I’ve got something to say that is likely to be a little controversial, but I’m going to say it anyway.
I really believe that in New Zealand (as is the situation in many other countries) we have a problem with assertiveness. I have my theories for why this might be.
Firstly, I think people tend to conflate assertiveness with aggressiveness. And aggressiveness is something we view very dimly around here.
I also think that we have a level of discomfort, or fear, of being judged harshly and maybe even outright rejected if we stand out from the crowd – whether this be in a tall poppy kind of way, or if we express a difference of opinion from the norm. Either way, this discomfort can make it really difficult for many people to express their opinion, put forward ideas or say what needs to be said in a given situation. And when people do muster their courage to do so, they often handle it ineffectively – resorting to an aggressive approach by “fighting fire with fire”.
Many of us have been taught that saying no or standing up for ourselves (no matter how gently) is rude. We’re not shown how to communicate assertively by our parents or in the social contexts we grow up in, so we’ve neither learned why assertive communication is important nor how to do it. I think this is particularly true for women.
Consequences of over- or under-assertive behaviour and communication
You’re possibly wondering why too much or too little assertiveness is such a big problem. Here are just a few of the key reasons – and you’ll see this playing out personally, in relationships and within organisations:
- Frequent misunderstandings and miscommunications
- Negative impact to relationships of all kinds
- Reduced confidence and self-esteem
- Disconnection from others
- Issues with control. This might play out in a strong need to control others, feeling like you’re on the receiving end of another person’s need to control or maybe a sense of not being in control of your own life.
- “My way or the highway”
- “Anything for a quiet life”
- Win:Lose or Lose:Win – both of which are usually temporary fixes and create problems further down the track
- Unresolved and/or escalating conflict
Chances are that you relate to some of the issues on the above list more than others, and that’s likely to be because your own behaviour and communication style has a general tendency towards either the “passive” end of the spectrum or the “aggressive” end. We can (and do) swing from one end of the spectrum to the other and we may have situations in which we’re comfortable to be assertive, so these styles are fluid. Having said that, we’ll have a dominant tendency towards passivity, assertiveness or aggression in the way we behave and communicate.
A definition of assertiveness
Assertiveness could be defined as “the quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive”, sitting somewhere between the two extremes of passivity and aggression.
A person with an assertive behavioural and communicative style is able to conduct and express themselves effectively and appropriately. They can clearly state their needs, wants and hopes and articulate what they will and wont do. They can act in their own best interest and express honest feelings and opinions without undue anxiousness and they can protect their own rights without breaching the rights of others. They’re likely to be easy to relate to, relatively relaxed and content because their needs are likely to be met much of the time.
A person with a passive behavioural and communication style holds their feelings in and “puts up with” aggressive or inconsiderate behaviour from others. They’ll struggle to articulate in a clear and direct manner their needs, wants, feelings and what they will or won’t do. As a consequence of this, passive people are unlikely to have their needs met and are therefore likely to hold a certain amount of frustration, helplessness and resentment. With the build-up of frustration they might have the occasional aggressive outburst, freaking everyone out with their out of character volatility.
People with aggressive behavioural and communication styles will attempt to meet their needs first, oblivious to (or ignoring) the potential downstream impact. They’ll make sure everyone knows their feelings, wants and opinions, often delivering them overly bluntly or by force. Because of this, they’re likely to be somewhat disconnected from others and have relationships based on power and control.
Here’s a little more information about the various styles:
Ways to improve your assertiveness
If you’ve predominantly operated at either end of the assertiveness spectrum, it might seem like a real challenge to consider changing your behaviour and means of communication, but with a bit of practice you can make some improvement and in the process you’re likely to notice improvements to your mood, your sense of control and your relationships with others.
Here are just a handful of tips to practise becoming more assertive.
If you tend towards the passive end of the spectrum:
- practise saying “no” in some low-impact, low-risk situations with people you trust and who you know care for your wellbeing
- practise stating your opinion/feelings/desires, again making sure you’re with people you trust and feel comfortable with
- become aware of your body language and practise standing more upright and trying to reduce nervous behaviours such as covering your mouth with your hand or lip-biting
- practise taking compliments from other people by simply saying “thank you” and smiling
- start saying more “I” statements such as “I think…” or “I feel…”
- get more clear about what you want to say and try to speak more concisely
- from this moment on stop speaking badly about yourself, putting yourself down or being overly apologetic to others
- consider that although your passive behaviour and communication style may give you a peaceful life upfront, it will cause greater conflict and personal discomfort in the long run.
If you tend towards the aggressive end of the spectrum:
- practise actively listening to others
- be more proactive in seeking to draw out (and consider) other peoples’ opinions and ideas
- start becoming more aware of your voice, tone it down and try to speak more quietly
- practise stating your point as your opinion, rather than presenting it as a fact
- notice your body language – are you leaning over someone or invading their space?
- say “you” less often – it can be seen as critical or domineering
- be aware that although people might not be saying it to you overtly or directly, nobody likes a bully and nobody likes to be controlled
- consider that aggressive behaviour and communication may allow you to get what you want in the short term, but it’s likely to come at a cost – namely in your relationships with other people
If too much or too little assertiveness is something that’s causing you problems in your personal and professional life, please get in touch. Some help in this area could significantly improve your quality of life. Email me on firstname.lastname@example.org