When you are assertive, you express your feelings, thoughts, and wishes clearly and directly. You stand up for your own rights without infringing on the rights of other people. You disagree when you think it is necessary. You are willing to modify your own behaviour in order to allow others to meet their needs. When you are treated badly by others, you are willing to set limits on the behaviour you will permit. An assertive person is cooperative and believes that compromise and communication will help all to reach their goals. Being assertive does not mean being aggressive.
Assertive behaviour is based on a set of rights and responsibilities that is a little different from what you might have learned within your family. For example, many people believe that it is selfish to put your needs before someone else’s. They may believe that it is shameful to make mistakes or admit to them. In contrast, assertive behaviour is based on a belief that you are an adult with these alternatives and legitimate rights:
- To act in your own interest
- To respect and stand up for yourself
- To express ideas, beliefs, and honest emotions
- To ask for what you want
- To be treated with respect and dignity
- To make mistakes
Of course, rights are also balanced with responsibilities. Assertive individuals:
- Respect and honour these rights for others
- Take responsibility for their own behaviour
- Take responsibility for their own mistakes
Components of Assertive Behaviour
Being assertive involves more than just what you say. It includes a set of non-verbal behaviours and a set of feelings about oneself.
Looking directly at a person when you are speaking shows that you are sincere, that you are interested in the conversation, and that you are sure of what you are saying. Looking away or down, or shifting your eyes constantly may convey the message that you lack confidence or are insincere. Staring or glaring at the person may indicate aggression.
An assertive individual stands or sits with an erect posture and maintains an appropriate distance from the person being addressed. Slumped posture, a hanging head, and moving away from the person being addressed may be interpreted as non-assertive. Moving in too close or leaning over the person may convey aggression.
Threatening gestures such as a pointed finger or a clenched fist may intimidate the person being addressed. Conversely, gestures such as wringing hands, biting nails, or other nervous mannerisms may create the impression of passivity. When you are assertive, you either leave your hands by your sides or use appropriate gestures.
Facial expression and voice
A pleasant, steady, and strong speaking voice accompanied by facial expressions that are appropriate to the verbal message tells the other person that you mean what you say. A quivery, faltering voice that can barely be heard and an inappropriate expression may convey a message that will not be taken seriously even if the verbal part of the message is assertive.
“I” messages and observations
Assertive persons use “I” statements that indicate what they feel, think, and want. These statements begin with the word “I.” They include clear, direct observations about specific incidents and events. They do not make sweeping generalizations or vague, indirect statements that force the other person to guess the problem. They do not mislabel their inferences and conclusions about the behaviour of others as facts. They avoid laying blame or making judgments about the behaviour of others.
For example, James has come into work for three nights in a row and discovered that the kitchen was not thoroughly cleaned at the end of the previous shift. The next night, he makes a point of coming in a little early so that he can talk to the person who works on the previous shift.
Here are three possible approaches he could take:
- Aggressive: (shouting) “What an inconsiderate slob you are! The kitchen is always a pigsty when I come in to work.”
- Assertive: (calm) “I noticed the stove and countertops were not clean when I came in for work the last three nights. I felt very angry because I make a point of leaving the kitchen spotless each night.”
- Passive: (whining) “Is there some problem going on during the day that I should know about?”
Notice that the first approach is bound to lead to conflict, with someone winning the fight and the other person losing. It blames the other person for leaving the kitchen untidy, and assumes that the person is inconsiderate and a slob. It ignores the possibility that the restaurant was extraordinarily busy at lunch, that the kitchen was understaffed, or some other reasonable explanation. If there was a reasonable explanation (e.g., “My mother is dying and I’ve been rushing off to spend time with her”), James will likely feel like a heel for having been so judgmental.
The assertive approach is objective and informative. It allows James to express his feelings about what happened. It is more likely to get a positive response than the aggressive approach.
The passive approach (see below) forces the day staff to figure out what the problem is. James is not being clear and direct. By the time the problem is identified, everyone might be frustrated and angry.
One common approach that does not appear to fit into the above categories is to complain about the behaviour to others but not address the situation directly. For example, James might complain to the other staff working the evening shift. This may defuse some of his anger about the condition of the kitchen, but it does not solve the problem. It is also a passive approach. Over time, this approach leads to a build-up of hostility between the staff on the different shifts. Staff may indulge in various petty acts to get back at the other shift for their perceived shortcomings. In the end, the customer suffers. An active, assertive approach to solving conflict works best for everyone. It can be awkward to do but in the end it is the best approach for all parties involved.
In contrast, some people behave aggressively. They pay little attention to the rights and needs of others. They achieve their goals at the expense of others. In communication, they may shout, threaten, and bluster to get their own way. They may humiliate other people by their communication and actions. They are highly competitive in their behaviour and believe that they can only win if others lose.
There are times when it is appropriate to be aggressive. For example, when your life is being threatened or when faced with an emergency, it is important to react swiftly and firmly. There is no time to think about consulting others and meeting their needs.
Passive or Non-Assertive Behaviour
Passive or non-assertive persons are not in control of their own destiny. They do not stand up for their own rights and may be taken advantage of by others. By allowing others to choose for them, they give up the opportunity to reach their own goals. In communication, non-assertive persons are often inhibited and indirect. They do not say what they feel or need, although they may try to express these needs indirectly. They often accommodate others or give in to others. They may feel frustrated, unhappy, or hurt in the process.
There may be times when it is appropriate to be passive. For example, if you have made a serious and costly error that could cost you your job, you should probably be prepared to hear out your supervisor without being assertive or aggressive.
No one is consistently assertive. You may be assertive with your co-workers, passive or non-assertive with your boss, and aggressive with your youngest brother or sister. Often people find it very difficult to be assertive when they are dealing with a stranger or someone in a position of authority. By learning and practising assertive behaviour, you can expand the number of situations in which you respond assertively. You can choose when to act assertively and when not to.