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psychology / life

How to be assertive

. 5 min read .

Assertiveness is the quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive. The way I best understand it is: the art to be one’s true self without crossing any boundaries into other people’s freedoms.

It is not a trait that we are born with but instead something we can develop.

Assertiveness not only enables us to act in accordance to our essence but it also radiates confidence. And there are few things that are more attractive in humans than confidence.

“Assertiveness is not a strategy for getting our own way. Instead, it recognizes that you are in charge of your own behavior and that you decide what you will and will not do.” — Randy J. Paterson

What does being assertive really mean?

The best way I found to understand assertiveness is by breaking it down to 3 foundational building blocks:

  1. Being self-assured: knowing what you want and who you are (values, principles etc).
  2. Being confident: holding your ground and propagate those through actions.
  3. Being considerate: At all time being aware of your boundaries and not crossing on other people’s ones.

No better way to showcase these three components but with examples:

In our personal lives:

  • Knowing you have a preference for the food you want to eat, the movie you want to watch, the time you want to meet and actually expressing it.
  • Being able to say NO. No to favours, to doing tasks you don't want to do, to going out when you are tired, to having another pint.
  • Not only say NO but do so confidently and honestly. “Oh I will see if I can come” or “I’m so sorry..” followed with an innocent lie is not assertiveness.
  • Not following the heard. Not bending under peer pressure. Not having alcohol and instead ordering orange juice. Saying no to going out with the group when that is time you want to spent in other ways.
  • Asking for more. Ask for another piece of bread on the plane, another table at the restaurant, more ice in your coffee, better quality work from a service you paid for.
  • Demanding what you are entitled to. Return the cold soup, complain for bad service, ask for a refund if an item is damaged.
  • Being the one taking the decision of which Netflix movie to watch in a group where everybody is indifferent.
  • Not apologising without reason. It is polite but really; you dont have to.
  • Not changing your mind every 3 seconds.
  • Not hesitating or second guessing all the time. Here's a dumb example: walk up to the coffee shop counter and make the entire order in 5 seconds without uhmms and hmms.
  • Expressing your frustration/anger when your principles or values are bing insulted. Defending your beliefs. Somebody belittling somebody else? Making a racist comment? Not acting up to standard? Speak up.
  • Acting in accordance to what you say you believe in. Embodying your principles.
  • Pointing out when somebody does something annoying or have inappropriate behaviour like Smoking inside, speaking out loud in a quiet space, being insensitive etc
  • Remaining calm even when insulted or assaulted. Not dropping to the other person’s disagreement level.
  • Not seeking to agree, conform or not express yourself because you want to be liked (social acceptance) or to be right (need to be right)
  • Communicating in a direct manner but always staying nice. You might be right but that doesn't give you the right to not be nice.
  • Not being intimidated when interacting with a person of authority like policement, airport officers
  • Not being afraid to be criticised or judged for what you think is right. Whether that is an opinion, an ideology, a preference.
  • Insisting when they know what they want or what is right unless it interferes with other people's freedom.
  • Producing work and putting it out there without obsessing if people will like it or agree with it (this holds for posting on social media).
  • Not asking for approval and instead asking for forgiveness.

With our significant other:

  • Not being afraid to be vulnerable and admit a weakness, a mistake or being wrong during an argument.
  • Not being compliant and agree when our private opinion is different.
  • Having control over your emotions. This does not mean that they bottle them up; but that they control feelings like anger, disappointment, sadness, regret, elation, excitement etc instead of letting them volcano to the surface.
  • They express and talk about one’s emotions in a reasoning manner.
  • Acting in an empathetic manner. Even if right, understanding the other’s point of view and adjusting the delivery accordingly.
  • Following through with promises and commitments of doing the laundry, taking the cat to the vet or picking milk on the way home.

In the workplace:

  • Not being afraid to ask questions during a meeting from the fear they will sound ignorant.
  • Saying no to meetings in which you cannot add or gain value from.
  • Not being afraid to express emotions (always in a controlled manner) like anger, disappointment, excitement.
  • Expressing your opinion/disagreement even if there is already a consensus or a majority vote on the opposite.
  • Expressing your opinion/disagreement even if it conflicts with people higher in the hierarchy than you are or in expertise than you like the CEO, an influential person, an ‘expert' etc.
  • Not adapting your opinion depending on where you stand in the hierarchy during the discussion.
  • Expressing your agreement when you do agree.
  • Being able to change your mind and admitting to have done so.
  • Accepting when you are wrong or did a mistake and express it.
  • Compromising when needed. Disagreeing with a decision of a next step and committing.
  • Listening intensely more than you speak.
  • Demanding for more when needed. better communication from a colleague.
  • Being radically honest and direct with people above and under you. Treating them in the exact same way.
  • Leaving meetings half-way if they are not a good use of your time and you are not able to add much either.
  • Following through with what you said you were to do. Keeping your word.

Not as easy as it sounds

Assertiveness is a very tricky balance because it lies in between the two extremes of being passive and being aggressive.

Most people, in the pursuit of assertiveness, overshoot and end up crossing to the aggressive side.

Being assertive is NOT:

  • Being an asshole -even if you are right- and pushing your opinions hard in an impolite, arrogant and emotional way.
  • Being self-serving. Putting your desires above other’s desires.
  • Being reactant and disagreeing with everything until you have your own way.
  • Being a rebel and disagreeing with everything just for the sake of being different.
  • Being the party-pooper and finding faults and problems with everything .
  • Having opinions on everything. You don’t have to.
  • Intimidating, manipulating and playing political games to get your way.
  • Being unmovable and stuborn.

And then others end up in a grey area somewhere in the middle, but not quite the right assertive middle.

Passive aggressiveness.

Being assertive is also NOT:

  • Talking behind people’s backs about what you like/not like about them or an action they took.
  • Expressing your disagreement in an indirect -bickering- manner.
  • Not fully committing to a decision made and agreed upon.

Hack: A nice way of enforcing assertiveness is to ask: What would James Bond do in this situation? Seriously. It works. James Bond is the epitome of assertiveness -on most occasions-.