The Secrets of Assertiveness

It turns out that many people confuse between assertiveness and aggression, not knowing what in fact is assertiveness and how it can be used. Assertiveness is first and foremost a social and a communicational skill. Visualize the two edges of the human behavior range – aggression on one end and pleasing on the other. Assertiveness is the healthy space in between those two.

Assertiveness is composed of 4 main capabilities

  1. The ability to freely express one’s wishes and desires
  2. The ability to stand up for one’s rights
  3. The ability to refuse, and;
  4. The ability to comfortably and fluently speak about yourself.

In lack of these skills, pleasing, avoidance or aggressive patterns are formed, often expressed in an unnatural self-coerced behavior. Adequate assertive behavior demonstrates one’s ability to insist on their own wish and to respectfully yet adamantly refuse when needed. It also manifests a communication pattern which balances personal preferences with sensitivity to the needs of the other. Non-assertive people will usually excuse lack of assertiveness by pointing out their personality, explaining they suffer from an inherent inability to be assertive. Actually, lack of assertiveness skills stem from thinking patterns that sabotage the forming of assertive communication styles.

Three main errors are responsible for lack of assertiveness

Confusing Assertiveness with Aggression – Some think “If I am assertive, I might violate other people’s rights”. “Assertive style is offensive and comes at the expense of others”, or “There is always one winner and one loser”. These maladaptive core beliefs limit assertiveness since they cause guilt feelings and awkwardness whenever assertive behavior is considered; therefore, one will usually prefer to avoid expressing their needs and avoid refusing requests. 

Fear of rejection – When one expresses a desire or an opinion, they can naturally face rejection or refusal. Lack of assertiveness might stem from fear of rejection or from interpreting refusal or disagreement as inevitably resulting in crisis or a catastrophe, such as “She will fire me if I refuse. He will give me hell if I dared saying anything”.

Ignoring basic rights – assertive communication style is based on the core standpoint that any person has the right to express their views, exercise their rights and pursue their needs. When one does not believe in the legitimacy of their own needs and preferences, they will struggle to become assertive. This paradox which prioritizes others’ needs over your own is derived from an irrational, self-defeating core belief along the lines of: “My way to get socially-accepted is to always please everybody”. Cultural codes, usually conveyed in our early lives, also insinuate that assertive behavior is inappropriate. For example: “Don’t make waves. This is no way for a girl to act…” and so forth.

The 4 Principles of Assertive Communication

Convey a clear and accurate message. Don’t expect the other person to read your mind and ‘get the message’. None of us can read minds. Clearly say what is on your mind. For instance, instead of apologetically saying ‘Remember we were kind of late to the last two plays and it was embarrassing to make our way to our seats?’, simply say: ‘It is important to me not to be late to the play again’.

Use empathy. Express your genuine understanding of the other person’s position: “I understand you still have work to do at the office, however, it is important to me that you arrive home before 7pm or else I will be late for my class”.

Express your emotions in first person. A message is effectively conveyed when we mention what we feel, refraining from accusations, generalizations and sarcasm. Right way – “I feel uncomfortable and I get offended when you are talking to me like this. I will not tolerate being yelled at anymore”. Wrong way – “You are always yelling at me as if I cheated on you. No friend of mine is treated like that by her partner. None of their husbands are as obnoxious as you are”. Using first person statements prevents accusatory messages and, therefore, reduces the chances of defensive or aggressive responses. Using first person usually results in the other person getting curious, attentive and empathetic.

Emphasize consequences without making threats. Saying sentences like: ‘Your workers are definitely going to hate you if you keep behaving like that’ will usually result in resistance and antagonistic response while saying ‘I believe that if you treat your workers respectfully, your relationship with them will improve’ will usually be followed with a more positive response. Another example, outlining a fact: “I noticed that the kids are more alienated from you”, instead of: “I am warning you, the kids are going to hate you for the rest of their lives for what you are doing”.

You too can become assertive!

Identifying our self-defeating core beliefs from which lack of assertiveness stems is not an easy task, neither is changing your beliefs. Nevertheless, it is an acquired skill. Cognitive therapy, combined with motivational and behavioral techniques help change maladaptive core beliefs and transform timid, insecure pleasers, as well as aggressors, into assertive happy adults.



criticism cognitive disorders

Dealing with Criticism

What makes me feel this way? What is it that makes one feel worthless? Is it something that someone said or did?