Understanding assertiveness

What is assertiveness?

At its simplest, assertiveness is a human quality which means being self-assured and confident about yourself. The ability to assert oneself does not necessarily imply being domineering in any way. In fact, many people agree that assertiveness is a form of confident self-expression without being aggressive. Although it is tied up with a number of human behaviours, including body language, assertiveness is often most associated with the ability to communicate clearly and precisely without caveats or doubts. As such, it is often linked to other areas of self-confidence, such as the esteem people hold themselves in. In short, more assertive people tend to be more confident, better grounded and have a good level of self-esteem. Various self-help books are available to assist people who want to become more assertive.

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What is assertiveness in psychology? 

According to nearly every psychologist and psychotherapist, being assertive is a human trait – a kind of human characteristic - that can be learned. In other words, as opposed to an innate behaviour – like breathing, for example - assertiveness is acquired just like any other skill. As such, being assertive is often seen as something that mirrors the ability to communicate well. To put it another way, when unassertive people are taught techniques for expressing themselves more clearly and with greater confidence, they will start to be able to assert themselves among others better. Psychologists tend to see unassertive people as those who have often suffered setbacks in their self-confidence, which, once rebuilt by undergoing certain psychological therapies, means they can become more assertive down the line.

Can assertiveness be bad?

When answering the question of whether being assertive is good or bad, most people would say yes and no. For example, few people would have a problem with others behaving in a self-confident, assertive manner when they interact with them. However, some of the communication skills and techniques used in being more assertive - for example, repeating the same thing again and again - can turn certain individuals off. Indeed, when being assertive goes too far, it is often seen as being pig-headed or even overbearing. For instance, arrogant people are often seen as being too assertive or domineering in their behaviour – a bad thing in most people's eyes. This is when being assertive is no longer a sign of confidence but someone overplaying their hand and revealing a lack of confidence that, perhaps, they are trying to cover up. As such, there is a balance to be had between being too assertive and not assertive enough.

What is meant by assertiveness training?

The question of assertiveness training tends to come into play when people feel they are not asserting themselves well enough and want to improve. Sometimes people do it to help themselves at work, but it can be something people want for their daily lives and interactions with all other people. Helpfully, people who feel they are not assertive enough can train themselves by using several self-help techniques. Of course, these are sometimes taught in formal training sessions by instructors, too. Victims of crime can find that formal training in how to be more assertive will sometimes be offered to help them recover, for example. Some of the techniques involved include ideas like 'fogging', which means being able to find common ground with another person who is asserting themselves but maintaining the ability to disagree in parts.

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How can you develop greater assertiveness?

As previously mentioned, becoming more assertive is a skill that can be learned with self-care or self-help, but it usually means building on the use of the skill incrementally. For most people who have suffered a blow to their self-confidence, they cannot simply turn it back on. Any techniques that build self-confidence are useful, such as being able to speak up in front of others in a non-judgemental environment. Finding new ways of expressing emotions can also help. Sometimes all the motivation that people need to do so is the idea that improving their communication skills will allow them to lead a fuller life. Finally, a sound understanding of one's legal rights in any situation is beneficial for greater assertiveness since it means people feel greater courage and are less likely to back down when challenged about what they are doing.

Is assertiveness the same as confidence?

No, it isn't. Although being confident can help you to be more assertive, it is important to understand that these are two distinct things. When you are confident, it will often mean you feel the inner courage to express what you think and how you feel. If you do so clearly with good communication skills, then this would be being assertive. However, you might also be confident about something but not have the learning to express yourself clearly. This would often be viewed as being unassertive even if you are trying to assert yourself in a given situation. That said, most people have enough empathy to understand that someone is trying to assert themselves and have the confidence to try even if their communication skills let them down somewhat. This skill is sometimes referred to as EQ emotional intelligence. However, the ability of some to interpret confidence correctly as an attempt to be assertive does not mean the two things are the same.

What is assertiveness theory?

In psychology, theories connected to how assertive – or otherwise – people are usually come down to cognitive approaches. As such, it is probably better to refer to them as cognitive theories, things that are associated with learning, skills and knowledge acquisition. Most counsellors and psychologists agree that being assertive is in the middle of a cognitive model connected to interpersonal communication. In such a theoretical model, being a poor communicator means being passive and unassertive. On the other hand, always taking the lead, lacking empathy and being domineering can be interpreted in cognitive models as being aggressive or over-assertive. In such a theory, being assertive strikes a happy balance between the two extremes. Most counselling using such a theory aims to help people identify how they can strike such a balance in their behaviour.

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What is assertive communication?

When understanding what assertive communication is, it should first be pointed out that this can involve any type of communication, not just verbal forms. In other words, assertiveness can be communicated through body language, in written communication and through more abstract means of communication, such as art. For most people, however, assertive communication comes down to the things we say. This will usually mean being confident enough to express all of our thoughts – both positive ones and negative ones – in an honest manner. This is really about being open and expecting others to respond rationally, even when criticisms are involved. Most people agree that NVC non-violent communication is also important when being assertive because it means not overstepping the boundaries and being too assertive. In most cases, people simply interpret over-assertiveness as being aggressive, something that is just as much of a problem as being under-assertive.

Can you be too assertive?

Yes, the simple answer to the question of whether you can be too assertive is that you can. As previously mentioned, over-assertiveness usually occurs when someone thinks their opinion is all that counts or they use domineering body language to get their way. Overly assertive people will often believe that they are getting the results they want, so sometimes they do not see a problem with this kind of behaviour. However, it can lead to long-term damaging outcomes. People don't like being dominated, generally speaking. It can lead to a loss of morale and a breakdown in teamwork and cooperation. In the worst cases, it can also lead to poor mental health outcomes among those who experience the behaviour of an overly assertive individual. Assertiveness training can be just as beneficial for over-assertive people as it can be for unassertive people who want to assert themselves better.

Is assertiveness part of self-help?

Self-help and self-care take many different forms. One way that people use self-help training or courses is to improve their assertiveness. So, in that sense, it is a part of the wider self-help world. Some counsellors see the idea of becoming more assertive as an act of self-care. This is usually the case when someone is unassertive in their daily life, and this leads to them missing out on opportunities to make friends, to develop their career or even to hold down a long-term relationship. In short, being more assertive can help with all of these things and more besides! Most self-help measures deal with self-confidence issues. They tend to focus on the responsibility people have for themselves to better articulate and prioritise the things they want from life. They often also centre on the ability to say 'no' to specific requests and to stick by one's decisions.

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Which are the self-assertiveness techniques?

As mentioned above, self-assertiveness techniques take many forms. One is to develop a better way of saying 'no' to situations or tasks we'd rather avoid. Others deal with how to focus on your priorities rather than other people's. Some self-assertiveness techniques are simply down to communication, such as looking someone in the eye when you are talking to them or being firm, but not overly firm, when shaking someone's hand. It could also mean changing your language so that phraseology is more confident and clear cut rather than qualifying every statement with mitigation. Another key part of assertiveness training you can do for yourself involves acceptance. Assertive people try to get what they want but accept they will not always get it. Being able to come to terms with the consequences of being assertive is a big part of what assertiveness is all about.

Where can assertiveness be used?

Being more assertive means being able to conduct every human interaction you have better. This means within your own family, with your partner and friends, and people you bump into in public situations. It is in the workplace, however, where assertive behaviour tends to come into its own. It can help when dealing with colleagues and your boss, for example. In addition, it can help you to get the best out of other people you might interact with at work, such as suppliers. Assertive people are generally better at dealing with customers, too, since they will have the self-confidence to handle complaints and to help resolve them. In fact, being assertive is a big part of conflict resolution, whether it is conducted informally or in a court of law. It is a skill that can help people to escape endless cycles of negativity and to seek a compromise solution for all the parties involved.

What is the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness?

The question of the difference between being assertive and being aggressive can be answered by simply stating that aggression results when assertive behaviour has gone too far. Most counsellors and psychological professionals agree that being assertive is a happy medium between aggression and timidity. In other words, when you assert yourself so fully that you don't have sufficient empathy to think about the needs of others and when you use your ability to communicate to drown out everyone else, then you are being aggressive. Emphatically, aggression does not need to involve violent conduct – although it can do, of course. Being assertive will mean getting your point of view across fairly, allowing for a response to be made and never stepping into the realm of potential or actual bullying.

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Assertiveness in summary

In the end, being assertive is really about adopting a mindset that can help you to act in a confident way with others without becoming aggressive, rude or pig-headed. Most psychologists, therefore, consider it to be a skill that you can learn and get better at over time. In other words, it is not an innate trait that we might possess. Although some characteristics, such as shyness, can make being assertive harder for some people, various training and self-help techniques can help people to overcome their natural timidity and get better at asserting themselves. There are a number of shared characteristics that assertive people will have. Typically, these include the ability to refrain from aggression, the capacity to express themselves openly and without fear and the ability to maintain good self-esteem. Assertive people tend to be comfortable with others, know their rights and responsibilities in equal measure and often have a good level of empathy, too.

Some people use a technique called negative enquiry to help them be more assertive. This is used, most usually, in response to criticism. With the method, the criticised person asserts themselves by asking the critic to be more specific in their criticism. An assertive person who is told they are lazy, for instance, might ask when they have been so or under what circumstances. Another technique is the so-called negative assertion. This, too, aims to deal with criticism. When an assertive person uses this method, they will essentially agree with the criticism but carry on anyway. This might mean accepting the truthful part of the criticism. It is often done with good humour, something that often helps to resolve awkward or conflictual situations.

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