Assertiveness describes a certain pattern of behaviour. It concerns being able to communicate our feelings, thoughts, beliefs, needs and desires in an open, honest, calm and positive way; equally respecting our own and others rights, without feeling insecure.
Very few people manage to be assertive all the time in all areas of their lives. Being more assertive has the effect of increasing our confidence and self-esteem, improving communication and relationships, and insulating us against symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression.
Take the quick quiz below, to assess your assertiveness levels in different situations.
Make a quick note of the most likely option you would follow in each of the given situations.
1. You are at a restaurant and order a cheeseburger, but you are given a burger without cheese. You would:
a) Accept it since you sort of like it anyway.
b) Angrily refuse the meal and insist on seeing the manager to complain about the poor service.
c) Eat your meal whilst complaining about the mistake loudly enough to be heard.
d) Call the waiter and indicate that you ordered your burger with cheese.
2. A friend drops in to say hello, but stays too long, preventing you from finishing an important task. You would:
a) Let the person stay, then try and squeeze your task in later.
b) Tell the person they’ve had enough of your time and to get out, opening the door for them.
c) Keep looking at the clock, fidgeting and sighing; and mutter to yourself about how much you have to do.
d) Explain your need to finish your task and request they visit another time.
3. In a packed cinema, the people behind you keep talking loudly, distracting you from the film. You would:
a) Suffer in silence and say nothing.
b) Turn around and snarl at them, saying ‘Don’t you have any respect for others? If you don’t shut up immediately, I’ll call the manager and have you thrown out’.
c) Stand up in a huff, blocking their view of the film while you move to a different seat.
d) Turn around and make eye contact, saying ‘Your talking is distracting me from the film, please could you be quiet?’
4. You are waiting to be served in a queue. Suddenly, someone steps in line ahead of you. You would:
a) Let the person be ahead of you, they obviously need to get through quickly.
b) Pull the person out of line and make them go to the back.
c) Complain to others in the queue about how rude it is to push in.
d) Indicate to the person that you are in line and point out where it begins
5. You suspect someone of harbouring a grudge against you, but you don’t know why. You would:
a) Pretend you are unaware of their anger and ignore it, hoping it will diminish.
b) Get even with the person somehow so they will learn not to hold grudges against you.
c) Make a sarcastic comment, in their presence, about people who aren’t assertive, and harbour grudges.
d) Ask the person if they are angry; then try to be understanding.
6. You take your games console to a shop for repairs and receive a written estimate. But later, when you pick it up, you are billed for additional work and costing more than the estimate. You would:
a) Pay the bill since it must have needed the extra repairs anyway.
b) Refuse to pay, and then complain to the head office.
c) Pay the bill, and then write an anonymous bad review on their website.
d) Indicate to the manager that you agreed only to the estimated amount, and then pay only that amount.
7. You invite a good friend to your house for a meal, but your friend neither comes, nor calls to cancel or apologise. You would:
a) Ignore it, and invite your friend over again apologising for any confusion.
b) Criticise your friend and moan about your wasted efforts.
c) Avoid your friend where possible, and complain to other friends.
d) Call your friend to find out what happened.
8. You are in a group discussion about a project which includes your line manager. A work mate asks you a question about your work, but you don’t know the answer. You would:
a) Give your work mate a false but plausible answer so your manager will think you are on top of things.
b) Complain that your work mates have not pulled their weight so you could not do your job.
c) Do not answer, but ask your work mate a question that you know they could not answer.
d) Indicate to your work mate you are unsure just now, but offer to give them the information later.
The ‘a’ choices in the quiz are representative of a Passive style
The ‘b’ choices represent an Aggressive style
The ‘c’ choices represent a Passive-Aggressive style
The ‘d’ choices are representative of an Assertive style
5 or more in any one style suggests you are commonly that way in your interpersonal behaviour.
3 Non-Assertive Styles
When someone behaves passively they are violating their own rights by failing to express honest feelings, thoughts, and beliefs, or expressing them in such an apologetic and self-effacing manner, that others can easily disregard them. The passive person often feels helpless, like they have no control over events. Despite sometimes feeling strongly about things, they do not allow their needs/desires to be as valid as others. They allow others to shoulder responsibility and to make decisions for them, even though it may be resented later.
Passive behaviour may include speaking unclearly, letting things slide without comment, apologising inappropriately, avoiding eye-contact, or laughing when expressing anger.
It may seem much easier to choose this path, perhaps to avoid conflict or to fulfil a need to be liked by others, but it’s healthier to realise that you have rights, and worthwhile opinions, and that finding a way to express these openly will actually benefit everyone.
Someone behaving aggressively will stand up for their personal rights, and express their thoughts, feelings and beliefs without considering, and often violating the views, feelings and rights of other individuals. The aggressive person often feels unheard or inferior, and may rarely show praise or appreciation; they try to avoid vulnerability by putting others down and being in control.
Aggressive behaviour may include rushing someone unnecessarily, telling rather than asking, sarcasm or put-downs, and the use of threatening body language or tone. Aggressive responses encourage the other person to respond in a non-assertive way.
It may seem safer to protect yourself by forcing things to go your way, but it’s healthier to realise that you and others have equal value and desires, and that listening to others and speaking calmly and positively is less draining, increases others’ respect towards you, and creates more stable relationships.
Passive-aggressive behaviours are those that involve expressing aggression indirectly. It is not a mix of passive and aggressive responses to different situations, but a consistent pattern of being passive and accepting on the outside, but then reacting with objections, non-co-operation, or complaints to other people afterwards. The passive-aggressive person often feels a combination of helplessness and inferiority, and tries to avoid conflict and vulnerability with this combination of behaviours.
Passive-aggressive behaviour may include resisting requests or demands by feigned compliance, procrastination, expressing sullenness, playing the victim, or acting stubbornly; avoiding direct or clear communication, making excuses, evading problems, blaming others, sarcasm, or backhanded compliments.
It may seem a safer, less painful way to control situations and avoiding conflict, however, the confusing messages sent to others of verbal compliance and non-verbal resistance is counter-productive for all. It’s healthier to realise that consistent congruent communication (your inside and outside agreeing) is essential for everyone concerned in order to achieve the best outcomes and satisfying relationships.
In simple terms:
Passive behaviour leads to your own empty cup;
Aggressive behaviour leads to others cups being empty;
Passive-aggressive behaviour empties everyone’s cups;
Assertive behaviour aims for everyone’s cups being filled.
What Are Our Rights?
Assertiveness is based on the premise that we are all equal and possess the same basic rights. I would suggest these include:
- I have the right to my own feelings.
- I have the right to express my feelings, opinions and beliefs.
- I have the right to be listened to, and taken seriously.
- I have the right to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ for myself.
- I have the right to change my mind.
- I have the right to say, ‘I don’t understand’.
- I have the right to decline responsibility for other people’s problems.
- I have the right to make reasonable requests of others.
- I have the right to set my own priorities.
- I have the right to make mistakes and feel comfortable about admitting to them.
You may like to add to these but remember the rights that we apply to ourselves also apply to others. Try thinking about someone you find it difficult to get on with, and read the above statements with ‘You’ instead of ‘I’.
How can I improve my assertiveness?
Everyone can improve their assertiveness by increasing their knowledge about themselves and knowing everyone’s rights. Here are a few hints and tips which may help you if you fall into one category or another:
- Know yourself – how do you react, and what do you think, feel, prefer and want?
- Notice in which situations it’s harder to be assertive and be curious about why.
- Know that your ideas and opinions are AS important AS others.
- Find a role model who is good at being assertive (no-one is perfect).
- Practice asking for things – ‘Could you save me a seat?’
- Practice giving compliments and expressing your opinions, e.g. about a movie or article.
- Try to speak clearly and use ‘I’ sentences – I’d like, I prefer, I feel
- Draw up a list of your positive qualities, skills and resources, ask those you trust for their opinion of you
- Notice if you interrupt others – apologise and let them continue to speak
- Ask someone else’s opinion and listen attentively
- Practice disagreeing with someone without putting down their point of view
- Think about the words you use and change negative phrases, e.g. instead of ‘He’s an idiot’, say, ‘I think he’s insensitive’.
- Notice your reactions; does what you say differ from your body-language or behaviour?
- Notice your feelings; is there pain or fear hiding behind your anger?
- Practice expressing yourself in a positive way
- Practice accepting feedback from trusted people without being defensive
If, after reading this article, you have any concerns you would like to explore further please contact me and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.
- Activia Training (2019) 3-Minute Assertiveness Test. Available at: https://www.activia.co.uk
- Compass (2019) How Assertive Am I? Available at: http://www.compasstoolkit.ox.ac.uk
- Powell, T. (2009) The Mental Health Handbook. London: Speechmark Publishing
- SkillsYouNeed (2019) Available at: https://www.skillsyouneed.com