Assertiveness is a skill regularly referred to in social and communication skills training.

Being assertive means being able to stand up for your own or other people’s rights in a calm and positive way, without being either aggressive.

Assertive individuals are able to get their point across without upsetting others, or becoming upset themselves.

Although everyone acts in passive and aggressive ways from time to time, such ways of responding often result from a lack of self-confidence and are, therefore, inappropriate ways of interacting with others.

What is Assertiveness?

The Oxford Dictionary defines assertiveness as:

“Forthright, positive, insistence on the recognition of one’s rights”

In other words:

Assertiveness means standing up for your personal rights – expressing thoughts, feelings and beliefs in direct, honest and appropriate ways.

It is important to note also that:

By being assertive we should always respect the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of other people.

Those who behave assertively always respect the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of other people as well as their own.

Assertiveness means being able to express feelings, wishes, wants and desires appropriately and is an important personal and interpersonal skill. In all our interactions with other people, whether at home or at work, with employers, customers or colleagues, assertiveness can help us to express ourselves in a clear, open and reasonable way, without undermining our own or others’ rights.

Assertiveness enables individuals to act in their own best interests, to stand up for themselves without undue anxiety, to express honest feelings comfortably and to express personal rights without denying the rights of others.

Passive, Aggressive and Assertive

Assertiveness is often seen as the balance point between passive and aggressive behaviour, but it’s probably easier to think of the three as points of a triangle.

Being Assertive

Being assertive involves taking into consideration your own and other people’s rights, wishes, wants, needs and desires.

Assertiveness means encouraging others to be open and honest about their views, wishes and feelings, so that both parties act appropriately.

Assertive behaviour includes:

  • Being open in expressing wishes, thoughts and feelings and encouraging others to do likewise.
  • Listening to the views of others and responding appropriately, whether in agreement with those views or not.
  • Accepting responsibilities and being able to delegate to others.
  • Regularly expressing appreciation of others for what they have done or are doing.
  • Being able to admit to mistakes and apologise.
  • Maintaining self-control.
  • Behaving as an equal to others.

Some people may struggle to behave assertively for a number of reasons, and find that they behave either aggressively or passively instead.

Being Passive

Responding in a passive or non-assertive way tends to mean compliance with the wishes of others and can undermine individual rights and self-confidence.

Many people adopt a passive response because they have a strong need to be liked by others. Such people do not regard themselves as equals because they place greater weight on the rights, wishes and feelings of others. Being passive results in failure to communicate thoughts or feelings and results in people doing things they really do not want to do in the hope that they might please others. This also means that they allow others to take responsibility, to lead and make decisions for them.

A classic passive response is offered by those who say ‘yes’ to requests when they actually want to say ‘no’.

For example:

“Do you think you can find the time to wash the car today?”

A typical passive reply might be:

“Yes, I’ll do it after I’ve done the shopping, made an important telephone call, finished the filing, cleaned the windows and made lunch!”

A far more appropriate response would have been:

“No, I can’t do it today as I’ve got lots of other things I need to do.”

The person responding passively really does not have the time, but their answer does not convey this message. The second response is assertive as the person has considered the implications of the request in the light of the other tasks they have to do.

Assertiveness is equally important at work as at home.

If you become known as a person who cannot say no, you will be loaded up with tasks by your colleagues and managers, and you could even make yourself ill.

When you respond passively, you present yourself in a less positive light or put yourself down in some way. If you constantly belittle yourself in this way, you will come to feel inferior to others. While the underlying causes of passive behaviour are often poor self-confidence and self-esteem, in itself it can further reduce feelings of self-worth, creating a vicious circle.

Dealing with Passive Behaviour

People often behave in a passive way because of low self-esteem or confidence. By behaving assertively, you should aim to make clear that the other person’s contributions are valued, and therefore improve their confidence and self-esteem.

Remember that it is possible to value someone’s contribution without necessarily agreeing with it.

As well as being more assertive ourselves, assertiveness should also be encouraged in others so that they can communicate their ideas and emotions freely without feeling under pressure to say certain things.

Assertiveness in others can be encouraged by using well-honed interpersonal skills such as listening, questioning, reflection and clarification.

Some ways to demonstrate that you value the other person’s contribution:

  • Encourage their contribution through open questioning, by asking their opinions, and by drawing people into the discussion in group situations.
  • Listen closely to what someone has to say before continuing the conversation. If necessary, use questioning techniques to clarify their opinion before responding with your own.
  • Show that you are interested in what someone has to say through appropriate questioning, reflecting, clarification and summarising skills.
  • Show that you value the other person’s contribution through the use of appropriate verbal and non-verbal communications such as nodding, smiling, good eye contact and encouraging language.
  • Encourage people to be more open in voicing their feelings, wishes and ideas.
  • Do not allow yourself to take responsibility for decisions that should be made jointly. Instead, support others to make their contribution to the discussion.

The more a person is able to contribute and feel that their contribution is valued, the more they will feel valued as an individual. The experience of positive feedback will help to increase a person’s self-confidence. The whole chain of events should enable the person concerned to overcome any passive reactions and behave more assertively.

If you know that someone tends to behave passively in a discussion or decision-making group, then take time beforehand to discuss their views with them. If you know how they feel, you can help them to express those views in the group.

Being Aggressive

By being aggressive towards someone else, their rights and self-esteem are undermined.

Aggressive behaviour fails to consider the views or feelings of other individuals. Those behaving aggressively will rarely show praise or appreciation of others and an aggressive response tends to put others down. Aggressive responses encourage the other person to respond in a non-assertive way, either aggressively or passively.

There is a wide range of aggressive behaviours, including rushing someone unnecessarily, telling rather than asking, ignoring someone, or not considering another’s feelings.

Good interpersonal skills mean you need to be aware of the different ways of communicating and the different response each approach might provoke. The use of either passive or aggressive behaviour in interpersonal relationships can have undesirable consequences for those you are communicating with and it may well hinder positive moves forward.

It can be a frightening or distressing experience to be spoken to aggressively and the receiver can be left wondering what instigated such behaviour or what he or she has done to deserve the aggression.

If thoughts and feelings are not stated clearly, this can lead to individuals manipulating others into meeting their wishes and desires. Manipulation can be seen as a covert form of aggression whilst humour can also be used aggressively.

Dealing with Aggressive Behaviour

Handling aggressive behaviour in others is particularly difficult when it is accompanied by negative attitudes.

To avoid responding defensively or aggressively, self-control is required. It should be noted that aggressive behaviour here refers to verbal and non-verbal messages and not to any form of physical violence.

Key strategies that can help to deal with aggressive behaviour:

  • Maintain self-control. Although anger can sometimes be a positive force, responding in a similarly angry manner will do little to discourage aggression. If appropriate, be prepared to take time to think over issues before entering into discussion. It might be helpful to say something like, “I need time to think about that”or “Can we talk about this tomorrow when we have more time?”.
  • Remember that other people have a right to their emotions, including anger. Acknowledge their anger, for example, by saying ‘I can see that this has really upset you, and you’re very angry about it’.
  • Pausing, or counting to ten, before responding to an outburst can help to avoid answering in an automatic, defensive or aggressive way.
  • Avoid argument and defensiveness and try to maintain calm.
  • Try to find areas of agreement with the other person, rather than focusing on the disagreements.
  • Find and demonstrate ways in which decisions and solutions can be shared, e.g. “How can we find a solution to this?
  • Try to show some empathy with the other person; how do you feel when you are angry with others?

Often it is difficult for a person behaving aggressively to calm down and see things from a broader point of view, since anger can be an expression of personal frustration.

Using these techniques should help you to express yourself assertively rather than aggressively. This should help to defuse the situation and result in more positive and effective communication.

Different Situations Call for Different Measures – or do they?

You may find that you respond differently — whether passively, assertively or aggressively — when you are communicating in different situations.

It is important to remember that any interaction is always a two-way process and therefore your reactions may differ, depending upon your relationship with the other person in the communication.

You may for example find it easier to be assertive to your partner than to your boss or vice versa. However, whether it is easy or not, an assertive response is always going to be better for you and for your relationship with the other person.

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About Luis Soares Costa

From the very beginning, coaching has always been at the core of my passions.

For the past 38 years I have been an Executive and Team Coach working globally with CEOs and their C-Suite Executives, Business Owners and top talent in a significant number of the major global companies (including a significant number of Fortune 500), innovative companies operating in new ecosystems and dynamic family owned businesses.

During the past 28 years, I have also been an Executive and Team Coach and a “consultant to consultants” developing partners and top talent at major consultancies, Big4 Firms and Legal Firms

As an Executive and Team Coach, I partner with you and/or your teams in a “real play” thought-provoking and creative process which inspires you to “connect the dots” and maximize your personal and professional potential. The aim of the partnership is to bring about a sustained behavioral and performance transformation and profoundly shift the quality of your and your team’s working and personal life, whilst maximizing your potential and generating sustainable value.

You can contact me at coach@LuisSoaresCosta.com and visit my Website at www.LuisSoaresCosta.com