What Does It Mean To Be Assertive?

Let’s start by defining what it is not. Being assertive does not mean being aggressive. Assertive behavior is not hostile, blaming, threatening, demanding, or sarcastic. Assertiveness differs from aggression in that standing up for yourself does not trespass on the rights of others. Assertiveness means communicating what you want in a clear manner, respecting your own rights and feelings and the rights and feelings of others.

Being assertive is an honest and appropriate expression of one’s feelings, opinions, and needs. Assertiveness is also often associated with positive self-esteem and a better self-image.

Gender Roles and Assertiveness

According to Dr. Linda Tillman, a licensed Clinical Psychologist and founder of SpeakUpForYourself.Com, “our culture still supports men in aggressive behavior and women in deferent behavior. So men who are afraid to speak up may express themselves aggressively and women who are afraid to speak up may put aside their wishes to please the other person.” Take for example the wife who does not defend herself against her sister-in-law’s put-downs because she knows how important family harmony is to her husband. She is allowing herself to be stepped on in the best interest of her husband and is ignoring her own best interests.

Why Don’t People Stand Up For Themselves?

“Most of our personal styles are established when we are very young,” says Dr. Tillman.

“If your parents were rigid and controlling, then you may have felt invalidated so much as a child that now you are afraid to speak up. If you were taught that it is good manners to be focused on the other person and not on yourself, then you may feel that it is not okay for you to ask for what you want.” She adds.

Read any popular woman’s magazine and invariably someone will ask how she can get what she wants from her husbands in the bedroom. The answer is usually, “Don’t be afraid to just ask for what you want.” However, a lot of women are afraid to ask for what they want, especially when it comes to sex. Most women are raised to be “good girls” who aren’t supposed to think about sex, much less talk about it. This can leave many women feeling unsatisfied and frustrated in their sexual relationships.

Dr. Tillman points out that assertiveness and low self-esteem are linked. “Low self-esteem can affect interaction in two different ways,” she says. “A person who feels bad about him/herself, may find it hard to feel the confidence needed to speak up. On the other hand, if a person has low self esteem, he/she may be aggressive- like the Wizard of Oz, ‘I am Oz the Great and Terrible’- when he/she is just a scared little person.”

Take the department manager who routinely has harsh words for her department’s team members. Even going so far as to call them “stupid” and standing over them as they make the necessary corrections. Her team members know that she is frustrated at not being promoted to the next managerial level and they know why. While the department manager thinks she is being assertive by being honest about her feelings, she is scared to admit to herself that it is her own behavior that is holding her back and not the department’s performance.

Furthermore, people avoid being assertive because they are afraid of displeasing others and of not being liked. However, not asserting yourself can make you feel taken advantage of and damages your self-esteem. For example, not asking for that raise because you have a hard time asking for money not only makes you feel bad about yourself but as if you aren’t in control of your financial future. You may even tell yourself that if your employer valued you, they’d offer you a raise, which leads you to doubt yourself and your abilities even more. In essence, this cycle of low self-esteem makes you feel like a powerless victim of your employer.

Moreover, even if you aren’t aware of your non-assertive behavior other people are. Non-assertive behavior can hurt your career because people won’t take you or your abilities seriously. If, during staff meetings for example, you constantly allow yourself to be interrupted, the higher-ups may perceive this lack of assertiveness as a reflection of your abilities, regardless of how competent you actually are.

Powerless Communication

“A major nonverbal way women unconsciously communicate powerlessness is by letting their tone of voice rise at the end of the sentence. The words float up as if they were attached to a helium balloon,” Dr. Linda Tillman points out.

“Something that should be a statement then sounds like a question and therefore sends a message that she is unsure about what she is saying,” Linda continues.

We’ve all heard other people doing this. And it does make them sound as if they are unsure of themselves and robs them of credibility. Are you guilty of it as well? If so, how can you stop doing it?

“To make such a statement sound powerful, make a conscious effort to drop your voice tone at the end of the sentence as if a choir director were in front of you, bringing your voice down,” Dr. Tillman suggests.

“This minor nonverbal change makes a major change in effectiveness,” Dr. Tillman adds.

What else do women do to sabotage their power? A woman will often start her sentence by saying, “I’m sorry…(but I disagree with you).”

According to Dr. Tillman, “apologizing unnecessarily is a verbal indicator of inner powerlessness.” What she is actually saying is, “I’m sorry for having a thought, but I’m going to share it with you anyway,” which removes most of the effectiveness of the statement, ” Dr. Tillman says.

How do you change this behavior?

“Apologize only when you’ve done something wrong,” Linda advises. “If you spill coffee on someone’s lap, then it is appropriate to say, “I’m sorry.”

How Do You Become More Assertive?

1. Develop a value and belief system, which allows you to assert yourself. In other words, give yourself permission to be angry, to say “No,” to ask for help, and to make mistakes. Avoid using tag questions. (“It’s really hot today, isn’t it?”), disclaimers (“I may be wrong, but…”), and question statements (“won’t you close the door?”) all lessen the perceived assertiveness of speech.

2. Resist giving into interruptions until you have completed your thoughts. (Instead, say – “Just a moment, I haven’t finished.”)

3. Stop self-limiting behaviors, such as smiling too much, nodding too much, tilting your head, or dropping your eyes in
response to another person’s gaze.

4. When saying “No,” be decisive. Explain why you are refusing but don’t be overly apologetic.

5. Use “I want” or “I feel” statements. Acknowledge the other person’s situation or feelings followed by a statement in which you stand up for your rights. E.g., “I know you’re X, but I feel…”

6. Use “I” language (this is especially useful for expressing negative feelings.) “I” language helps you focus your anger constructively and to be clear about your own feelings. For example:

When you do (Behavior)
The effects are (Results)
I feel (Emotion)
Remember: Stick to the first person, and avoid “you are”.

7. Maintain direct eye contact, keep your posture open and relaxed, be sure your facial expression agrees with the message, and keep a level, well-modulated tone of voice.

8. Listen and let people know you have heard what they said. Ask questions for clarification.

9. Practice! Enlist the aid of friends and family and ask for feedback. Tackle less anxiety-evoking situations first. Build up your assertiveness muscle. Don’t get discouraged if you behave non-assertively. Figure out where you went astray and how to improve your handling of the situation next time. Reward yourself each time you’ve pushed yourself to be assertive regardless of whether or not you get the desired

Dr. Tillman also suggests using “successive approximation”, a psychological term referring to trying to go part of the way toward a goal. “For example, if it is difficult to speak up, try saying just one assertive statement. When you have accomplished that, then the next opportunity, try saying two assertive statements, ” She explains.

“Each practice opportunity is also an opportunity to feel good about yourself for speaking up and feeling good about yourself is a step toward building self esteem,” Dr. Tillman concludes.

The Author:

Edel Jarboe

Copyright (c) 1999 by Edel Jarboe. All Rights Reserved.

Photo Credit: imagerymajestic



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