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Assertiveness skills

Being assertive means being confident enough to clearly and effectively express your feelings and opinions, while still valuing those of others. It’s important because it impacts directly on the way that you communicate and interact with other people and helps build your self-esteem.

What is assertive behaviour?

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.

Types of behaviour

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.

Passive behaviour

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

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.

Assertive behaviour

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.

How to improve your assertiveness skills

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.

Body language

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

Communication

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.

Training

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.

 

Produced by Natalie Heaton, Bupa Health Information Team, April 2013. 

For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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