What is assertiveness and how to be more assertive?


In this article, you will learn why assertiveness is so important, what its limitations are and why not everyone can be assertive.

Table of contents

Have you ever been in a situation similar to these?

  1. You are queuing to get on the bus and someone cuts you off. You get angry, but you don't dare say anything to him.
  2. A friend asks if you can pick him up at the airport. Despite the fact that he is terrible for you because you have a lot of work, you say yes. You don't want him to be mad at you.
  3. You've been thinking for a while that you deserve a raise, but you don't raise it with your boss. It is clear that it is not the most appropriate as things are.

Perhaps you have felt identified with some of them. In any of these cases, you should have said what you thought, but you didn't.

Most of us passively accept these situations while we feel like we lose respect for ourselves. Until sometimes we reach the limit and explode with anger, which has much worse consequences.

However, there is a third way of responding and respecting you that is much more effective than simple passivity or dangerous aggressiveness. I'm talking about assertiveness.

In this article you will learn why it is so important, what its limits are and why not everyone can be assertive. You will also discover 10 techniques to master assertive communication and the 4 steps you must follow to create the perfect assertive message.

What is assertiveness and how to be more assertive?

What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness is a form of communication that consists of defending your rights, expressing your opinions and making suggestions honestly, without falling into aggressiveness or passivity, respecting others but above all respecting your own needs.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably already know its meaning. It is about saying what you really think while controlling your message so that it is not too aggressive or fragile.

And although in theory it seems simple, in practice it is not so much.

Yes, you can learn to be more assertive

Fortunately, assertiveness is a behavior that can be learned and improved. It is a conscious way of communicating your feelings without letting yourself be carried away by emotions, and it is based on self-esteem and self-confidence.

And remember that confidence can only be developed through personal experiences, never by reading books or blogs at home.

I hope you also don't think that being assertive will solve all your problems in life, because it won't. It will also not be appropriate in all situations because each context is different. However, I can assure you that you will feel more confident and communicate more effectively when you need to.

Expressing your true feelings and standing up for your rights can be wonderfully comforting. When you say what you want, regardless of whether you get it or not, you manage to live more authentically and happily.

You feel free.

What will being assertive do for you?

Being assertive serves to expose to others what your true desires and needs are, and to demonstrate dignity, self-confidence and respect for yourself.

The most interesting thing is that the requests you make from assertive communication will be much more likely to be successful since you will be legitimately asking for your point of view to be respected. It will usually be useful for:

  • Give your opinion, make a request or ask someone for a favor in a natural way and not as if you were asking them to spare your life.
  • Express your negative emotions (complaints, criticism, disagreements, etc.) and reject requests without making others feel hurt or upset with you.
  • Show positive emotions (happiness, pride, liking, attraction) and give compliments without seeming too emotionally volatile.
  • Ask why and feel entitled to question authority or traditions.
  • Start, continue, change and end conversations comfortably and without the feeling of neglecting or disrespecting anyone.
  • Share your feelings, emotions and experiences with others and encourage them to share theirs with you.
  • Solve everyday problems before negative emotions such as anger and annoyance appear and the situation gets out of control.

However, being assertive will not make people love you, never get angry with you, and grant you everything you want. No matter how much assertiveness you use, there will always be people who will continue to give you a no for an answer if you ask them for something that goes against their interests or values.

There will also be those who can misunderstand you and take your message as a personal attack. Nothing is foolproof.

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5 reasons to have little assertiveness

Surely when you were little you were taught that you should not contradict your parents, relatives and teachers, am I wrong? That idea can become ingrained and become an unconscious will to always try to please others to avoid confrontation, rejection, or the feeling of guilt for having hurt someone's feelings.

Many of us were educated in the idea that we should always try to satisfy and prioritize others, that it was not correct to put our own needs above those of others, and that when someone said something we did not like, we should shut up.

But along with the education received, there are also other factors that determine that you do not usually behave assertively.

1. Because you have low self-esteem and self-confidence

Lack of assertiveness is a vicious cycle: when you are not assertive you will probably feel less valuable as your rights are constantly being trampled on, which will make you even less assertive in the future.

Remember that when you do not stand up for your rights or express your emotions, you are inviting others to treat you in the same way.

2. Because of the meaning of certain stereotypes in your life

Some roles are directly related to non-assertive behaviors, such as certain low-level jobs or the traditional role of women in some cultures. Still in many places there is a stereotype that women should be submissive while men should be aggressive.

The paradox is that we pressure ourselves to act according to the role we are supposed to play at all times: almost all of us are more passive and less assertive in front of the general manager than in front of the co-worker with whom we share a table.

3. Because you are stressed or nervous

When you're stressed, it's common to feel like you're losing control of your life. In those situations you can act without thinking and end up expressing emotions in a very aggressive or even extremely passive way, as if nothing mattered anymore.

This behavior, again, will feed the feeling of anxiety and probably provoke rejection in others, thus feeding the vicious circle again.

4. Because of your personality type

Many people believe that they are born more aggressive or more passive and that there is nothing they can do to change it.

This statement is not entirely correct. Although there is probably a natural tendency to react one way or another, everyone can learn to be more assertive.

5. Because of your previous experiences

As I mentioned at the beginning, many people have learned to respond in a non-assertive way by imitating the behavior of their parents, friends or reference roles.

If you have always had helpful and accommodating people around you, or aggressive and hostile people, it is difficult for you to learn to react in another way.

The first step to be more assertive is to know the origin of the problem.

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The 10 keys to be more assertive

Below you will find a compilation of techniques and tools that have proven to be useful to improve your assertiveness. It is not necessary that you internalize all of them, just by putting some of them into practice you will surely notice the difference.

1. Replace your negative thoughts

To begin with, it is key that you replace the negative thoughts that arise when you assert your rights.

Avoid thinking things like "I'm a bad friend for not leaving money to my colleague" and change it to a more positive and personal vision like "I deserve to be respected and I can't leave money to someone who has never returned it to me" .

You can't change your emotions, but you can change the way you interpret them.

Only if you believe you have the right to express your feelings and defend your ideas will you be able to do so without hurting anyone. Start thinking selfishly positive.

2. Understand that people cannot read your mind

A great and classic mistake of passive people is to assume that people know what is going on inside you.

Maybe you think your boss knows you want a raise, or your girlfriend expects you to invite her to a romantic dinner, or your friend knows how upset you are that you leave a video game for her and then don't get it back.

However, people often have no idea what bothers you or what you really expect from them. So don't use the argument that they already know what you want as an excuse not to step forward, because it's false.

If you want people to take into account your wants and needs, you must start by expressing them clearly.

3. Defend “your” truth, not “the” truth

Speaking assertively does not make your message the only truth, but it does make it your truth.

I hope you agree with me that there is no absolute truth. The truth is a human invention. We take for granted that certain things are true in order to understand the world around us.

Each of our truths is based on our past experiences and knowledge. That allows you to speak your truths even when they are not true for others. And for that reason you should also listen to what they have to say.

The truths can be unpleasant, but that is not the reason not to tell them. Often the hardest truths are the most valuable.

Do you remember the story of the emperor's new clothes? It is a fable about lack of assertiveness, and in the end it is shown that saying what you believe to be true can have enormous power.

One truth that can be never denied is how you feel. Nobody can argue with you if you are happy, sad or angry, because only you know your feelings.

4. Remember your goal no matter what

Imagine that you have been unmotivated at work for a while and decide to go talk to your boss. If you just expose the problem to him - you don't feel motivated - what you do is transfer all the responsibility to him.

What he decides you may or may not like, because you have left him free to decide.

To be assertive you should not only expose the situations, you should also make it very clear what you want.

It is not easy to know what you want, so I recommend that you think about it carefully beforehand. Do you really want a raise or a more motivating project? Do you want your boyfriend not to go out with your friends so much or that when he is with you he gives you more attention and affection?

The clearer you are about what you want, the more likely you are to get it.

Once you have a goal, stick with it. In a tense conversation , it is normal for there to be times when the other person does not seem to listen to you, does not attend to your arguments or even despises you.

In those cases remember why you are there. Remember that you have returned to the store to return a defective object, that you have called your neighbor because his music does not let you sleep at night, or that what you really want is that your girlfriend does not ignore you when she is with her friends.

5. Always be as specific as possible

In addition to knowing what your real objective is in that situation, you must be able to convey exactly and in detail what you want and not a vague general idea, or the situation will probably get out of hand.

Imagine that you go into a restaurant to order something to eat. Wouldn't you just ask for "a sandwich"? Instead you would ask for something more specific, like a medium Iberian ham sandwich with tomato bread, right?

Contrary to what many people do, there is no point in having a conversation where you just want to express your anger. What do you really want to achieve?

Remember at all times what your goal is, no matter how tense the conversation, and be as specific as possible. Only then can you truly defend your needs.

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6. Refer to the facts and not your judgments

It is very important that in general you get used to talking about objective and concrete facts, and not about your conclusions. The difference?

  • Objective fact: “Your writing has misspellings and the format varies on each page”
  • Your conclusion: “Your writing is a botch”

This way you will make your communication much more precise and people will not feel attacked or judged before you start dealing with the problem.

7. Add reasons to what you ask for

When you ask for something that you really want to achieve, also explain your reasons. Giving reasons is an excellent way to reduce the chances of being rejected because your interlocutor will see that there is a real reason behind your request, and that it is not your whim.

Look at these two assertive messages:

  • I would like you to raise my salary by 15% because in this way I will be in line with the industry average for the work I am doing.
  • Excuse me, would you mind speaking a little lower on the phone? My head hurts a little and I have a hard time concentrating like this.

In the same way, when someone asks you for something, you also have the right to refuse without explanation. Although giving a reason is good because it will reduce the aggressiveness of your message and provide an explanation for your behavior, you will also be leaving an open door for your interlocutor to discuss it with you.

If refusing without explanation seems too abrupt, it's a good idea to offer alternatives at the end of your refusal :

  • I can't help you with work. I'm full until the end of the month. Why don't you ask Andrea to see if she's doing well?
As long as you provide specific reasons, both when asking for something and when refusing, you will make your message much more convincing and less aggressive.

8. Speak from “you” and not from “you”

Even when you don't mean to, it's common in intense conversations for other people to sense that you're blaming them. Using the word "You" in your arguments can easily be interpreted as an accusation and then, as a self-protective mechanism, people shut down and distance themselves.

Why is speaking from you (also called using "I messages") so important in assertive communication?

Because it will help you express your truths without making the other person feel attacked or defensive. Instead of saying “You have treated me very badly these last few days” you can say “I feel disgusted with the way you have treated me lately”.

Even though you're basically saying the same thing, you focus on your feelings instead of making the other person see that they've done something wrong.

The key is to use "I" instead of "You," and always stay focused on the problem at hand, not on accusing or blaming the other person.

  • “I feel uncomfortable when someone drives my car and I prefer to be the one to do it” instead of “It is better that you do not drive my car”
  • “I would really appreciate it if you could let me know a few days in advance before telling me that I have to travel for the weekend” instead of “What you are asking me now is a problem”
  • “I would like to be able to finish my arguments without being interrupted” instead of “You are always interrupting my explanations!”
Speaking from yourself expressing what you feel, believe and think instead of what the other person does will make your messages much better accepted.

9. Spread your emotions

Another advantage of "I" messages is that they are very difficult to discuss because they will always be followed by an emotion or feeling, and no one can ever argue with you about how you feel.

In addition, emotions are contagious when talking about them. When you express what you feel, people empathize with you because they know the emotion you are referring to.

People are also often unaware of the consequences of their actions on the emotional state of others. Describing your emotions will probably surprise many and make them think.

I feel so disappointed every time you promise me something and break it again” is much more assertive and will allow you to have a more productive conversation than “You never keep your promises!” .

Accurately describing your emotions will help people empathize with you more and be more receptive to your requests.

10. Reduce your anxiety with body language

Are you familiar with the series "The Dog Whisperer"? In it, dog trainer Cesar Way shows how he trains dogs.

But the reality is somewhat different: Cesar does not train dogs, but rather trains their masters to be leaders. And much of what applies to dogs can also apply to humans.

Cesar's fundamental learning is that dogs are pack animals and are prepared to follow the most assertive leaders, those who do not lose their calm easily. He teaches the owners to behave in this way, since his previous nervous behavior was contagious to the animals.

The same thing happens in men. Because emotions are contagious, if you want to communicate assertively, you must also convey that with your body language. But there is more.

A 2010 study of students and businessmen at Harvard and Columbia universities found that the most effective leaders had high levels of testosterone and low concentrations of cortisol in their blood.

High levels of testosterone are linked to increased assertiveness, while elevated amounts of cortisol are associated with stress and nervousness. The leaders had more testosterone and less cortisol than the average participants.

But what they saw next was surprising.

They discovered that it is possible to modify the levels of these hormones in the blood thanks to proprioception or a two-way pathway between the brain and the muscles. Specifically, they found a type of positions, the so-called Power Postures, capable of increasing testosterone production and reducing cortisol levels.

Power Postures are those that make your body as large as possible, such as the position athletes adopt when they win a competition (arms raised, chest puffed out, head slightly up and mouth open) or people when they are proud (hands supported at the waist, legs apart, chin up).

These postures are innate: even blind athletes adopt them despite never having seen anyone do them.

What the study revealed is that holding such a posture for two minutes could alter hormone production and make people behave more assertively.

When you want to be assertive, don't shrink or belittle your posture. Maintain a firm and calm body posture, without showing weakness to your interlocutor or, above all, to yourself.

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The 4 stages of the perfect assertive message

Research has shown that for maximum assertiveness you should use subjective communication to describe what will happen if business as usual, and then present your proposal.

The 4 phases are as follows:

  1. The facts. First describe the behavior of the other person. The behavior can be positive or negative, depending on whether you intend to thank something or express your discontent. Remember to talk about facts and not judgements, and be as specific as possible.
  2. Your feelings. Now explain how that behavior makes you feel. Frustrated? Sad? Satisfied? Speak from you and your feelings, and try to stay calm.
  3. The consequences. Describe the consequences of your interlocutor continuing to maintain that behavior. Here you can also add the feelings you anticipate experiencing, how that behavior will affect other people or situations, or give more details about that behavior.
  4. The solution. Finally, explain specifically the changes you want to see in the other person's behavior. This way people will be able to respond proactively, as opposed to just listing your problems without suggesting solutions.

Here are three examples of a perfectly assertive message:

  • “You have worked very hard to finish this project (behavior) and I am very proud of you (how you feel). So surely you will be successful in your business (consequences).”
  • “You often turn in your projects late (behavior) which really bothers me (how you feel) because it makes the whole department feel very disorganized (consequences). I want to ask you to be punctual in the delivery (solution) from now on.”
  • “Every time you tell me what to do (behavior) I feel threatened (how you feel) because you yell a lot and point at me (more details). I wish you would stop doing it that way (solution).”

Although most of us don't talk this way, it's important to give some thought to how you're going to express your feelings from now on so that it's as clear and non-aggressive as possible.

Start from scratch

In the same way that if you were learning to ride a bike you would not throw yourself down Kilimanjaro, with assertiveness you must also practice in less demanding situations before aspiring to higher goals.

Ideally, you should start practicing in low-risk situations, such as asking to be moved in a restaurant or to be given another room in a hotel.

Gradually, they face more complex situations such as asking for salary increases, refusing favors from friends, or discussing emotionally charged topics. Little by little you will take practice and gain confidence to be more assertive.

When you've made assertiveness a habit, you'll wonder how you ever survived without using it. And then you will no longer need strategies because you will start to feel comfortable saying what you think. Because saying what you think is natural.

Remember that there will be many times when you are not successful. It is normal. The key is not to collapse and try again with more enthusiasm. It is not the fear of rejection that separates people with greater or less confidence, but how they react to it.

Assertiveness, finally, has a wonderful effect on self-esteem, becoming one of its engines. The more you respect yourself, the more others will respect you, and that is actually the ultimate goal of assertiveness.

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Disclaimer: This article is purely informative, I have no authority to make a diagnosis or recommend treatment. I invite you to visit a psychologist to treat your particular case.