I’ve covered assertiveness in two previous articles, but I felt like I haven’t given enough attention to assertiveness training. Many people know what assertiveness is, but when it comes to situations that call for assertive behavior, they get stuck and aren’t sure what may or may not work.
If you’ve been a reader here, you know I like boiling things down to their essence. I strongly believe the little you have to remember, the better. That’s why this article will not be an information overload that only ends up overwhelming you.
First, I’ll briefly explain what assertiveness means, and then I’ll dive into the underlying dynamics of assertive interactions. Understanding these dynamics will put you in a better position to be more assertive, and you’ll be able to naturally adjust your assertiveness to the demands of the situation.
Assertiveness is a communication style
Assertiveness is a communication style that lies midway between two other extreme communication styles- passiveness and aggressiveness. When you feel your rights have been taken away or that you’ve been dealt with unfairly, you can behave in one of the three ways:
- Aggressively = Fix your situation by overpowering others.
- Assertively = Fix your situation without overpowering others.
- Passively = Do nothing to fix your situation.
For example, if you feel like your boss isn’t paying you as much as you’re worth, you might yell at them and demand a raise (aggressive), or you can explain why you deserve a raise (assertive) or you can avoid asking for a raise (passive/submissive).
Hence, being assertive is all about asking for your rights and what you want appropriately, without stomping on the rights of others.1 It’s the sweet spot between being aggressive and being passive.
Of course, in some situations, being aggressive or even being passive might pay off (see my internship example). But in most conflicts, being assertive is the optimal strategy.
Grasping the dynamics of assertiveness
To get good at being assertive, you have to understand what dynamics operate underneath our social interactions. When we interact with people, we’re also assessing them as allies or enemies.2
In an ideal world, people would deal with conflicts 100% objectively, removing themselves and others from conflict, focusing on the problem at hand, and arriving at a win-win solution. But that rarely happens in the real world. People’s egos, character, reputation, dignity all get mixed up in their conflicts.
Therefore, when trying to behave assertively, you have to keep this basic thing in mind that individuals rarely approach conflict situations with 100% objectivity.
The principal message of my previous article on assertiveness vs aggressiveness was that you should remove yourself and the other party from the problem at hand. I elaborated little on exactly how one can go about doing that.
In this article, however, I want to paint a clearer picture of what goes on during conflict situations and how to choose more assertive ways of communicating.
When you’re trying to be assertive, really the only enemy you have to fight is the other person’s perception that you’re stepping on their rights (i.e. you’re being their enemy). In other words, your goal is to change the other person’s likely perception that you’re somehow taking away their power.
It all boils down to power. When you’re being passive or submissive, you give up your power. When you’re being aggressive, you gain power by taking away the other person’s power.
Your task in being assertive is to behave in such a way that you don’t take their power and, at the same time, you don’t give away much of your own power.
Why being assertive is tricky
Being assertive is tricky, and there’s a fine line between assertiveness and aggressiveness. This is because assertiveness automatically increases your power.
When you’re being assertive, you gain power, but not enough that you become aggressive. You feel you’ve been wronged i.e. someone took your power and put you in an inferior power position. In being assertive, you try to regain just that amount of power back that you feel you’ve lost.
In gaining this slight power, you do take power away from the other person, but not so much that they’re brought down to submission.
Hence, being assertive is this delicate power re-adjustment task that requires advanced social skills. It’s very much like walking on a tightrope. If your power re-adjustment attempt ends up creating a power imbalance, you trip and fall down. One party feels violated, and the conflict escalates.
Assertiveness training: Practicing assertive behaviors
So how do you go about doing this power re-adjustment?
The risk in being assertive almost entirely lies in going too far and taking away too much of the other person’s power. All assertive behaviors are designed to put brakes on your power-seeking so you can regain just the right amount of power and not skid over to aggressiveness.
Let’s now look at some real-life examples that call for assertive behavior:
Example # 1 (Disagreements)
Having disagreements is one of the most common situations that call for assertive behavior. When someone disagrees with you, they take some of your power. I know it sounds irrational, but it’s just the way the mind works. It’s why criticism feels bad and why one needs to do enough mental work before they can develop the ability to handle disagreements.
Disagreements turn into arguments for precisely the same reason. It’s a power contest where each party tries to one-up the other by disagreeing with them, often harshly. Even if you can disagree politely, there’s still a chance that the other person will feel a tinge of loss of power and esteem, no matter how enlightened they claim to be.
Your task in being assertive while disagreeing with someone is to make up for that slight power loss that they might feel.
Say you’re working on a project and your colleague comes up with a bad idea. They seem excited about the idea, but you’re sure it won’t work. How do you express your disagreement?
- Laugh at their idea. (Takes their power)
- Say you disagree with their idea. (Takes their power slightly)
- Say you disagree with their idea + explain why you disagree. (Doesn’t take their power)
The first option is aggressive and you’ll likely spoil your relationship with them. The second option seems assertive. After all, you’re directly expressing how you feel, right? But it runs the risk of attacking them, i.e. taking away their power.
Since you gave them no reason for your disagreement, they’ll probably think you have personal enmity against them (see fundamental attribution error).
The third option is ideal because it takes care of the above risk. It removes their ego from the situation. They’re unlikely to think your disagreement had any ulterior motive (such as putting them down).
Example # 2 (Ending conversations)
Okay, this is a fairly common one. You’re talking to your relationship partner on the phone. It started as a conversation, but now they’re going on and on about something you don’t care about. You want to end the conversation, but you have no idea how.
Here are the three possible things you might say in such a situation:
- “I have to go, bye.” (Takes their power)
- “I have to go, talk to you later.” (Takes their power slightly)
- “Can we talk later? I have some unfinished work left to do.” (Gives them slight power)
The first option is undesirable. You’re breaking off the conversation and taking their power to choose when to end the conversation. You’re imposing your decision on them. Your intention may not be to be aggressive, but it feels aggressive to the person on the receiving end.
The second option is better. You’re imposing your decision on them but promising to make up for it later. Still, you’re the one who ended the conversation. It may not feel as bad as the previous option, but you took some of their power. It’s still risky.
The last option is perfect and smooth. You want to end the conversation, but you let it be their decision. Not only are you not taking away their power, but you actually give them some power to make your decision for you.
Of course, they can still say, “No, I want to continue talking” but because you were considerate enough not to overpower them, they’re much more likely to comply.
Example # 3 (Demanding family member)
This one’s similar to the previous example. You’re working from home and a family member suddenly asks you to do something for them. What do you tell them in this situation?
- “Can’t you see I’m busy?” (Takes their power)
- “I can’t help you. I’ve got my own stuff to deal with.” (Takes their power)
- “Shall I finish this task I’m working on first?” (Gives them power)
Option 1 is aggressive because you’re not only refusing but also accusing them of being stupid for not noticing that you’re busy. When you judge people negatively, you exert power over them.
Option 2 is outright refusal which in itself disempowering. The next sentence is slightly rude and hence, even more disempowering.
Option 3 is assertive and empowering because, as in the previous example, you give them power to make your decision for you.
There’s still a chance the other person might think you’re putting your own needs before theirs, even if you give them the power to decide.
To allay their fears, you can minimize your own work so it doesn’t appear to overwhelm their request. I like to call it task minimization. For instance, you can say something like:
“Shall I finish this small task I’m working on first?”
“Can I finish this little thing first?”
Using words like “small” and “little” reassures them you aren’t throwing their request straight out of the window. Instead, you’re acknowledging it and even emphasizing it over your own “small” work.
Make sure you do take on their work later or they’ll think you’re manipulative.
This task minimization technique can also be very effective when you have to make assertive requests.
For example, I used to share a room during my college days with a guy who had this annoying habit of listening to music without earphones. It was very distracting to me.
I had a hard time believing someone could be this inconsiderate, and it took me a while to come up with a perfect assertive sentence. I really wanted to say something like, “You inconsiderate moron, don’t you have earphones?” but I knew that’d be aggressive. Instead, I told him, “Could you turn down the volume a bit?”
Of course, I didn’t want him to turn the volume down only by “a bit”. I wanted him to turn it down fully, but minimizing my request made him more likely to comply. He turned the volume down significantly and a few minutes later, fully.
Sure, only saying, “Could you turn down the volume?” would’ve given him the power of choice, but he might still have considered it too big a favour. Task minimization took care of that.
People do this all the time when they say, “I have a small favour to ask”. Whether the subsequent favour is actually small is a different story.
Example # 4 (Boss who overburdens)
Say you’re overburdened with work by your boss. While you’re working, he comes to your desk and assigns you another task. At this point, you’re angry and want him to know that you can’t take any more work.
- “I’m already stressed out by all this work you’ve given me. I can’t take up more work.” (Takes their power)
- “This is taking too much time. Let me finish this first.” (Takes their power)
- “This work will take a lot of time because…” (Doesn’t take their power)
The first option is not only accusatory, but it also signals you’re incapable of handling stress. In the most conventional sense, you’re being assertive in expressing how you feel, but in terms of power dynamics, you’re creating a power imbalance. By blaming your boss and refusing to take up more work, you’re taking away their power.
The second option could be used as an indirect way to let your boss conclude that they gave you too much work. But it shows your incompetence. Why is it taking too much time? Are you incompetent? Saying “Let me finish this first” is not asking. It’s imposing your decision on them, which is disempowering.
The third option works because it effectively removes you and your boss from the problem. You’re not showing that you’re incompetent (giving up your power) and you’re not accusing your boss (taking away their power). Instead, by providing reasons you make the problem 100% objective.
How to say “No”
I mentioned earlier that refusing to comply with someone is taking away their power. People don’t like to hear a “No”. Instead, giving reasons for your “No” is a better strategy. It removes you and the other party from the refusal.
Since a “No” takes away their power, you can give them power in some other area. You can make it up to them somehow to restore the power balance.
“Are you down for coffee later?”
“I enjoy having coffee with you, but I have other plans this evening.”
Since refusal is inherently disempowering, you empower them in another way (compliment) to restore the power balance. As a bonus, you also give them a reason for your refusal, removing yourself and them from the equation.
Appeal to their sense of fairness
If you’ve been wronged, your task in being assertive is to show the other person how you’ve been wronged, not how they wronged you. The former appeals to their sense of fairness and the latter to their sense of competitiveness.
And you can’t expect justice and fairness from someone you’re competing with.
The idea is to show them how their behavior affected you without accusing them directly. This gives them space to realize and, hopefully, correct their mistake. When you attack someone, you attack their intentions without enough evidence.
Maybe they had neutral or even good intentions when they did what they did. So it’s an excellent strategy to focus on their behavior and its effect on you than on their character. You let them know that their behavior affected you negatively.
Now, it’s up to them, if they believe in fairness, to fix your situation. However, don’t beg for justice as that way you’ll lose your power, deepening the power gap, and giving them room to exploit you more if they’re evil.
You simply have to give information. Show them how you’re being affected and how it’s not fair without giving away too much of your power. If they still don’t get it, you’re probably better off ending the relationship.
What it all comes down do
What you’ve learned so far are the underlying power dynamics of social interactions that can enable you to choose more assertive responses. However, long-lasting assertiveness can only be developed via long-term personality changes.
Not all people know or understand social dynamics, yet they’re very assertive. It’s because they value themselves enough to value their own opinions, feelings, and needs. The degree of assertiveness shown by a person is proportional to their self-worth.
This is why people naturally become more assertive as they grow older. Older people have more skills, achievements, and self-confidence to base their assertiveness on. Therefore, working on yourself is the best thing you can do to increase your assertiveness naturally.
Unassertiveness is mostly bad
Protecting the ego is an important task for the mind. If you don’t behave assertively when you should have, your mind will be mad at you. You’ll feel bad and think about how you should have behaved instead, sometimes even years later.
Unassertiveness is associated with anxiety, especially social anxiety.3 Often, people are unassertive because they fear they’ll be judged negatively by others.4 The social dynamics you learned in this article should easily help you bypass this fear.
Unassertiveness can lead to relationship dissatisfaction because you feel you’re giving more than you’re receiving. You don’t express your needs to your partner and feel subdued by them.
Continuous unassertive behavior may even lead to depression.5
The long-term solution to unassertiveness is to practice assertive behaviors while simultaneously working to increase your self-worth.
- Alberti, R. E., & Emmons, M. (1995). Your perfect right. Impact Publishers.
- Cuddy, A. J., Fiske, S. T., & Glick, P. (2008). Warmth and competence as universal dimensions of social perception: The stereotype content model and the BIAS map. Advances in experimental social psychology, 40, 61-149.
- Morgan, W. G. (1974). The relationship between expressed social fears and assertiveness and its treatment implications. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 12(3), 255-257.
- Speed, B. C., Goldstein, B. L., & Goldfried, M. R. (2018). Assertiveness training: A forgotten evidence‐based treatment. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 25(1), e12216.
- Ball, S. G., Otto, M. W., Pollack, M. H., & Rosenbaum, J. F. (1994). Predicting prospective episodes of depression in patients with panic disorder: A longitudinal study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62(2), 359.