Let’s begin with what it means to be assertive. Not to be allied with aggression, being assertive means communicating your thoughts, feelings and opinions in a direct and honest manner, while being respectful of others. It can be described as the middle-ground between passive and aggressive and it is an invaluable asset. It involves an understanding of your own feelings, wants and notably, rights, which makes assertiveness so much more than simply standing up for yourself. It involves a sense of self-respect, self-worth and self-confidence, all of which ensures the respect of others. “Being assertive increases your chances of having honest relationships. It helps you feel better about yourself and your self-control in everyday situations. This improves your decision-making abilities, and possibly your chances of getting what you really want from life,” says Psychologist, Claire Newton.
Modern day pressures have a way of crushing confidence and landing assertiveness on shaky ground. For example, you may not have the confidence to express your opinion in the workplace if your company is in the midst of retrenching staff. It is equally difficult to say ‘no’ to friends who are stressed, even if it goes against your grain or means over-extending yourself. What’s more, women tend to struggle with assertiveness more than men. Nurturing natures often put the needs of others first, and surrender themselves for the sake of harmony.
How to be more assertive
There are several ways to master this crucial life skill. Firstly, identify and rectify limiting behaviours like fidgeting, poor posture, constantly agreeing with others and looking down instead of making eye contact. Apologising unnecessarily is another limiting behaviour. Fraser Carey of Life by Choice, a personal coach and business mentor with over 30 years self-help and motivational experience, feels that assertiveness is about attitude and not being imperious. He warns against being overbearing, as others will resent it, making it a cause for argument. “The essence of it is that by being polite and gracious, others will want to agree with you and do your bidding,” says Fraser.
Similarly, keep a calm, firm tone of voice and allow others to finish speaking before you respond. Use statements like ‘I feel’ or ‘I think’ or “I understand, but disagree because…’ in order to keep the focus on respectful communication not righteousness.
When expressing your opinion, it is useful to convey the consequences of various scenarios. Very often, people assume an opinion because they have no alternatives. By offering alternatives, preferably where both party’s needs are met, mutual understanding and agreement becomes likely.
Lisa Huang, toastmaster and founder of Food and Chaatter, an organisation bringing communities together through food-themed experiences, says that when faced with difficult situations, you should come from a place of empathy and mutual respect. “We often act defensively when we feel that our opinions are not heard. Hold steady eye-contact and listen to what others have to say before jumping to conclusions and offering solutions.” Lisa shares the valuable lessons she’s learnt about assertiveness in the workplace. “I realised the importance of being assertive when I developed a desire to advance in the company I was working for in Chicago, USA. So, I began to look for an opportunity to relocate to one of our international offices to explore a new culture,” says Lisa. She began to reach out to senior managers for mentorship and scheduled coffee hours to hear their advice. “I also began to organise ‘lunch tables’ for colleagues across departments, providing an informal space for me to explore various teams, while figuring out what I enjoyed most about my work.” Lisa’s assertive efforts paid off. A year later opportunity came knocking at her door when the company opened offices in Cape Town and she was promoted to Head of Data Operations for the first office in Africa!
Assertive responses to everyday scenarios
Our experts offer the following advice:
Situation One: Someone rudely cuts in front of you in the grocery queue:
How to react assertively: “Excuse me Sir/Madam, I do believe you haven’t noticed that there is a queue, and while I may not mind offering you a place in front of me, it will be unfair to those waiting behind me,” says Fraser.
Situation Two: Your boss asks you to do something you don’t agree with:
How to react assertively: “This would depend on whether it offends my core values i.e. if it is unethical or dishonest, in which case I would appeal to his/her nobler motives in the following way: ‘Sir, I am sure that you would never wish to do anything that is unethical or dishonest, let alone ask me to do it, but have you thought of the following alternatives…’ If it does not offend my core values, I would suggest something like: ‘Sir/Madam, would it be possible to explore the following alternative as I am unable to agree with your line of thinking,’ says Fraser.
Situation Three: How to handle a teenager throwing a tantrum:
How to react assertively: “Don’t jump to harsh words or punishment immediately. Pause, listen and ask questions like: ‘What is bothering you or tell me more about what happened at school today?’ A tip is to ask three to five ‘why’s’ before responding to a situation, through which you will understand others’ perspectives more readily,” says Lisa.
Situation Four: You want to decline a request:
How to react assertively: “Acknowledge the other person’s request e.g. ‘I realise you need assistance, unfortunately I cannot help out this time.’ You may give a brief reason for declining (optional) and if possible, suggest an alternative,” says Claire.
Situation Five: How to tell someone how you feel about something
How to communicate your feelings assertively: “Assertiveness involves saying how you feel, linking this to what is bringing up the feeling, and then saying directly what changes you would like. A simple formula to assist with this is: I feel …(state feeling)… when you… (describe their undesirable behaviour). Please will you…(make your request regarding what changes you would like),” says Claire.
The body language effect
We naturally make judgements based upon body language, which in turn influence the decisions we make. For example, in the workplace it could determine whom we employ or whether or not we get employed, while in our private lives it could determine whom we befriend or date. Amy Cuddy, an American social psychologist and Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, is known for her published research on the psychology of non-verbal communication, revealing how non-verbal expressions of power or ‘power poses’ i.e. space occupying postures like standing legs astride with hands on hips, shapes feelings, behaviours and hormone levels. Adopting these powerful postures, for as little as two minutes, makes a person feel empowered and increases testosterone levels and decreases cortisol levels, key hormones to feeling powerful. Amy advocates practicing power poses until you internalise, live and become the person you want to be. “Don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it!” says Amy.
1. Stop limiting behaviours like fidgeting, looking down and closed body posture.
2. Communicate clearly and directly, without being forceful or manipulative. Be aware of the pitch of your voice – don’t let it rise and don’t shout.
3. Be aware of your basic rights, needs and wants.
4. Stay calm and respectful of other people’s needs and opinions, while still being true to your own.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want or need, while accepting the possibility of rejection.
6. Stand your ground and do not let others bully you. It is okay to say ‘no’ to something you do not want to do.
Sources: Claire Newton; Amy Cuddy; Fraser Carey; Lisa Huang