Jonathan Hooker

Becoming More Assertive


I have run numerous courses containing elements of assertiveness and even some courses specializing on it and there is an inherent obstacle to success which I will explain and which must be overcome for those wishing to progress to be able to do that.

Firstly, if you are reading this wanting to be more assertive, welcome to a fairly large club. In my years spent delivering management training it was common to ask a group of managers to raise their hand if they wanted to work on assertiveness and find the whole group with their hands up. It seems that almost everyone you ask would like to be more assertive to some degree. Why is this? Probably because most people spent a great proportion of their lives saying “Yes” to requests they really want to say “No” to, or putting up with situations and behaviours they would rather not put up with, and they feel that if they were just a little more assertive this would stop. So why aren’t they just a little more assertive? It seems like a big pay-off to go after, and yet we don’t.

Several years ago I was working with a group of relatively senior managers in a very large service organization in the UK. So it was a group of people who, in addition to their field of expertise, had good people skills, by which I mean they were confident in giving presentations, and were experienced in facilitating groups and individuals. Their role however was to introduce a very high profile methodology to very senior managers and it was perhaps not surprising that they asked for some help with influencing these very senior people by developing their ability to be assertive. I ran only a general introduction and overview for them to start with as most of them had done some work on assertiveness before. I gave them a list of behaviours and asked them to classify them as either aggressive or passive behaviours and then went through the definitions I had of aggressive, assertive and passive behaviour. (If you have done the earlier work on assertiveness on this website, then you will have done similar pieces of work). Then I gave them a longer list with different behaviours and asked them to classify those. We then went through them to check and confirm their understanding. At this point they were very clear about these different types of behaviour. Next they worked on their own to list the situations they had encountered and were likely to encounter in the future in which they wished to be more assertive. Then they worked in pairs to develop strategies for each of their situations.

We had a brief tea break after which I asked them how the course was going. They said it was okay. I clarified that only okay meant that it had not really helped them that much, up to then. They agreed. I suggested that this was either because they already knew what they needed to know about assertiveness, or because the course had not touched them up to that point. They all agreed it was because the course had not touched them up to then. I asked them if they wanted it to touch them. They all agreed instantly that they did. So I reminded them that as a team they had been working together for several months now, and that they had been doing different tasks as a group, as individuals, and in pairs or sub-groups. I asked them to spend some time thinking back over that period of time, and to identify instances when they had not held out for they wanted, or felt put upon, and times when they had agreed to things they had not really wanted to do. The aim of doing this I explained, was they were going to sit down in those groups and pairs again, and explain to the other(s) what had happened, and how they would like it to have been different.

Immediately there were objections and a stream of reasons why they could and should not do this. This may sound amusing but there is the rub. Most of us who want to be more assertive, are not, because at the same time we do not want to be. This means that often we do not change and become more assertive because there is a part of us that does not want to be, and it is stronger than the part of us that does. We need to understand this inner conflict if we want to make progress with assertiveness. 

Many people have quoted or misquoted that which I am going to write next which is sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein. He reputedly said “It is the definition of insanity to carry on doing the same thing and expect a different result”. The point for us being, that to change our lives, we need to change the way we live our lives. We need to change the way we behave. So why is that so difficult to do? Well partly it is a question of habit. When we have established a way of behaving or doing something it is always going to take time to change, and in that sense it is not helpful to beat yourself up the first time you see yourself repeating an old behaviour you wish to change. Instead try patting yourself on the back for noticing that it is the behaviour you have decided to change. Soon you will start to notice sooner and sooner after the event until you begin to see yourself during the behaviour and then early enough to change it, and finally you will start reacting differently. Remember the first step to any change is to notice that a behaviour or response that you have, is not working for you, and you understand that you would like to change it. That is all you have to do – just notice it. Then you will begin to see it earlier and earlier.

So habit is partly the reason why change is difficult but there is something else. It is important to recognize that all human behaviour is motivated. None of us do anything without a reason. Every single action we take, we take for a reason. Not always the same reason, but we do everything for some reason. So why do we not assert ourselves when we are with others? This is probably because we learnt not to. In our early lives we learnt probably, either at home or at school, that the secret to getting on with someone who was important in our lives was to do what they wanted even if we did not want to. Childhood is like that. We are born programmed to survive, and adapt our behaviour to ensure that we do. So as children often we are not assertive because we learn not to be. Being a teenager can be tricky because that is the time when we begin to become internally referenced and motivated by what works for us as an individual. Yet there are established family dynamics and school rules which are seldom flexible. Also to change our behaviour requires us to do something new and so we tend to be clumsy like anyone trying something new. So arguments with parents can be heated when words come out the wrong way. Also we believe that the family dynamics are sacred and challenging them is likely to be a huge issue, and that may be the case and it may not be, but it does not feel comfortable to sit down with your parents and say “Some of the things we do around here are no longer working for me and I would like to have a discussion about making some changes to the way we organise and do things”. At this point you may need to take a deep breath to get through the initial responses which may be intended to be humorous. It may be appropriate to say “I am not suggesting the house runs the way I want, but I would like to have a sensible discussion about the things I do not like in the hope that we can agree to change at least some of them. As a parent my responses are not always well received by my children and I am as capable as the next parent of responding unintentionally in a hurtful or inappropriate way. We parents simply do our best to cope. So you may well have to leave it there and ask when it would be a good time to sit down and talk seriously about things.

Many of us have made into adulthood without the benefit of such conversations. So as teenagers we did not feel able to begin to assert ourselves, and we may well be left with very strong fears that if we are more assertive we will change, disrupt or even destroy relationships with our partner and friends which we have formed while behaving passively. So the motivation that stops us becoming more assertive, the part of us that is stronger, and continues to overpower our wish to be assertive is our fear of upsetting our relationships and losing our friends. This fear is part of our fundamental set of beliefs or values which governs and drives all of our behaviours.

This is the perspective or context I was writing about at the beginning of this section and is the reason why many people buy and read books on assertiveness and get little or no value from doing so. So does this mean I believe these books to be a waste of time? No, it does not, but I think they need to be used carefully and in a very precise way.

A friend of mine, who I would regard as someone who is more direct than most, was lamenting in the pub one night, that his boss had booked him on an assertiveness course. “I don’t have any trouble getting what I want”. He grumbled. A week later we met up again and I asked what he had learnt on the course. His reply was characteristic of him. Strong, but tainted by his open-mindedness, and his strong ability to integrate useful information. He replied “It is always worth telling people how you feel, before you go nuclear”. In other words if something is really important to you, it is always worth telling people the impact on you and how you feel about it. They may listen and be sympathetic and they may not, so he hadn’t thrown out the option of ‘an all-out strike’. So perhaps his boss wanted to protect his co-workers, and give him a way of asking for what he wanted without trampling on everyone else. His course had shown him the benefits of doing something different. So how does this help us?

Well my reservation about reading books on assertiveness come from the fact that given our behaviour stems from our core beliefs reading a book is unlikely to help. However in my work on cultural change in organizations I used a two pronged approach. One was based on the understanding that behaviours stem from values therefore to change the behaviour in an organization you have to change the culture by changing the values. When the values are seen to have changed people’s behaviour will change. The corporate values are like our personal belief system, when we change that our behaviours will change. Like I said above if we have established that a behaviour we have does not work we believe it to be counter-productive and just by noticing this we will start to change our behaviour. However changing our personal belief system sufficiently to allow us to become more assertive would require us to identify all the beliefs we have which drive our lack of assertiveness and this could take a very long time and a lot of work. So the second prong is to identify a small action or change of language we could introduce, and which we are comfortable using (with our current set of unchanged values). The idea of this is that by using one small behaviour change we will nevertheless achieve a different result, (i.e. one more aligned to our desired outcome). By doing this we show ourselves that the new behaviour is successful for us and does not have any undesirable side- effects. This allows us to change our core beliefs which to that point have told us that behaving this way was dangerous or would threaten our existing relationships.

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