People & Human Resources

How to become assertive

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Standing up for yourself can be done without aggressiveness – in fact, basic assertiveness works best. Here’s how.

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How can someone who is assertive at work be non-assertive at home? Or how is it possible we can assertively get our way with family, but in certain situations at work, or maybe with suppliers, we crumble, or perhaps get aggressive?

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There are many situations in both our work and private lives that we are unhappy about because we feel we could have handled the situation better. It might be responding to a difficult person on a bus, an aggressive customer, a friend who wants to borrow something, or a manager making unreasonable demands.

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One way of analysing difficult situations and getting some useful ideas about how to handle them is the theory of assertion. Assertion theory is based on the idea of rights.

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We all have certain rights – the right to have our say, the right to have an opinion, the right to make a request, the right to say “no” to somebody else’s request, the right to be able to work without interruptions and so on. Depending on whose rights are being respected, we can distinguish between three types of communication – being aggressive, being non-assertive and being assertive.

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When someone is being aggressive, they are respecting and standing up for their own rights but at the same time not respecting the other’s rights. A situation where somebody has made a request and the other person shouts back, “How dare you make such a request? You’ve got no right to ask me for that!”, is an example of someone being aggressive. They have stood up for their rights but not respected those of the other person.

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Being non-assertive means not standing up for, or respecting, your own rights. So once again if somebody makes a request – say to borrow a car – and the person does not really want to lend them the car but does not say “no”, this is being non-assertive. They have not stood up and respected their own right to say no to the request.

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Being assertive involves standing up for your own rights while at the same time respecting and acknowledging the rights of others. So, if somebody asks for a favour which you don’t want to meet, by acknowledging your right to say no while also respecting the other person’s right to ask in the first place, you are being assertive.


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Assertiveness techniques

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Basic assertion is the simple act of standing up for and expressing your own rights without any excuses or explanations. One of the traps that many people fall into when trying to be assertive is that they give excuses. So if somebody asks to borrow your car, you might give an excuse like, “No, I need it tonight”, or “I don’t have enough petrol in it, or “the tyres are going flat”. <

All the other person needs to say is, “I’ll give you a lift to where you’re going”, “I’ll fill the tank”, or “I’ll get the tyres inflated.” The trap in giving excuses is that the other person can overcome them, leaving you back at square one. Basic assertion involves giving clear statements of what you want or you do not want without giving excuses.

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Empathic assertion involves showing that you understand the other person and the fact that they have the right to make a request or statement. It involves showing that you understand their situation and appreciate their request, even though you might not be willing to say yes to it. It involves saying something like, “Look, I understand you need to go to the other side of town tonight, but I don’t want to lend you my car.”

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Fogging is another assertive technique and involves agreeing with justified criticism. This is a particularly useful technique when dealing with a very angry person who may be making accusations or charges. If any of these accusations are accurate or justified, agreeing with them is a wonderful way of taking the wind out of the person’s sails. You might say, “You are perfectly right … I did report this too late.”

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Working compromise is an assertive technique that involves trying to work with the other person to come to some middle ground, some solution that satisfies both parties.

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Broken record is a powerful assertive technique when somebody is wanting something from you that you are unable or unwilling to give, and they are unwilling to listen to any explanation as to why you cannot say “yes”. This technique involves repeating in a slow calm voice your message and repeating this over and over again until the person understands what you are saying. For example, “I’m sorry but I cannot cash this cheque today… I’m sorry; I cannot cash this cheque today”.

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Being assertive involves using certain verbal skills as outlined above, but also involves the use of non-verbal skills and behaviours. In particular, it involves making good eye contact, standing firm and erect, using a calm tone of voice and avoiding any accusing or aggressive gestures such as pointing at the other person. These non-verbal behaviours communicate that you are standing up for your own rights while at the same time respecting the other person’s rights. This is the essence of being assertive.

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Play To see the video click here.

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By Eve Ash, psychologist and Managing Director, Seven Dimensions, and co-producer with Peter Quarry of the Ash.Quarry production – Being Assertive (from the People Skills series © Ash.Quarry Productions)

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To read more Eve Ash blogs, click here.

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