‘Many think they have a kind heart who only have weak nerves.’
Marie Von Ebner-Eschenbach.
Have you at times felt that your needs have been ignored? Your opinions? Your feelings? Have you been treated shabbily by someone and not stood up for yourself? And felt sick inside as a result?
When we gain assertiveness skills, that changes. But first, let’s be clear: being assertive has nothing to do with being bossy or being aggressive. It doesn’t mean forcing our needs or opinions onto other people. Or insisting on our rights. Or winning an argument. Or being selfish. It doesn’t mean blurting any thought that comes to mind.
And, it’s not about creating conflict. It’s about dealing with conflict, and resolving it, while throughout the encounter both we and the other person feel respected. That’s important. Otherwise we are not being assertive, we are being a jerk.
‘Assertiveness is about being direct with people. And standing your ground.
It means expressing yourself to accurately represent your feelings, opinions
or preferences without putting down yourself or others in the process.’
If we avoid being assertive and make a doormat of ourselves, it could mean we are simply avoiding conflict, in which case we will develop an inner conflict. That is the last thing we want. No-one likes conflict, but if we have the capacity to deal with a situation by being assertive, problems get solved and we get over the discomfort.
Being assertive is an opportunity to clear the air and move ahead, and avoid feeling resentful afterwards.
‘. . . being forced to adopt a certain passive response out of a feeling of helplessness or incapacitation – that I wouldn’t call genuine humility. That might be a kind of meekness, but it isn’t genuine tolerance.’
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, from ‘The Art of Happiness’.
What is ‘being assertive’?
Imagine for a moment you are in a wild storm clinging to the mast of a yacht so that you are not washed overboard. To survive you need to concentrate on just one thing: holding onto that mast. That is your one intent. You don’t focus on the waves, or on your loved ones at home, or on your immediate future, you focus on clinging to the mast. If you can hold onto that mast for long enough you won’t succumb to the waves, you will get to see your loved ones again, and you will have a future.
That’s what it’s like when we are being assertive. A person might try to ‘throw us overboard’ with objections and arguments, or with bullying, but we don’t focus on what that other person is doing. Instead, we focus on holding tightly onto what needs to happen from now on. That’s the mast we cling to. That’s what being assertive is about: focusing on what needs to happen from now on. That’s when problems get solved. That’s when we build ourselves a competent, confident person.
Another way to explain it:
In a car there is a driver and a passenger. Although both reach their destination at the same time, only one was in control. In life it’s the same. We can get through life passively. Or, we can drive our life. By changing just a few words here and there, we get to be the driver. That’s what this section is about.
In compiling these keys, Manuel Smith’s book, ‘I Feel Guilty When I Say No’ was invaluable. Thank you, Manuel.
What are the benefits of being assertive?
Problems get solved, with less stress, and in a civilised manner.
We gain confidence because we get good at handling situations. We can express ourselves when the need arises, and each time we stick up for ourselves we feel a little more powerful, a little more resilient. As a result, anxiety evaporates.
‘Our unexpressed ideas, opinions, and contributions don’t just go away. They are likely to fester and eat away at our worthiness.’
Brené Brown, in her book, ‘Gifts of Imperfection’.
We trust ourselves more because the decisions we make are ours. They are not imposed upon us by someone else more adept at getting what they want than we are. Our decisions are based on everyone’s needs, not just theirs.
We can be ourselves. We don’t have to hide what we think or what we feel. That’s liberating!
We earn the respect of others because we make our requirements clear and in a courteous manner, and stand alone.
We are more valuable to others. We can express an opinion that goes against the majority’s view, or against the view of someone with higher rank. The ‘yes men’ in companies allow stupid decisions to be made in the boardroom because they lack the courage to say what’s wrong.
We become more easygoing because we choose our battles wisely. The confidence we have in ourselves allows us to drop trivialities.
We feel less resentment. Instead of holding in our thoughts and feelings, we can express them, so resentment doesn’t get a chance to take seed and grow.
Even when we lose an encounter we can accept it without bitterness, because we know we have honoured ourselves by trying. ‘Being assertive’ is a process, and if the process doesn’t succeed we can shrug and move on.
We increase our self-worth. Every time we stick up for ourselves we are giving ourselves the message: ‘I’m worth sticking up for.’ That’s a form of love that we can’t help letting in, because it’s from us.
At the time of the incident we might feel stressed. But if we act assertively often enough, over time that ‘I’m worthy’ message will sink in, and we will begin to feel it. We will reignite the flame of self-worth within us, and feel its warmth.
Our relationships improve. People know where they stand with us. Our directness earns their trust and our clarity earns their understanding. As a result we connect with them on a deeper level, and satisfy our deep need to belong.
Q. ‘Are there times when we don’t need to be assertive?’
(1) Avoid bringing up an issue with someone who is grumpy, busy or tired. (Unless they’re always grumpy, busy or tired.) While you wait for the right time, prepare.
(2) When you bring up an issue and the person says, ‘Not now’, comply with their request (unless you have a good reason not to). But ask the person, ‘When would be a good time to discuss the matter?’ Ensure they give a time, and ensure you both stick to it. That way, the person learns that fobbing you off won’t work.
(3) If you can let go of a minor injustice without building resentment, do so. Being assertive doesn’t mean getting your way all the time. Let go of trivial incidents if they won’t be repeated, or if you aren’t concerned with them.
(4) Some people aren’t aware of when they are being rude or inconsiderate, because they have different values, or different ways of seeing a situation. I have a friend who doesn’t see situations in the same way I do. She has fixed ideas about the roles men and women play in life, and I disagree with those ideas. If I were to assertively request that she treat me a certain way she would become confused, because our values are so different. I let her behaviour ‘slide’ and instead focus on why I might becomeg irritated with her behaviour.
(5) Sometimes we might choose to be aggressive rather than assertive. When I am speaking on my soapbox in Sydney’s Domain I often choose to be aggressive. It’s a conscious choice I make.
Q. ‘Why shouldn’t I always insist on my rights?’
In Western society we have heaps of rights, and if we get good at insisting on them we will get good at noticing when they are violated. That’s not good for us because most of the time it won’t matter a rose petal. On the occasional time it does matter then yes, object.
‘If I get good at insisting on my rights I’ll be prepared for when it does matter.’
If you regularly insist on your rights you may come to see life as a constant battle. That’s not good for you. Besides, just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean it’s right to do it.
Q. ‘If I assert myself others will be angry with me, or be upset.’
Being assertive means being fair and respectful of yourself and others, so it’s unlikely the other person will become angry. More likely, they will see that you are being fair and reasonable, and respond accordingly.
Your friends and family might be a touch nonplussed to begin with. They’ll get used to it and appreciate it.
If the other person does respond with anger, remember that some people purposely become angry to get their way. Unless the person could become violent, be assertive. Cling to your mast. Consider using the situation as practise for becoming adept at handling awkward situations. If you can remain fair and reasonable, and unfazed in the face of the other person’s anger, you will significantly add to your inner authority.
But see what happens. If you are adept at being assertive there is a good chance you will be pleasantly surprised with the response. Most people appreciate straightforwardness. They like clear and respectful statements.
Q. ‘I’m a woman concerned that if I become assertive I will be seen as a cold, castrating bitch.’
Being assertive does not mean being cold, stern or bossy. It does not mean being unfriendly, distant or unapproachable. It means being direct, fair and respectful. It means being concerned for both parties’ rights and feelings. Those are qualities which encourage trust. Those are qualities that enrich relationships. There is nothing cold and castrating about assertiveness.
If you are seen that way it’s because the other person has purposely chosen to see you that way. Don’t nobble yourself to keep them feeling comfortable.
Q. ‘Mark, why do some of us lack assertiveness skills?’
Some of us grow up with the message that it is imperative to be polite, and to not ‘rock the boat’. And some of us gain the belief that we are responsible for other people’s happiness, that if we say something that makes a person unhappy it means we have been inconsiderate. As a consequence, we can grow up being so careful about protecting other people’s feelings that we ignore our own.
Q. ‘How effective are assertiveness skills?’
They’re effective! In a university experiment a man dressed in a white laboratory coat pretending to be a scientist persuaded hundreds of people to become would-be torturers and killers, and he did that just by being assertive. (The Stanley Milgram experiment.) If a man dressed in a lab coat can persuade people to kill and torture, simply by being assertive, it’s effective.
You, of course, will be using your newfound skills for good, not evil.
‘You said assertiveness is about being respectful. Killing and torturing are not respectful!’
The encounter between the ‘scientist’ and the subject was respectful, and that respect was persuasive.