Assertiveness is about being confident and authoritative. Assertive people stand up for themselves and communicate what they want effectively while still being considerate of other people’s feelings. It sounds like a personality trait, and it can be; but it’s also a skill that can be developed and used to help you succeed. There are plenty of books and seminars available to help those who aren’t naturally confident to strengthen their ability to be assertive, but they all teach essentially the same basic tips and we’ll cover some of them here.
As you work on developing your assertiveness, keep this in mind: always be respectful. Some people confuse being assertive with being aggressive, but it’s not quite the same. Being aggressive usually means you’re being as forceful as necessary to get what you want, regardless of how it affects other people. Assertiveness on the other hand is about voicing your needs, thoughts, and feelings in order to get what you want but not at the expense of someone else. It’s not about power over others; it’s about getting what you want while using respectful behaviour. If you’re feeling angry, consider what you want to get across before you speak, and if it sounds harsh, take a little while to think of a more tactful way to get your point across. Because, again, assertiveness is not about aggression.
When you decide it’s time to make a change, the first thing you should do is assess your natural behaviour. Once you know what your current level of assertiveness is like, you can decide what kinds of changes you want to make and how much you want to change. Do you often hold back you opinions? Do you hope for a raise but never ask for one? Do you let people pile tasks on you and find it hard to say no? Find the areas you’d like to improve and focus on one thing at a time, re-evaluating as you go to see how you’re developing.
The second priority is to work on your confidence and to recognize your value. This step isn’t part of the act of being assertive, but it will make it easier for you to feel comfortable with your assertiveness. If you’ve got low self-esteem or low confidence, you might avoid standing up for yourself and that will be a problem here. So work on your confidence; find a way to feel good about yourself and know that you deserve to be treated with respect, always. Your needs, opinions, and feelings are just as important as anyone else’s. Try to observe your own behaviour; see how often you hold back because of a lack of confidence or how often to apologize unnecessarily. As you begin to acknowledge your self-worth, you’ll start to feel deserving of respect and won’t allow people to mistreat you. But remember: the idea is to recognize your value and the legitimacy of your feelings and opinions, not to feel more valuable than others. That kind of perspective can take you from assertiveness into aggressiveness.
For being assertive at work, building up your relationships with colleagues can be incredibly helpful. Many people are hesitant to express themselves to co-workers who are more-or-less strangers. Getting to know the people you work with can help you be assertive in two ways: first, it can make you feel more comfortable with being assertive with them because you know them better. Second, it can improve how they perceive your assertiveness. Having relationships with your colleagues will make them more receptive to your opinions and requests because they’ve had the chance to laugh and be friendly with you. Instead of often seeing the assertive you as work and viewing you as demanding or pushy, they recognize that you’re a likeable person who can speak out when necessary. So go to work functions with them or for drinks after work and create a good environment for you to be assertive in.
When a problem comes up with someone, whether at work or in your personal life, it’s the perfect time to assert yourself. Step forward and confront the person you’re having trouble with but avoid being accusatory. This is hugely important. Approaching a problem with someone by telling them how you think they’re acting is the perfect way to aggravate the issue. Instead, describe the situation objectively and say what you would like to change. Then, you can be subjective when it comes to telling them how you feel. For example, if your friend has bailed on plans with you last minute a few times in a row lately, don’t tell them that they’re being a jerk—that’s your perception. Summarize the situation factually; tell them you’d like them to give you more notice if they absolutely have to cancel. Then tell them how you feel, whether it’s mistreated or angry or upset. This way, you’re being honest about the problem and describing your point of view without accusing them of anything that might be inaccurate. Being assertive allows you to put your feelings on the table and ask for what you want, but does not involve attacking the other person’s actions or words, even if you feel angry.
You may find that one obstacle in the way of you being as assertive as you’d like to be is the fear of how someone else will react to your actions. You might worry that the other person will get upset or angry. But guess what—you aren’t responsible for their reactions. You’re only responsible for your own actions. Being intentionally hurtful to gain the upper hand isn’t acceptable, and isn’t assertiveness; but if you are acting assertively and not infringing on anyone else’s needs, you’re free to speak and act as you want. How the other people react is on them, so don’t let the fear of how they’ll feel stop you from standing up for yourself. Learning and accepting this fact makes being assertive so much easier.
Keep an eye on your development as you work on this skill. You might be a little under-assertive or a little overly assertive as you’re figuring out where the sweet spot is. It’s all about balance: you want to be assertive enough to be heard but not so forceful that you’re abrasive. Choose your words and your tone carefully when you speak, and act with consideration; it’ll help you find the right amount of push to use. It’s not always about the level of assertiveness though—sometimes it’s about frequency. If you’re constantly voicing your thoughts and needs, it can become a bit much, even when done with the right level of assertiveness. Know the difference between times when it’s really important to you to speak out and times when you can let it go and still be content.
Also be aware that assertiveness isn’t the ideal technique to use in every situation. It can go a long way toward helping you be heard and getting you want you’re after in a lot of situations, especially when it comes to business. There are other times, though, when it isn’t going to be as effective as a more persuasive approach. Where assertiveness is a matter of pushing from your side, persuasiveness is more focused in getting the other person to open up from their side. Look at it this way: when you want to stand up for yourself, assertiveness is the way to go; if the goal is to come to an agreement, persuasion is more likely the path to take. Both options are extremely useful, but knowing which one to use in what situation is key.
And it has to be mentioned that, unfortunately, navigating assertiveness can be more difficult for women than for men, and it has nothing to do with ability. Avivah Wittenburg-Cox, the CEO of one of the top gender consulting firms in the world, warns that women who are assertive are more likely to be viewed as aggressive than men who exhibit the same behaviour. If you’re a woman, being assertive could cause people you work with to view you in a negative light, and this might be something you want to keep in mind. However, as mentioned earlier, when you’re being respectfully assertive, the way people react to you is not your responsibility—you have the right to speak and act as you like. But be aware that this is a known possibility, and do with that knowledge what you will.
By now, you can probably see why assertiveness is so important: it prevents people from taking advantage of you, can earn the respect of others, and can help you get further at work. Assertive people are known to be more successful in their careers and happier in their relationships because they go after what they want and they don’t accept being mistreated. If you feel frustrated with your work life or the way your friends and family have been treating you, consider working on your assertiveness and get ready to see how much it can change your world.