Why assertiveness is an essential skill
Updated: Mar 10
Problems managing anger. Poor self-esteem. Communication issues in relationships. Feeling the effects of burnout at work. Believe it or not, lack of assertiveness is often at the root of these seemingly different issues.
Assertiveness is often misunderstood. Many people think assertiveness is a fixed trait or think being assertive is about being intimidating. Both are untrue.
Assertiveness is a communication skill that anyone can learn. Assertiveness is about mutual respect; it is communicating needs, wants and boundaries in a neutral, but firm way that is respectful to others and to yourself. If you are being assertive, you are standing up for yourself, but you are also not bullying or hurting others.
“Assertive self-expression is direct, firm, positive – and, when necessary, persistent – action intended to promote equality in person-to-person relationships” (Alberti & Emmons, 2008).
Benefits of assertive communication
Being assertive can help you express yourself directly, which tends to boost self-confidence and earn others’ respect. In turn, there is often a decrease in stress and an increase self-worth. Some other potential benefits include improved communication, creating more honest relationships and improving your decision-making skills.
Communicating in an assertive manner does not guarantee you will get the outcome you want. However, communicating in ways that are too passive or too aggressive will generally undermine your intention as people react more to your delivery than to your message.
What is a passive communication style?
In passive communication, we tend to place others' needs and wants before our own, often to the detriment of our own wellbeing. During passive communication, people will often avoid eye contact, have “defeated” body language and apologize more than is necessary. Being passive often coincides with not getting your needs met, taking on more work than you can manage and not standing up for yourself when needed. While there are benefits to being passive in certain situations, consistently being passive tends to increase stress and decrease self-worth.
What is a passive-aggressive communication style?
On the surface being passive aggressive looks similar to being passive. However, people who are passive aggressive, only appear to be agreeable. They may say yes to something, but then complain about it to other people. They may undermine agreements since they were not onboard to begin with. Rather than confront an issue head on, when people are passive aggressive, their anger and feelings may show through a negative attitude. Overtime, this type of behavior builds resentment and disallows opportunity for effective communication and collaboration.
What is an aggressive communication style?
Although aggression and assertiveness share some similarities, there are some key differences that distinguish them. An aggressive style is about getting your own needs met, while limiting the rights and needs of others. During aggressive communication, people may stare intently, use harsh language, cross their arms, or stand over others and make demands. While this behavior can be effective in the short-term, it disallows feelings of safety, trust, and respect to develop.
Aggression is often frightening to others, and people who frequently act in this manner often have difficulties in their relationships and jobs. People who have anger issues often report high levels of stress.
How do I know if I am being assertive?
When you are being assertive, you are being rational and fair. You are considering the needs and rights of others, but you are calm, direct, and firm in your statements. You accept responsibility for your own faults, feelings, and perspective. You make eye contact, but in a relaxed, non-threatening way. Your body and face are calm, and your voice is steady. People who are assertive generally seem confident and not reactive.
Tips to improve your assertiveness
First, determine what type of communication you are using and in what settings. Perhaps you are passive aggressive at work, but passive at home. Think about feedback others have provided you, or ways you wish certain relationships could be improved.
1. Keep the focus on yourself by using “I” statements. For example, “I would be uncomfortable with that” versus “you are wrong.”
2. Be direct and brief. Make your point, clearly and concisely.
3. Practice saying no. Saying no in a mutually respectful ways takes practice.
4. Rehearse. Plan out what you want to say and practice saying it.
5. Ask questions. Seek mutual understanding.
6. Work on your non-verbal communication. Maintain good posture, appropriate eye contact and a calm demeanor. You want to avoid being intimidating or “shrinking”.
Figuring out when to be assertive
While assertiveness is a valuable and effective tool with the goal of valuing everyone, it does have limitations. There are cultural considerations as well as specific circumstances that may need to be considered. In some cultures, being assertive may appear arrogant or a sign of disrespect, and a show of deference may be more appropriate.
Additionally, since assertiveness is about stating your needs and wants in a firm and direct manner, it may be overkill when determining pizza toppings with your friends.
No approach is right for everyone in every situation. A good place to begin is to think about various roles and relationships in your life and see where your needs are not being met, then assess what strategies are most appropriate for those situations.
If you need help becoming more assertive
Learning and using any new skill takes time and patience. Breaking behavioral habits such as silencing yourself or lashing out can be difficult—we get accustomed to reacting in certain ways. Give yourself time to make changes and don’t be too hard on yourself if your progress is slower than you would like.
Participating in therapy to improve assertiveness can provide additional support, especially for individuals with substance use disorders, anger issues or burnout from work or home life. Substance Use Therapy is available for the support that you deserve.
About the Author:
Kimberly May, LPC-S, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, burn-out, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation. *Note: telephone and telehealth sessions are currently available.