Techniques of assertiveness

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Assertiveness is an important and useful skill to develop in life, but while it comes naturally to some people, others find it difficult to summon. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for assertiveness. You can never guarantee or expect others to put their foot down for you, so it is something you will have to work on yourself. Here, we’re going to look at what qualifies as assertiveness, and offer a few ways you can develop this skill.


Assertive vs Aggressive

The most fundamental element of being assertive is knowing how to draw the line between assertiveness and aggression. Fail to do so, and you will likely go down an angry and unreasonable path. The key to drawing this line is personal rights.

While you are entitled to protect your own rights, needs, wants, and emotions, you need to remember that yours are no more important than anyone else’s. At their most basic level, these are the rights to be free and safe, but they can also include the right to time off, and the right to say no. Each situation will require you to identify when your rights are being infringed upon, and at what point you are infringing upon the rights of others.

Identify Your Needs, Wants, and Entitlements

You are always free to fight for what you want, but you should also know how to choose your battles. This is where you need to be able to distinguish between needs and wants, and understand what you are entitled to. If you are asked to perform a task in a certain amount of time, and it can’t be done in that time, then you are entitled to ask for more time, or some help. If it can’t be done otherwise, you can’t be blamed. But if you don’t speak up, then you can be blamed for staying quiet and knowingly allowing the task to fail, so recognise that assertiveness doesn’t only benefit you. It also makes you a stronger player, which benefits the team as a whole.

If, however, you don’t do the task because you want to do another, or do it your way, that could be aggressive. You may not like the concept of the project your team is working on, but if you have been overruled, refusing to help places your wants and opinions above theirs.

Think in Facts

It’s a lot harder to persuade people when you don’t believe what you’re saying, so just stick to the facts when you can. If you are asked to stay and work late, you may feel obliged to do so. But remember that, legally, you are not. Workers protested for your rights, doctors recommend rest, and other people leave on time. It may be a good idea to stay back and help out every so often, but remember that you have a choice, even if others make it seem like you don’t.

Thinking in cold, hard facts will help you distinguish between those scenarios where you can be assertive, and those where you can’t. If you are asked to do or not do something, simply ask yourself why you should obey. Does that person have the authority in this situation, or do you just feel uncomfortable? One of the biggest barriers to assertiveness is the fear of other people’s reactions, but remember that you can’t control or be held responsible for that. They are responsible for what they do and say next, just as you are. So if you carefully consider a response and they don’t, you’re not in trouble.

Stand Your Ground

The easier you are to break, the more often people will try to break you. That is why it is important to learn how to stand your ground. If you have heard the other person’s argument, and are not obliged, able, or willing to help, then don’t cave a few minutes later. Again, it’s nice to help others when you can, but if you can’t, don’t.

Dealing with pushback can be hard, but here are a few ways you can stand firm:

Empathise – You can be assertive while still being nice. Don’t take every request as a demand, and try to keep the tone as friendly as you can.

Offer Suggestions – You may not be able to do or help with something, but you may know of a way they could do it faster. Remember that the person making the request has a problem that they want solved, so if you can lead them in that direction, do.

Stop Cushioning – A common technique, particularly in emails these days, is to make requests in a soft way, so we don’t seem like too much of a bother. Stop using phrases like “I was just hoping” and “Sorry for asking”. This makes people think they can push back, meaning in many cases, they will.

Explain – As great as thinking things through is for you, you need to explain to others why you are making your decision. Whether you’re saying no or asking for something, explaining makes it easier for others to rationalise and understanding your thinking based on the facts, and harder for them to think you’re being unfair.

Repeat – Don’t get worn down over time. If they come back to you with the same arguments, you repeat the points you made before. Unless the facts were wrong or have changed, there is no reason for your mind to change. 

David Clarke