Jonathan Hooker

An Introduction To Assertiveness


When talking to people about developing their personal and interpersonal skills, the one area that consistently comes top of most people’s wish list is to be more assertive. Most usually this is because we spend too much time saying; “yes” in response to requests from other people, when we would rather say; “no”. Also sometimes we find ourselves ‘putting up’ with situations caused by others or with their behaviour. So why do we do this?

There is not one simple answer to this, however it is important to understand that all human behaviour is motivated, i.e. we do not do anything by chance or accident. Everything we do, we do because we believe it is in our best interest. So if we say “yes” to requests from others when we would rather say “no”, it is because we believe we should, or are obliged to, or something unfortunate might happen if we do say ‘no”. So what might happen? They may argue with us, or decide they don’t like us for a while, or they may be angry, or they may not say “yes” when we next make a request of them. All these are quite possible responses. Often, however, our catastrophic fantasies about losing friends forever over one declined request, tend to be some way off the mark.

Also, we often agree to do things for people out of habit and because we do not know a polite way to say “no”. It is important to note here before going on that I am not suggesting that we withdraw our cooperation from those around us. Most of us live and work in groups and it is cooperation, and the general ‘give and take’, that make these groups function effectively. However if we find ourselves in a situation where we feel there is too much ‘give’ from us, and too much ‘take’ from others, then it may be time to gently restore the balance.

Why does the balance need restoring? We tend to develop our personalities in childhood, and certainly in my childhood, no one encouraged me to be more assertive. On the contrary, as a child, in common with most of my peers, I had little say in the decision making processes in the home, but I did do tasks that I was told to do. In this sense there was no negotiation and little choice. This became my habit. By acquiescing, this is how I fitted-in with my family and earned the nurturing I required to survive. Most of us do this. By learning to fit into the family, I learned a role and a manner, or way of being, which reflected my social status and place in this social unit. It is because of the above lack of input to decisions that my role was to fit in and get on with my tasks irrespective of how I felt about them. It was not my place to question the decision makers. As young adults going out into the world we do not realize that the world does not require us to be like this. We believe that we have to fit in and accept decisions passed to us.

Often it is true of families that we experience passive and aggressive behaviour whilst growing up, but not often assertive behaviour. So not having learnt about this way of behaving means it is not an option open to us to use for ourselves. This leaves us with; passively agreeing with others, or disagreeing by arguing, which is more often than not aggressive, as our two rather extreme options. Let’s look at some definitions. There are three main types of behaviour; passive, aggressive and assertive. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Passive Behaviour is characterized by giving in to other people’s requests, by not putting forward your own needs, ideas and feelings, and may involve criticizing yourself and running yourself down to others.

Examples of this would be statements such as; “I am sorry to take up your valuable time but….” Or “It’s only my opinion but…” Or “If you say so we will…”
This is often accompanied by non-verbal signals such as a quiet and/or hesitant voice, little eye contact, nervous movements or twitches, hunched or rounded shoulders, head hung down, arms crossed for protection and possibly even hand-wringing.

The motivation for behaving this way is to avoid hurting other people or upsetting them, and to try to gain the approval of others.

Aggressive Behaviour is characterized by putting forward your own needs, ideas and feelings, while at the same time ignoring, or putting down, the ideas of other people. Often aggressive behaviour involves blaming other people for mistakes and problems and being verbally hostile. It may also involve being patronizing and the use of sarcasm.

Examples would be statements such as; “Do it or else!” “That’s ridiculous or stupid.” Or “Surely you can’t believe that.”

The non-verbal signals associated with aggressive behaviour are a loud and quite hard voice, often coupled with rapid speech. The eyes are used to stare people down and the jaw may be quite clenched or firmly set. The hands may also be used for table thumping or even finger wagging or pointing at people in quite a threatening way.

The motivation for behaving like this is to ‘win’ or achieve your own goals and agenda at the expense of others, or with little or no regard for others and their goals.

Assertive Behaviour is characterized by putting forward your own needs, ideas and feelings, and also respecting the right of others to do the same. This also involves respecting the ideas beliefs and views of others.
Examples would be statements such as “I think this, what do you think?” Or “I would like to go about this job like this, how would that affect you?”
The non-verbal signals associated with assertive behaviour are steady voice with a medium pitch and even paced delivery. Good eye contact with a steady gaze but not a dominating stare. Usually the body posture and facial expression are both quite relaxed and open.

The motivation for behaving like this is to develop a feeling of confidence and to help others to do the same. Also it involves asserting personal feelings about issues and inviting others to share their feelings too. This behaviour usually leads to a feeling of improved self-worth and personal confidence. It is also true that it leads to an increased feeling of responsibility for one’s life and less blaming of others. It is also true that less time is spent worrying about offending others.

For some people simply knowing this information and realizing there is a new third option open to them is enough. However for most of us we still have the nagging doubts about whether people will still like us and so on.

Now, while it is true to say that our values and beliefs drive or cause our behaviour, it is also true to say that new experiences can cause us to modify our beliefs. Also the problem with beliefs is that you cannot see them and therefore may not be aware of what they are, and how they direct our behaviour. So how can we change our lives if we cannot see the beliefs that need changing?

Well one way is to work the other way around. Pick one small, low risk area of your life where you would like to be more assertive, and look at your habitual response, i.e. Look at how you would normally behave in that situation. Next using the notes above, start to develop a response to this situation, which would involve being assertive. Practice some sentences and words to try them out. Remember when any of us do things for the first time we are clumsy and awkward. Practice until it starts to feel more natural. Then use it to see what happens. Soon you will start to get a different result in this situation. Now do the same for another situation. Slowly your experience will change. As you become more assertive in increasing numbers of situations, and in increasingly important situations, you will begin to see that you achieve a better result by being assertive. Your beliefs that you have to look after other people for them to like you, will change, and being assertive will become your habitual way of being. This takes time! It is important to note that there will be times when someone catches you by surprise, and you will revert to the old way of agreeing to do something against your will. Always remember, when you have had time to reflect, you have the right to change your mind. Also the sooner you do that the more time you will give the other person to find another person, or another way of getting something done.

It is important to note here that if you are very unassertive to start with, you may have allowed yourself to become surrounded by people who use you. If that is so, then as you start to say “no” more, these so-called friends, may move away from you because you are no longer willing to be used. This is a positive thing. No one needs friends that only hang around to use them. You will be better off when they are gone. Your real friends will stick around.

Some people still find it very difficult to even make this change. For them I would suggest they come and do some anger work. Anger is a very useful emotion, and helps us to make decisions and defines who we are. Developing our sense of anger helps us to define who we are, what we want and who we want around us. It gives us our sense of self and helps us to feel solid and grounded. Without it, we can feel undefined, almost two-dimensional and like a child wandering around an adult world in an adult body, desperately hoping no one will see through our disguise and see how lost we really are. Working on our anger automatically develops our assertiveness to the point where we are taken more seriously by others and get what we want without having to be angry or aggressive. We are more confident in our dealings with others because we feel more formed and confident inside.

If you are interested in receiving a training aid questionnaire to help you embed your understanding of Passive, Aggressive and Assertive Behaviour, email me at the above address.