What does it mean to be assertive?
Communicating assertively is a critical skill in maintaining balanced, respectful, and empowered relationships. It involves honestly expressing your feelings, thoughts, needs, and opinions; saying “no” without feeling guilty, and not letting others always get their way.
Being assertive is not the same thing as being aggressive
Communicating assertively means standing up for your rights without violating the rights of others. It falls somewhere between “passive” and “aggressive” behaviour. Passive behaviour involves always saying “yes”, not letting others know about your feelings, needs, rights, and opinions, and prioritizing others’ needs over your own. In contrast, aggressive behaviour involves not having respect for other people, demanding things in an angry or threatening way, or thinking your needs are more important than those of others. In the short term, passive behaviour can be used to avoid conflict and to please others. Aggressive behaviour can be used to win a conflict and get your way. In the long term, however, both communication approaches are likely to lead to feelings of resentment, anger, and isolation.
Assertiveness is a skill that can be practiced
Like all skills, assertiveness is a skill that can be learned with repeated practice. The following steps can be used to communicate more assertively.
Step 1: Set a goal. It is important to have a goal – a specific goal – regarding what you want out of a situation. For example, “My goal is to ask my partner for more support around the house.”
Step 2: Be empathetic. Try to understand the other person’s point of view and to convey this to them. For example, “I know you work very hard and are tired when you get home at the end of the day.”
Step 3: I feel X (emotion) when you Y (behaviour) because… Briefly describe how the situation impacts you and why. Using “I” language helps to focus on your feelings as opposed to blaming, which can lead to defensiveness. Focus on specific examples of behaviours you would like to change and try to avoid making assumptions. For example, “I feel angry and unsupported when you leave the kitchen before the dishes are done because it’s a lot of work for me to do alone.”
Step 4: State what you want/need/would like… This may be as simple as restating your initial goal. For example, “I would be really appreciative if you could help me clean up the kitchen before you watch TV.”
Although it can be challenging, assertive communication can have profound effects on your self-confidence and the quality of your relationships. It helps to demonstrate that your needs are as important as anyone else’s and that you have the right to speak up. Being assertive also makes it more likely that your needs will be met and that people in your life can better support you.
Danielle Schwartz is a Registered Psychologist who has worked at the Clinic on Dupont since 2012. Her practice is in the cognitive-behavioural treatment of mood and anxiety disorders, stress management, sleep concerns, and relationship issues.