The feeling of personal power is key in all interpersonal relationships. Many people are not very clear about what assertiveness is and how it differs from aggressiveness. One main difference is that aggressiveness is about power over other people, while assertiveness is about being able to assert our rights and stand up for our thoughts and feelings while respecting the rights, thoughts and feelings of others.
Passive people habitually submit to other people’s dominance play, do not have clear boundaries, and are constantly being invaded by others. They tend to avoid conflict by not expressing their thoughts and feelings, avoid any sort of confrontations even when their basic rights are involved, which leaves them feeling – and being – victimized. At the same time, anger builds up in them, so when they do speak up, they tend to do it in an aggressive, attacking and blaming way rather than a constructive, solution-oriented, assertive way.
Aggressive people, on the other hand, attempt to impose their will on others, do not respect other people’s boundaries and are invasive and coercive. Aggressive people may get their way with some people at first, but in the long-run they alienate others, create a lot of stress in their social, family and work environment, experience a lot of failures in all interpersonal relationships and end up having no social support and feeling isolated and victimized themselves.
Somewhere in the middle stands assertiveness which is a way of communicating and behaving that respects the rights of all relationship partners. Assertiveness requires honesty, directness, self-confidence, knowing what your rights are and being able to defend them in positive, constructive ways. Learning to act more assertively will increase your sense of efficacy, of having an impact on your environment, your chances of having honest, straight-forward relationships, your chances of getting your needs met, will improve your ability to make your own decisions and get more satisfaction out of life.
Assertiveness is based on two important traits: relatively good self-confidence and good communication skills.
Self-confidence is built through our experience of effectiveness in the world. This effectiveness can be measured in many areas of experience, like academic or professional achievement, physical or athletic abilities, social and personal relationships, etc. Self-confidence is built from the inside out, meaning that we don’t expect others to provide us with self-confidence but we build it by giving ourselves credit for our strengths, virtues and accomplishments.
Good communication skills involve being a good listener as well being a good speaker and being able to appraise a situation in a cool-headed, non-defensive or fearful manner. Assertive communicators have developed some specific skills for standing up and speaking up for themselves. They have fewer conflicts in their dealings with others, and their needs are more frequently met, so they feel happier and more in control of life situations. Most people desiring to become more assertive start from a passive behavioral baseline and require quite a bit of practice in assertive communication skills before they can see any change in the power balance between them and other people. So start slowly in the beginning, and gradually practice more and more assertive communication skills.
Here are a few tips on what communication skills you need to develop and practice:
Maintain eye contact when you are in a conversation. This way you communicate a self-confident and honest message.
Be specific and direct about what you want, think or feel. Practice making statements like “I want to..”, or “I think…”. Learn to say “no”.
Use your body language to emphasize your words. When making a demand or a request, stand up straight and speak in a loud and clear voice.
Don’t get personal or over-emotional when you feel your rights are being violated. Comment on the person’s behavior rather than attacking the person.
Use “I” statements, instead of “you” statements that sound like accusations. Feel free to say, “I don’t like it when you yell at me” or “I don’t appreciate not being treated fairly”. Asserting yourself this way balances the power between you and the other person. Once you comment on the inappropriate behavior, don’t forget to request the more appropriate behavior that you would like to take its place, like, “I would like you to be on time when we have a date”.
Learn to reward people for positive behavior and establish a positive cooperative spirit in all interpersonal relationships.
Choose the right time and the right place for resolving issues, making sure that the other person is emotionally willing to start a conversation. Otherwise, whatever you have to say may be forgotten or overlooked.
Express your opinions honestly and do not hesitate to have a different opinion from that of other people even if those people are significant to you or in a position of authority – you still are entitled to your own opinions. “Own” your message, acknowledging that you opinion comes from your own perception of the situation, and your own frame of reference. If no agreement can be found that respects the opinion of both parties, then you can “agree to disagree” on the specific issue.
Practice leadership skills like making overtures to other people, offering positive suggestions to peers and colleagues in a positive, friendly, cooperative spirit, and supporting your own opinions, suggestions and proposals with clear and convincing arguments.
Ask for feedback. Encourage others to be clear, direct and specific in their feedback to you. This way, many misunderstandings in the conversation can be easily resolved and you also convey the message that you equally respect the opinion, feelings and rights of others as much as you respect your own.
Reward yourself every time you manage to overcome your fears and habitual passive reactions and are able to formulate an assertive response, regardless of its effect on the other person or the situation.
The important thing is that you keep practicing and reinforcing your assertive communication skills, rather than your initial effectiveness. It may be a new way of communicating for you, so it may take some time before it feels natural, but the more you practice your assertive communication skills, the more confidence you will gain and you will find out that not only is it really easy, but it’s also very effective.