Assertiveness involves being clear about what you feel, what you need and how it can be achieved. This requires confident, open body language and the ability to communicate calmly without attacking another person. Being assertive involves the following skills.
- Say "yes" when you want to, and say "no" when you mean "no" (rather than agreeing to do something just to please someone else).
- Decide on, and stick to, clear boundaries and be confident to defend your position, even if it provokes conflict.
- Understand how to negotiate if two people want different outcomes.
- Be able to talk openly about yourself and be able to listen to others.
- Be able to give and receive positive and negative feedback.
- Have a positive, optimistic outlook.
Learning to use these skills will help you to express your thoughts and feelings freely, speak up for yourself, know your rights, reason effectively and control your anger.
When you enter into a discussion or an argument, there are several different ways in which you might behave and react to the situation; these are known as passive, aggressive or assertive behaviours.
If you try to avoid any sort of conflict or feel that your views are less important than others, you’re being passive. In this situation you may use sarcasm, give in resentfully or remain silent at your own cost.
Aggressive behaviour often arises when you’re angry. You feel the need to get your own way, regardless of other people’s feelings or opinions, and, as a result, people stop listening to you. You may bottle up feelings that eventually explode, leaving no room for communication. If you act aggressively you may not listen to others, interrupt other’s point of view, make threats or shout and use dramatic words and be hostile.
Being assertive is completely different to being passive or aggressive. Assertiveness involves clear, calm thinking and respectful negotiation within a space where each person is entitled to their opinion.
If you lack assertiveness, it can affect your relationships both personally and professionally. If you act passively or aggressively in situations, over time, it can lead to stress, anxiety or even depression as well as having a negative impact on your physical health too.
By looking carefully at how you communicate with others, you can begin to identify ways in which you can be more assertive and help to improve your quality of life.
With a bit of practice or training, most people can learn how to become more assertive. It’s a communication skill that you can improve and get better at using in your everyday life.
The way in which you hold yourself has an important impact on how you’re perceived and treated. Assertive people generally stand upright, but in a relaxed manner, and look people calmly in the eyes.
A good first step to becoming more assertive is to consider your own body language. You can practise being assertive with a friend or in front of a mirror by:
- facing the other person, or yourself, and trying to stay calm
- breathing steadily to keep you calm
- speaking clearly and steadily at a normal volume – don’t whisper or raise you voice
- showing that you’re listening
- keeping your face relaxed and open
Clear communication is an important aspect of assertiveness. Some examples are listed below.
- Express your feelings. Try not to generalise your feelings by saying ‘you’ in conversation when you actually mean ‘I’. Also, you should recognise that you have choices and so say ‘I could’ and ‘I might’ instead of ‘I must’ and ‘I should’.
- Say no. This is often difficult because you don’t want to feel like you’re letting people down, be seen as unhelpful, unable to cope, or you may find the other person intimidating. However, it’s important to remember that you’re allowed to say no. Keep the conversation polite, clear and simple and don’t apologise for saying no.
- The ‘broken record’ technique. This involves repeating your point over and over again in a calm and firm voice until it’s clear to the other person. It’s particularly useful if you’re explaining something to a manipulative person, or someone who isn’t listening.
- Listen to the person you’re talking too, treat them with respect and courtesy and try to see their point of view.
- Accept that conversations won’t always go to plan – if you can recognise this at the time then you can suggest continuing the conversation at another time, or agree to disagree.
- Practice makes perfect – like any new skill, it will take practice to put some of these assertive behaviours into action.
Try searching on the internet or going to your local library to find out details of assertiveness classes available in your area. Most adult education institutions offer courses in assertiveness training. Always find out how experienced the counsellor or therapist is before you start classes.
Self-help books and resources on the internet can also be helpful if you would rather teach yourself the skills you need.
Counselling or psychotherapy
If you think past experiences are having a negative influence on the way you behave, it may help to talk through these experiences with a trained counsellor. This may bring back painful memories of unpleasant experiences you have had, but it can help you to understand why you act as you do. It will help you to think differently about yourself and to have positive, assertive behaviour.
You may also find cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) useful. CBT involves helping you to overcome unhelpful patterns in the way you think and behave, including aggressive and passive behaviour.
There are several different types of talking therapies available – speak to your GP for more information and advice about which type may be right for you.
Sometimes I find myself getting angry and then aggressive. What can I do about it?
Being aggressive and being assertive are two different things. It's easy to move from feeling angry to being aggressive and although anger can be positive it can also be harmful and destructive. If your anger is becoming a problem, it's important to get help.
When you're aggressive towards someone, you express your needs and beliefs in a way that hurts the other person, such as talking over them, shouting and acting in a hostile way. You may also internalise your anger until it builds up and explodes at a later date. However, when you're assertive with someone, you know what you want and what your limits are but you aren't trying to control or hurt the other person.
Anger can be a good thing, giving us the strength to fight for something when necessary. However, it can also be destructive, harmful and lead to violent behaviour. Aggression can have a serious impact on your health and wellbeing. It's important to be able to manage your anger so that it doesn't lead to aggressive behaviour.
Learning how to express your anger assertively instead of aggressively can help you to manage it. But if you feel that anger is becoming a problem for you, it's important to get help or find ways to help yourself.
Speak to your GP or nurse for advice and information about local assertiveness training courses or groups.
What does assertiveness training involve?
There are many courses, groups and assertiveness classes available, so you should be able to find one that you feel comfortable with.
Many adult education colleges and some universities offer assertiveness training courses. They are also available at some workplaces. Your local library may also know of courses, or you can look on the internet.
There is also a wide range of self-help books and information on the internet that can help you learn to be more assertive. Different approaches suit different people, so it's worth browsing and looking at a number of different books or resources until you find something that suits you.
Addressing some of these issues can sometimes bring up memories or feelings that you may find difficult to deal with, perhaps about things that happened to you in your past or the relationships you have with people close to you. Assertiveness teachers vary in their skills and experience, so if you're worried about any feelings or memories that you think may come up, choose a course run by a trained and experienced counsellor or therapist.
Will improving my self-esteem help me to become more assertive?
Yes, assertiveness and self-esteem are closely linked. If you have low self-esteem, anything that improves it can help you to become more assertive. Similarly, becoming more assertive can help to improve your self-esteem. Some of the main ways to improve your self-esteem are to set yourself goals and challenges, do the things you enjoy and talk about how you're feeling.
There are many things you can do to improve your self-esteem.
- Look after your physical health. This means eating a healthy, balanced diet, being active and doing regular exercise, getting plenty of sleep and learning to relax.
- Reduce your stress levels. Try not to get into situations that undermine your confidence or that you can't control. Try to make your home environment as stress-free as possible.
- Set yourself goals and challenges. These should be things that you have a good chance of achieving. For example, start with something manageable such as taking a 15-minute walk every day. When you achieve your challenge, give yourself a reward and set another, perhaps to take part in a fun run.
- Learn something new, especially if it's something that you wouldn't usually do in your day-to-day life. For example, if you do a physical job, try learning a language or taking up a creative hobby such as painting.
- Make time for yourself and do more of the things you enjoy. The things that give you pleasure are often things you're good at, so doing them more frequently should help you to feel more empowered. Give yourself regular treats and make time to relax.
- Talk to someone about how you're feeling. This could be a friend or family member or a professional, such as a counsellor or therapist. Seeing a counsellor or therapist may help you to understand your problems and change the way you think and feel. This can help you to develop a more positive attitude and improve your self-esteem.
- Assertiveness. Better Health Channel. www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au, published April 2011
- Assert yourself. Centre for Clinical Interventions. www.cci.health.wa.gov.au, published 2008
- How to be assertive. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, accessed 10 December 2012
- How to increase your self-esteem. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, published 2011
- Personal communication, Dr Gabrielle Pendlebury, Consultant and Adolescent Psychiatrist, St Andrew's Healthcare, 7 February 2013
- How to deal with anger. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, published 2012
- Anger. Mental Health Foundation. www.mentalhealth.org.uk, published 11 December 2012
- 10 tips for being assertive. Better Health Channel. www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au, published May 2012
- Talking therapies. Mental Health Foundation. www.mentalhealth.org.uk, accessed 11 December 2012
- What is CBT? British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies. www.babcp.com, accessed 10 December 2012
- 10 ways to look after your mental health. Mental Health Foundation. www.mentalhealth.org.uk, accessed 11 December 2012
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