"Ok, I'll get this report done by the end of the day..." (followed by getting caught up in other tasks, conversations, etc.)..."I'm so sorry, things just got out of hand. I'll just try again tomorrow; I might be able to get to it then."
"I'm so tired. But if you need this right away, I guess I can get it done."
Do any of these situations sound familiar? One of the workshops I offer teaches assertiveness skills. I'll admit something to you here: Being assertive is something I still work on, and probably will be working on for a while. So let's start at basics: What is assertiveness?
Assertiveness is first of all a way of communicating. It's worth discussing what assertiveness is not as part of this definition: it's not aggressive, disrespectful, or mean - it's not looking for a fight. Assertiveness is also not passive or passive aggressive - it's not doing things behind someone's back even if you think you're right, it's not giving in or letting someone run roughshod all over you. It's not a tactic for getting your own, way, either. In both of these methods, you have trouble saying "no" or maintaining and respecting boundaries (your own, or someone else's). I've talked about saying no and boundaries in other posts, so I won't spend a whole lot of time on these, other than to say that assertiveness is more than these two important factors. These are also skills that are used in DBT, in the Interpersonal Effectiveness module.
Ok, so what IS assertiveness then? As I mentioned, it's a style of communication. Here's a quote from a workbook I use (and draw upon heavily):
...it recognizes that you are in charge of your behavior and that you decide what you will and will not do. Similarly, the assertive style involves recognizing that other people are in charge of their own behavior and does not attempt to take that control from them. When we behave assertively, we are able to acknowledge our own thoughts and wishes honestly, without the expectation that others will automatically give in to us. We express respect for the feelings and opinions of others without necessarily adopting their opinions or doing what they expect or demand" (Paterson, 2000, p. 19).
The bottom line is that being assertive means being respectful of ourselves and of others. It means being aware of what we want and need, and working to meet those needs in honest, open, and respectful ways, and respecting other people as they try to do the same. Learning to say and hear "no" and developing, maintaining and respecting healthy boundaries are techniques used in assertiveness - they are part of it, but not the whole. Here's some examples of an assertive statements:
"I can't join this committee now. I'm on two other committees and I need to have some 'down time' to take care of myself."
"I just bought this book yesterday, and I noticed today that there is a page missing. I'd like a replacement, please."
"Excuse me, I'm next in line."
So, what gets in the way of being assertive? Lots of things. Again, drawing heavily from Paterson's book, our own fears, the reactions of others to us being assertive, power differences in relationships (e.g., employer/employee, doctor/patient, parent/child, man/woman - I'll address the gender thing in a bit), stress (this is hard work!), our own beliefs about what being assertive means. Stress reactions can be calmed with stress reduction and relaxation techniques. I don't want to minimize the importance of these, but they are a different set of skills and can be covered in a different post.
The other stuff leads up to the stress component, so let's focus on those things. Our own fears and beliefs about assertiveness get in the way for several reasons. First, we may worry that we'll offend someone, or that they'll be angry at us. And the reality is, that may be true. Let's go back to our working definition of what assertiveness is, though - they are responsible for their emotions, reactions, and behavior. Your job is to take care of yourself, in a way that's respectful - and that means respectful of yourself as much as anything. Dealing with someone else's anger is tough, I'll admit. (When you're in a relationship where abuse is possible, it can be downright dangerous, and this is where you want to have support - people you trust and that can help, a place to go if you need it, and a safety plan. This post isn't meant to address abuse situations.) Anger comes up a lot when you're changing your style of interacting - if you've always been passive before, seeing you change may be a shock to the people who are used to having their own way. And you know what? They'll adjust. Your fear, though, can get in the way.
So what do you do? Well, imagine you're a coach - what would you tell your client or athlete? First of all, ask yourself what you're afraid of? What is the worst that can happen? Are your fears realistic? If so, how can you help yourself, respect yourself and still be assertive? (Tough question, I know!) Second, try it out. See what happens - you may be surprised. Maybe you can find a less stressful or lower intensity situation in which to practice. Success is the best reinforcer here; if you succeed and have a good experience you'll be more likely to do it again. As the title of one book says, "Feel the fear and do it anyway." Here's the thing - if our fears get in the way, we tend to act out of our fears rather than acting out of the need to respect and meet our needs. The result is, we don't get our needs met.
Your other beliefs about assertiveness can get in the way as well. Do you belief that being assertive is unladylike or bitchy? Do you believe that it's selfish, or that other people's needs come first? These are all things that women who are assertive face in this society, by the way - there's that gender thing. Do you think it's impolite to disagree or say "no"? Many of us were raised to disrespect our own needs and focus on others. Being assertive after all this training otherwise is hard. Examine these, and look at how these beliefs affect your behavior. Then try an experiment - just try, once, to contradict one of these and be assertive anyway. See what happens.
Ok - now what about how everyone else reacts? Well, we've already noticed that other people may react by being angry, offended, or puzzled by your new assertiveness. This is where your boundaries become important. Don't back down, but don't get aggressive either. It's important to keep and maintain those boundaries.
Here's a good rubric for being assertive:
- Decide whether to be assertive
- Is this a problem?
- Is this the time and place to be assertive?
- What are my chances of success?
- Am I willing to do this? It's going to take time, energy and maybe some risk.
- Will I be able to handle the stress of doing this?
- Decide what to say
- Decide what to do
- Assess the results:
- What did I do?
- What happened?
- How did I feel about it?
- What could I do differently, if anything?
Please Note: The content on this blog is intended for informational purposes only. This is not therapy, and if you wish to work in therapy, please contact your local mental health agency or your physician for a referral.
If you are in crisis or danger, or are thinking about hurting yourself, please call 911 for immediate help. Please, again, realize that seeking out help really IS a sign of strength and not a sign of weakness. You don’t have to be alone in facing these things – there are people who care and who will help. Email me at: email@example.com
Paterson, R.J. (2000). The Assertiveness Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Stephen Ministry Leader's Training Manual. (2000). T-6, Assertiveness: Relating Gently and Firmly. St. Louis, MO: Stephen Ministries.