Have you ever found it difficult to say no to others? Do you constantly feel like you hold in your thoughts, feelings and opinions to benefit someone else? Maybe you’ve been told by others that you’re “bossy “or “pushy”? Maybe you think that the only way to resolve conflict or get your point across is getting verbally aggressive toward the other person? If you’ve said yes to one of the above questions, chances are you don’t often act assertively.

Most people don’t fully understand what assertiveness is. Assertiveness is like the bridge between passive and aggressive communication. Passive communication is not voicing your opinion or putting others’ needs above your own to please others for fear of what they will think or say. In contrast, aggressive communication is when you force your own needs or opinions onto people which disregards the needs or opinions of the other person. Assertive communication is the healthy balance between the two. Assertiveness is your ability to be yourself and share your likes, dislikes, thoughts and feelings with others. Assertiveness is about acknowledging that you have the right to express yourself in a respectful way, while understanding that others do too.

Where does unassertive communication stem from?

Just like anything, assertiveness is a learned behaviour. If your parents or caregivers dealt with conflict by arguing and yelling to get their point across, it’s likely that you will develop similar tendencies. In contrast, if you grew up with those closest to you expecting you to not express negative thoughts and feelings, or if they taught you to always put others’ needs before your own, then it’s likely that you might hold back your opinion, thoughts and feelings and that you might meet others’ needs before meeting your own.

What are the consequences of acting non assertively?

Unfortunately, there can be significant consequences to acting in a non assertive manner. Being  non assertive can result in or maintain low self-esteem. If you go through life acting in a passive manner, you fulfill other’s needs while disregarding your own. Furthermore, if you feel that you’re a person that often does not express their feelings and thoughts, this can increase stress, anxiety and can also lead to the development of unhealthy relationships. If you feel that you can’t be yourself in a relationship, this might result in you feeling trapped. Furthermore, if you expect your partner to know what you want when you don’t express it, conflict is likely to occur, because unfortunately for us, our partners can’t read our minds.

On the other hand, if you go through life adopting an aggressive communication style, you will find that you might lose friends and loved ones due to them feeling uncomfortable or unsupported around you. You can see how being passive and aggressive can result in low self-esteem and problems in interpersonal relationships. Those who act assertively are more likely to have a positive sense of self and tend to develop healthier personal and professional relationships than those who are either passive or aggressive.

Becoming assertive takes practice, particularly if you have adopted a passive or aggressive communication style in the past. Fortunately, assertiveness can be learnt! Here are 7 quick tips to start acting more assertively.

1. Start small

You wouldn’t run a 20km marathon without firstly running short distances and eventually building up your training routine over time. Make realistic and achievable goals. Start small and begin using skills in less stressful and less confronting situations. For example, choose small situations like requesting to be seated at a different table in a restaurant, then eventually work up to more anxiety provoking situations such as confronting a co-worker or family member that has been giving you a difficult time, or open up to your partner about an uncomfortable matter that you keep putting off

2. Acknowledge and name your limits

Identify your physical, emotional, personal and occupational limits. Take the time to consider what you can tolerate and accept. Reflect on situations in the past where you have felt quite overwhelmed and uncomfortable – it is likely that you exceeded your limits here. Mentally note these limits and start to become more mindful of when you are nearing them. Notice what helps you or compounds your stress levels during difficult times – do you lose sight of caring for yourself? Don’t forget to consider your own needs and continue to take care of yourself.

3. Know that it’s okay to say no

People often think that saying no is selfish or disrespectful. Acting assertively does not mean that you are disrespecting or acting selfishly. It means that you care enough for yourself to openly express your feelings and ideas, while respectfully listening to the views of the other person. Assertiveness is about considering the needs of others AND your own needs.

4. Consider how you relay the content of what you want to say

Try and speak with facts rather than judgements. For instance, try saying: “There is important information missing from this document” rather than “You did a shocking job here!”. Use “I” statements that indicate your needs, feelings and opinions rather than accusing the person you are talking to. For example, “When you leave your dirty clothes lying around I feel frustrated, because the house looks messy” rather than “What is wrong with you?! You’re a pig!” Try to avoid exaggerating language such as “always” or “never”. For instance, instead of: “We never spend any time together; you’re always with your friends”, try “You’ve been so busy and we haven’t had the chance to hang out; maybe we should do something this weekend?” Here, you are expressing your feelings and helping the person understand your needs and desires, rather than assuming they can read your mind.

5. Know that it’s okay to “buy some time”

If you’re the classic “YES! person” and are used to putting your hand up and saying yes to virtually anything to please others, a starting point to being more assertive might be about learning some quick phrases that you can use when someone asks a request from you. You have the right to mentally reflect on any decision that you make in your life, whether it’s in relation to your personal or professional life. See 18 All Purpose Assertive Phrases for some short phrases to place in your mental carry bag to use at a later date!

6. Express your needs and feelings

We often expect people to know how we are feeling and to know what we want. We also tend to fall into this trap when we are experiencing difficult emotions such as anger and sadness (which tends to escalate the situation we are in and often compounds these feelings). People aren’t mind readers, so we need to be able to express our needs, desires and feelings for us to feel heard. Be clear and concise in what you want and express your feelings. Instead of saying: ”You’re lazy and selfish!”, try saying “I feel overwhelmed because I’ve been so busy; I really need you to help me with the kids today”. The latter statement clearly indicates the person’s needs, it expresses their feelings and does not include exaggerated or blaming language that will only serve to escalate the situation.

7. Practice AND be patient

Just like any skill, assertiveness requires practice! Share and practice your newly learnt skills with a trusted friend or family member, or practice phrases when you are alone at home. Just like learning any new skill, mistakes are likely to be made! Know that it’s okay to not get it right every single time. Be kind to yourself and learn from your mistakes. The more you practice, the easier it will come to you!

If you would like help to build your own assertive toolkit, please feel free to make an appointment with one of our experienced psychologists at Attuned Psychology today.

Ashleigh Stodden

Psychologist