Good relationships undoubtedly have a positive impact on our mental and physical health (1). Yet we face many challenges in relationships, including how to balance our own needs and preferences with those of others. In other words, how do we accommodate and compromise with our friends, partners, family members, coworkers, etc. without putting aside our own needs? And how do we take care of our own needs without being a jerk to others? One extremely useful tool that will help us cultivate respectful and mutually fulfilling relationships is assertiveness! Assertiveness will help you respect yourself, respect others, and have better relationships!
What is assertiveness?
Assertiveness starts from the basic premise that you are a person worthy of respect, and you have the right to a good life. If you have trouble being assertive, it may be a sign that you have low self-esteem, lack self-compassion, or struggle with social anxiety. For tips on improving your feelings of self-worth, check out my blog posts on the self-critical voice and my colleague Andrea’s blog post on Why Self-Compassion?
Assertiveness is a communication style that respects our own needs and preferences and balances them with the needs and preferences of others. It’s expressing our thoughts and feelings in a direct and respectful manner. It is not just about the words we use, but our tone and body language also help us communicate in an assertive manner.
If we’re not being assertive, we’re likely communicating in a non-assertive fashion (2) such as:
Passive: Putting others’ needs and preferences before our own.
Aggressive: Violating others’ rights and putting our own needs first.
Passive-aggressive: Acting aggressively but in an indirect way (e.g., slamming the door loudly, expressing hostility with backhanded comments).
Why Be Assertive?
1. Assertiveness is part of healthy self-esteem.
Research shows that self-esteem is correlated with assertiveness (3), and assertiveness training improves self-esteem (4). This makes sense because when being assertive, we are sticking up for ourselves, giving our needs and desires a voice. Just like if we were to stick up for a friend, by sticking up for ourselves we show our own self that we're worthy and valued. So “be your own friend” and make your voice heard! Even if it doesn’t “work”, in the sense that you don’t get what you want, you’ll likely feel better knowing that you stuck up for yourself.
2. Assertiveness is good for our psychological well-being.
If we are often putting our needs and preferences second, accommodating others first, and not openly expressing our thoughts and feelings, we may end up feeling anxious about relationships, we may feel depressed and disconnected from others, and we may get resentful. Not fun!
3. Assertiveness is good for our relationships
Authenticity and feeling understood are key ingredients to strong connections and fulfilling relationships (5), and assertiveness gives us an effective way for our authentic selves to be heard and understood. If we are not assertive and don’t voice our needs and opinions, people close to us may feel like they really don’t know us, and they may wonder and worry about whether our words and actions represent our true interests and needs. If we’re assertive people are more likely to feel like they can trust us to take care of our own needs vs. having to guess what we want.
If we’re aggressive, on the other hand, people will lose respect for us and we may eventually lose friends and develop low self-esteem.
Obstacles for Assertiveness
1. Unhelpful Beliefs about Assertiveness.
Myth: Assertiveness is the same thing as aggression.
We may falsely believe that assertiveness is basically the same thing as aggression. If we’re not used to being assertive, assertiveness may feel like aggression. If this is the case for you, it’s helpful to remember the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness. When we’re being assertive, we’re not only taking care of our own needs, but we’re being respectful of others. When we’re being aggressive, we are focusing solely on our own needs and disrespecting others.
Myth: It’s always more helpful and polite to put others’ preferences first.
We may believe that putting others’ needs and preferences first is the polite and helpful thing to do. We may have learned this belief growing up, from our parents or from other influences. In fact, being assertive can be helpful to others. When we’re assertive, others are more likely to feel like they know and understand us, and can trust us to take care of ourselves and our own boundaries (vs. feeling like they have to guess what we really want).
Myth: An assertive person has to be assertive in every situation.
Assertiveness is a helpful way of communicating in many situations, but there are always exceptions. For example, you’re riding the subway and a stranger begins making aggressive comments toward you. In situations like this, your personal safety is top priority and it would be wise to exit the situation as passively as possible or ask someone for help, rather than confronting the aggressive individual. Or, perhaps you have a boss who is consistently verbally abusive. Ideally you’d be able to quit your job, but in the meantime you might try “picking your battles”, especially if your assertiveness is often met with hostility. Don’t give up too easily on assertiveness though; sometimes it takes many tries before people respond constructively (or at least not destructively) to our assertive behaviour.
Myth: If you’re assertive you will get what you want.
It would be great if being assertive worked every time. Unfortunately, we cannot control other’s behaviour, so even if we are perfectly assertive, we may not get what we want. There are still many benefits to being assertive though even if we don’t get what we want, such as protecting our self-esteem by allowing our needs and preferences to be heard (2).
See Assert Yourself! Module 1: What is Assertiveness? for more!
Anxiety exists to protect us, but sometimes it’s overly protective and our anxiety alarm starts going off when it doesn’t need to. In situations where we want to be assertive, our anxiety system may be telling us, “Don’t do it, you’ll make a fool out of yourself; you’ll damage your friendship; something bad will happen”, etc. Anxiety gets us to focus on the worst-case scenario while at the same time underestimating our ability to cope with difficult situations. Fortunately, there are plenty of effective ways to manage anxiety. Check out my blog post on anxiety for some tips. And try this simple yet helpful anxiety-reducing breathing hack.
3. Skills deficit.
Assertiveness is a skill and like any other skill it takes practice. I’ve listed some assertiveness tips below. In addition, try to find an assertive role model in your social network, and ask them what their approach to assertiveness is. You might even take a class on communication, debating, or even improv! Try practicing out loud at home alone, or with a friend or a therapist. Remember to pay attention to your tone and posture.
4. Cultural and Generational Influences.
Western society tends to be more individualistic, meaning people are more likely to be motivated by their own needs and preferences, and prioritize them over the needs and preferences of the group. Other cultures value interdependence and relatedness more than individualism, and tend to view themselves as part of a whole, and are more motivated by norms imposed by the group and maintaining harmony (6). If you are living in a culture that values collectivism over individualism, you may want to weigh the pros and cons of living by these cultural values vs. being assertive.
Similarly, different generations, often older, may have been taught to defer to authority more, and women are more likely to have been taught that it is aggressive for a woman to firmly and directly state her needs and opinions.
How to Be More Assertive
1. Think more assertively and accept differences. Be honest with yourself. Check in with yourself and ask yourself, “What do I really want here?” “What is my own true opinion?” Being assertive means accepting that your opinion might be significantly different from those you care about, and accepting that in certain situations you are not willing to put your needs aside (7).
2. Practice non-verbal assertive behaviour
Use direct eye contact but avoid staring
Take an erect, open body stance
Practice receptive listening. Check out this wonderfully helpful video on being a good listener: Are You A Good Listener?
Allow your facial expressions to represent how you feel (e.g., smile when content; frown when frustrated or angry)
Use a firm, relaxed voice; not overly loud or quiet.
3. Clearly express your wants, beliefs, opinions, feelings, etc. using “I” statements. Be specific, direct, and genuine.
“I want to discuss our vacation plans this evening.”
“I need to leave the house by 7am for an important appointment.”
4. Be empathic. When in a situation in which the person’s needs, preferences, etc. conflict with your own, be empathic, thereby communicating you are sensitive to their position and are trying to take their perspective.
“I understand it’s difficult for you to discuss these issues, but I believe it’s important we have this discussion so we can come up with possible solutions.”
"I can see that it’s a really busy time for you, however it would be helpful if you did your share of the household chores.”
5. Communicate negative feelings calmly. When we’re feeling hurt by or anger toward another person, it can be very difficult to communicate our negative feelings in a controlled manner. The goal is to communicate the undesirable effect of the other person’s behaviour is having on you in as calm of a tone as possible. You might want to practice this out loud on your own first.
“I find you often cut me off when we’re having a conversation, and I find myself feeling frustrated and not connected to you. I would really appreciate it if you gave me the space to finish my thought before cutting me off. I will try to let you know when it's happening in the moment.”
6. Be a Broken Record. If you have a great deal of difficulty being assertive, or are perhaps feeling really nervous and are having to express your negative feelings to someone who is particularly quick on their feet, you might try the broken record technique. This is simply repeating your assertive phrase over and over in a calm, controlled manner. This is helpful when the conversation is getting off topic, when the person you’re having the discussion with might be pressuring you or inappropriately causing you to question your needs, preference, feelings, etc.
Sandra: "I think we should go to the party tonight."
Johanna: "I can’t go to the party; I have to work in the morning."
Sandra: "It’s going to be really fun – let’s go! We’re only young once."
Johanna: "I have to work tomorrow. I’m not going to the party."
Sandra: "I thought you didn’t care that much about your work? I think this party should take priority."
Johanna: "I’m choosing to prioritize work and I won’t be going to the party tonight."
7. Use phrases that facilitate connection with the other person.
Co-operative phrases, e.g., “What are your thoughts on this?”; “How does that sound to you?”
Avoid “should” and “oughts” e.g., “How about…”.
Seek others’ opinions, e.g., “How does this fit in with your ideas?”
Explore other solutions together, e.g., “How can we get around this problem?”
8. Distinguish between fact and opinion.
“My experience is different than yours.” (FACT)
“You were 1 hour late today. I felt angry.” (FACT) vs. “Your lateness is a sign you don’t respect me.” (OPINION)
Assertiveness is the "super-food" of communication. It helps us feel more authentic, it aids our self-esteem, it allows us to connect more deeply with others, and it helps others know our boundaries, among other things. So if you’re struggling with assertiveness, I hope you’re able to give some of these tips a try and experience how assertiveness can help you.
*Please note that much of this info is taken from the Assert Yourself! modules from the Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI) website. Thanks CCI for your awesome resources!
Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.
1) Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., & Thisted, R. A. (2010). Perceived social isolation makes me sad: Five-year cross-lagged analyses of loneliness and depressive symptomatology in the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study. Psychology and Aging, 25, 453– 463.
2) Assert Yourself! Module 1: What is Assertiveness? Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI). http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/Assertmodule%201.pdf
3) Sarkova, M., Bacikova‐Sleskova, M., Orosova, O., Madarasova Geckova, A., Katreniakova, Z., Klein, D., ... & Dijk, J. P. (2013). Associations between assertiveness, psychological well‐being, and self‐esteem in adolescents. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(1), 147-154.
4) Stake, J. E., DeVille, C. J., & Pennell, C. L. (1983). The effects of assertive training on the performance self-esteem of adolescent girls. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 12(5), 435-442.
5) Reis, H. T., & Shaver, P. (1988). Intimacy as an interpersonal process. In S. Duck (Ed.), Handbook of personal relationships (pp. 367- 389). Chichester, England: Wiley.
6) Triandis, H. C. (1995). Individualism & collectivism. Westview press.
7) Assert Yourself! Module 4: How To Behave More Assertively. Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI). http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/Assertmodule%204.pdf