs, the more we come across as relaxed and in control.

Imagine that you are very tired and depressed, and allow your body to collapse as it would in that situation. Notice how you slump and crumple up the front of your body. Jut your chin out and contract your neck and notice how that feels. Now imagine you have energy and vitality. Sit up tall and release your shoulders. Notice how much more comfortable your abdomen is because it is not squashed. Notice you have plenty of room between your ears and your shoulders. Notice that your face and neck are more poised.

The more we twine and plait our limbs the more tense and insecure we appear. Balance your body symmetrically. That is, have equal weight on each foot if you are standing, and equal weight on each hip if you are sitting. Have your head upright – not tilted forward or sideways. Balancing this way helps your body arrange itself in a loose and relaxed way, rather than being tight and knotted. Your words will carry more weight if you have this sort of relaxed posture.

Becoming aware of your posture takes a little time, so don’t worry if you catch yourself doing unassertive things like hunching in your chair or crossing and re-crossing your legs or ankles. Simply stop doing those things, relax, and sit or stand balanced and upright whenever it crosses your mind, and, over time, you will naturally become more and more assertive.

Gestures

Gestures made with our hands and arms can either enhance what we say or be annoying, irritating or distracting. Try to keep your hands away from your face. When we are anxious about what we are saying or perhaps lying, we tend to move our hands up towards our face.

Slow and expansive hand gestures may be useful and expressive, but any sort of fiddling or fidgeting is usually irritating and distracting to others. Continually running your fingers through your hair, twisting curls around your fingers, unbending paper clips and so on reveal your anxiety and discomfort. They do not help you appear confident and assertive. If you notice you are twitching or fidgeting, breathe deeply and consciously relax your arms and fingers.

As with posture, becoming aware of your gestures takes time, so don’t worry if you catch yourself doing unassertive things like clenching your fists, wringing your hands or twiddling your hair. Start being aware of yourself and make changes when you realise you’re doing something unassertive.

Facial Expression

Facial expression is crucial to communication. It is no good saying something deeply meaningful and heartfelt, while talking to the space behind a person’s left shoulder! It is no good expressing anger with a placatory smile on your face or apologising with a scowl.

Eye contact should be clear but, intermittent. An unwavering stare is intimidating, but avoiding the other person’s eye completely looks weak. To be assertive, make sure you make eye contact when you use key words or phrases.

When you are being assertive, remember to be aware of what your face is doing and try to make it reinforce your words, not undermine them.

Spatial Position

Your position in relation to the person with whom you are speaking is extremely important. Generally, sitting at a much lower level than the other person or sitting when they are standing, takes away some of your power, as does talking with someone who is much taller than you. If you are at a much lower level, either invite them to sit down too, or make an opportunity to stand up as well and find a comfortable standing position.

If the chair for you to sit in is arranged at an angle that you find awkward, move it so you are sitting at a workable angle. If the person to whom you are talking seems too far away, move a bit closer. You can say something like, “I’m going to move this chair over a bit – you seem a long way over there”. Alternatively, if they are invading your ‘personal space’ – for example, leaning their hand on the back of your chair and breathing down your neck as they lean over you – stand up and move away. Stand in a position where you feel more in control. You do not have to let your personal space be invaded if you do not wish it to be.

How To Become More Assertive

How to Behave

To be assertive you need to:

Stay calm
Avoid getting overly emotional or excited. If you are feeling angry, discharge your angry feelings somewhere else before you attempt to be assertive. A calm but assertive request carries much more weight with most people than an angry outburst.

Look directly at the other person when addressing them
Looking down or away conveys the message that you are not quite sure about asking for what you want. The opposite extreme – staring – is also unhelpful because it may put the other person on the defensive.

Maintain an open rather than closed posture
If you are sitting, do not cross your legs or arms. If standing, stand erect and on both feet. Face the person you are addressing directly rather than standing off to the side.

Stand your ground
Do not back off or move away from the other person.

Keep your tone of voice firm but calm
Do not raise your voice and certainly do not shout. Watch the pitch of your voice – do not let it rise (which tends to happen when we are anxious).

How to Say “No”

This is based on a right to say “no” to what feels uncomfortable or what you are not ready to do. In some instances, you may want to give the other person some explanation for turning down their request, but this is optional. Remember you have the right not to have to justify or explain your behaviour to others.

When saying “no” it is useful to follow a four-step procedure:

Acknowledge the other person’s request in some way e.g. “I realise you need assistance with that difficult client.”

Say no e.g. “Unfortunately…”

Brief reason for declining (optional).

If possible, suggest an alternative proposal, preferably where both your and the other person’s needs will be met. Example: Someone wants immediate assistance with handling a difficult client. “I understand that you need to discuss your difficult client (acknowledgement). Unfortunately I am busy right now (brief reason), so I will not be able to help you (saying no). If you like I could see you tomorrow morning or perhaps you could speak to one of our other colleagues” (alternative option).

How to Make a Simple Assertive Request

This is based on the right to ask for what we want or need, and with this right comes the responsibility to ask in a way that respects others. An assertive request is always a request, not a demand or a command. For example:

“Please may I…”

“I’d appreciate it if…”

“Would you please…”

There are two kinds of assertive request appropriate in dealing with others.

The first kind of request makes a specific proposal e.g. “I’d really appreciate it if you were on time for our meeting this afternoon.”
The second gathers information e.g. “Are you aware of why I was so upset?”

How to add Strength to Your Assertiveness

‘Power’ does not just have to do with physical strength. Power is knowledge. Using our skills/knowledge of assertiveness, we can become extremely powerful by asking for what we want. If we do not get the response we are looking for with a simple assertive request, we can change our level of power by moving from the first and simplest level up to the fifth and most powerful level. These levels are:

Make a simple, assertive request;

Introduce feelings;

Convey consequences;

Offer alternatives;

Change the frame.

Introduce Feelings

It is difficult to act assertively unless you are clear about:

  • What it is you are feeling; and
  • What it is you want, or do not want.

Assertiveness involves saying how you feel, linking this to what is bringing up the feeling, and then saying directly what changes you would like.

A simple formula that will assist with this is:

I feel… (state feeling) when you… (describe their undesirable behaviour). Please will you… (make your request regarding what changes you would like).

Example: “I am feeling upset right now (statement of feeling) because you are interrupting me (describe their undesirable behaviour). Please will you to listen to me when I am talking (clear assertive request).”

If you feel confused or ambivalent about your wants or needs, take time to clarify them first by writing them down or talking them out with a supportive friend. You might also use role-playing with a friend to ask for what you want in advance. Be sure not to assume that other people already know what you want – you have to make your needs known. Other people are not mind readers.

Be aware of the intensity of your feelings. If you are really angry, it is not the appropriate time to try to raise the issue with someone else. Remember a calm, but assertive, request carries much more weight with most people than an angry outburst. Discharge your angry feelings somewhere else before you attempt to be assertive. When you are calm and in control then you are more likely to be assertive.

Convey Consequences

When you are interacting assertively and conveying your needs, it is often helpful to the other person to know the consequences of conforming or not conforming to your needs. It is preferable to convey consequences in their positive form.

Example: “Please could you pay the outstanding amount. If you pay this promptly, you will not need to pay additional charges in the form of interest.”

Sometimes it is necessary and appropriate to convey the negative consequences of non- conformance.

Example: “Please would you pay the outstanding amount. If you do not pay this, you are likely to be blacklisted in terms of credit rating. This means you will not be able to obtain credit at any credit institution.”

Offer Alternatives

People often fail to do what you need them to because they cannot see a constructive way forward. You can assist them immensely by simply offering various possibilities. The more options you offer, the more likely one will work. However, even if none of the options works, talking through options conveys helpfulness and care, and is more likely to end in the person feeling positive about an interaction. It may be helpful to make a list of possible options that you can go through.

Example:

In an instance of someone not paying a due amount:

“Do you have a family member who is employed who may be able to help you out?”

“Do you have an unemployment insurance that you could draw from?”

“Would you perhaps be able to sell something to pay the arrears?”

Offering an alternative to someone allows the energy that they bring to you, to flow in a natural way, as opposed to clashing.

Change the Frame

The frame is the time, place, and person(s) with whom you handle an issue. If you select your frame well, you are much more likely to get what you want or need. On the other hand, if you select a bad frame, even if you are assertive, you are less likely to get what you want or need.

Guidelines for setting a frame:

  • Try to involve the people you want to include in the frame, in setting the frame. This is likely to increase their commitment to hearing what you want to say, and will also set a tone of working together constructively. For example, “Fred, do you have a moment to speak about something that is concerning me?” or “Anne, I would like to chat to you about something that is worrying me. When will you be free?”
  • Do not go into the content of what you want to say until you have the commitment of the other person to speak about the issue that you want to raise. If the other person wants to know what the issue is, just speak in broad terms, e.g. “I just want to speak about something that is concerning me.” Or “I will tell you about it when we have time to meet.” Or “We can discuss that when we get together.”
  • Try to select the person(s) closest to the issue, or the person(s) who are most likely to be willing to assist you in handling your issue. For example, if you have a concern with your colleague, try to handle the problem with your colleague, rather than going straight to another team member to complain about the matter. If that does not work, only then go to the next level up, and so on.

Sometimes, even though you have taken care to set the frame, people get upset or angry and it becomes impossible to continue the conversation in a calm and rational manner. When this happens, the best thing to do is to change the frame. In other words, point out that because of the emotions, it would be best to stop the conversation for a while to calm down. Arrange another time to talk about the issue. This could be five minutes, five hours or five days later, depending on your circumstances. As long as you have agreed on the new frame, it doesn’t matter when the conversation is picked up.

Step-by-Step Guide for Handling an Assertive Interaction

  • Know that there is a problem. Clearly define it in your mind. If you are uncomfortable about an interaction, it may help to talk in confidence to someone else to clarify why you are upset.
  • Establish what you really want or need.
  • Consider the best frame (time, place and people) to address the situation, and then involve the problem person(s) in setting the frame.
  • Once in the frame, acknowledge/thank the other person(s) for being there. (This sets a constructive tone for the interaction).
  • Provide a brief summary of what is concerning you. (Describe)
  • Gather information e.g. “Are you aware that this is a problem?” Or “I would like to hear your side of the story.” (This will ensure that the other person realises that you are trying to understand them, and also that you are dealing with the facts of the situation. This could help to find a solution that works for both of you).
  • Listen to the other person’s side, reflect and acknowledge. (This process could take quite a long time – allow as much time as is required to be totally clear about what they are telling you).
  • State your side of the situation fully. (Express feelings)
  • Make your assertive proposal. (Specify)
  • Convey consequences (Consequences)
  • If necessary, discuss alternatives

Important points to keep in mind:

  • Avoid long sentences that do not end with a clear request or proposal.
  • Keep to the issue at hand – do not get sidelined or ‘go off on a tangent’.
  • If either party gets too emotional, agree that you will continue the discussion at a later stage and set the date and/or time for that, before departing.
  • NB Never just walk out on someone!
  • Sometimes it is better to go to bed on an argument, rather than continue when you are both tired and irrational. Agree to finish the conversation later and set the date/time.

BY: CLAIRE NEWTON

Claire Newton

Claire Newton

Claire Newton is qualified psychologist, speaker, trainer and coach. She holds a Masters Degree in Psychology and a Higher Diploma in Education, as well as a Certificate in Career and Executive Coaching. She is a member of the Health Professions Council of South Africa, the Durban Practicing Psychologists Group, Toastmasters International, and is the past President of the KwaZulu-Natal Chapter of the Professional Speakers Association of Southern Africa - having done a double term in office.

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