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How To Be More Assertive

How To Be More Assertive

by Dr Emma Gray - 17th March, 2015

Assertiveness is the ability to get our needs met without preventing others from doing the same. In order to be assertive you must:

1. Truly believe that your needs are neither less nor more important than those of others

2. Be able to ask for what you want in a clear, straightforward and calm way

Being assertive ensures that you get what you need from a situation and do not come away from it feeling anxious, guilty, angry or depressed. It also maximises the chances that our relationships are positive, balanced and mutually satisfying.

The unhelpful alternatives to assertiveness are passivity or passive aggression and aggression. A passive or passive aggressive approach is where you either fail to get what you need or become manipulative in order to do so.

An aggressive approach is where you become overbearing and push through your agenda without consideration of others.

Both alternatives are ultimately unsatisfactory and self-defeating because of the bad feeling that they engender and the longer term disruption that they cause to relationships i.e. we tend to avoid aggressive and manipulative people.

Assertiveness depends on attitude and skills. In the first part of this blog we will address the attitudes necessary to be assertive:

1. Confidence and Self Esteem
Confidence and strong self esteem are necessary if we are to become assertive. We we have to believe that we deserve to get our needs met if we are then going to be able to stand up and get them met.

The most common cause of low self esteem and confidence is an internal self critical voice which negatively evaluates us and undermines us at every turn. Overcoming this internal critic and building self esteem can be difficult, particularly if you are also struggling with anxiety and/or depression, so it may be necessary to get some kind of formal therapy (e.g. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy {CBT}).

The exercises below will set you on a path of confidence and more robust self esteem:
i) Keep a daily log of all successes and achievements to balance the internal critic’s focus on failures and short comings.

ii) Write a list of all the reasons that your friends and family would say that they choose to spend time with you.

iii) Tune into your internal critic and try to assess the accuracy and helpfulness of its evaluations and judgements.

2. Knowing what you want
Being assertive involves asking for what you need in a straightforward way. However, if you aren’t used to thinking about yourself and what you need in a kind, thoughtful and non judgemental way you may not know how to do this and what to ask for. Clarifying your needs takes time, focus and practice so push your internal critic to one side, pause for a moment and consider what it is that you need.

In addition to these attitudes there are six specific skill needed to be assertive.

1. Listening to others
Being assertive involves getting your needs met without preventing others from doing the same. This leads to much more fulfilling and satisfying relationships and as a result minimises mental health problems likes anxiety and depression.

In order to achieve this balance in our relationships we must be aware of how people we interact with are thinking, feeling and most importantly what they need from us. To do this we need to listen.

The biggest obstacle to listening is our own thoughts, feelings and needs or as counselling psychologists call it, our internal world.

Being in touch with ourselves (our thoughts, feeling and needs) greatly calms and reduces the noise that our internal worlds can create, for some this can be achieved simply by spending time trying to understand what is going on for us, for others yoga and mindful meditation can be useful, for others formal therapy may be necessary.

2. Using the ‘unselfish I’
Once you have clarified what you need (see part 1 of this blog), state what that is clearly e.g. “I need to leave work today at 5pm”. If you are not used to expressing yourself in this way or are uncertain as to whether you deserve to get your needs met, this straightforward way of communicating may cause you some anxiety.

However, behaving as if you believe you and your needs have value will over the course of time influence your actual beliefs. So practice asking for what you need in this way and you will find that soon enough not only will it become easier to do so but it will have positive knock on effect on your self-esteem and confidence.

3. Sticking to the point
Anthony Flew (a philosopher) used to talk about “the ten leaky buckets argument’. This is the idea of putting forward lots of weak arguments in the hope that they will eventually add up to one good one. 1 good bucket is always better than 10 leaky ones, so decide what you want and express this clearly.

For example “Thank you for thinking of me but I can’t make it tonight, I have something else planned”. If your response is not accepted repeat yourself using a slightly abridged version of your first message e.g. “I would have like to, but tonight is out for me”.

4. Managing Criticism
Dealing with criticism is always harder if it mirrors your own criticism of yourself. Building your self-esteem and self-belief (see the first part of this blog) will help you not to be drawn into the criticism of others. So the first step in managing criticism is to build some self-belief.

Then consider:

i. What the criticism tells you about your critic i.e. are the comments constructive and aimed at helping you or does your critic have an agenda e.g. are they passing blame or responsibility, using you as a scapegoat or unfairly applying their own unrelenting standards to you.

ii. Is the criticism accurate? If the comments are constructive take responsibility for your part, apologise if necessary and/or thank your critic for their input, even if you do not feel very thankful.

This approach will help you to sidestep tension and so will feel empowering. Even if the critic has an agenda, check out whether there is something helpful hidden amongst their comments that you can use to develop or improve yourself.

5. Body Language
There is a physical aspect to assertive behaviour so use your body to back you up. Doing this will affect both how you feel and those around you. We communicate so much with our posture, eye contact, gestures and the distance that we place between ourselves and others.

So observe those around you and notice the actions of both those who are assertive and those who aren’t. As a general rule when we feel assertive our posture is open, our eye contact steady but not ‘starey’, our gestures fluid but gentle and we do not invade the personal space of others.

6. Saying ‘No’
When we feel anxious or our confidence is waning we can feel a pressure to say ‘yes’ when we would really like to say no. This leads us to over commit ourselves which ultimately interferes with us getting our needs met.

So first of all prioritise the demands on your time and be clear and realistic about what you can and can’t manage, then communicate this to others, stating in a straightforward but polite way when you cannot do something e.g. “I am so sorry but I the moment I cannot manage that”.

Assertive is a skill which if being learned for the first time as an adult takes patience with oneself and plenty of practice. However, once mastered it is a cornerstone for good mental health, protecting us from both anxiety and depression and enhancing our interpersonal relationships.

For more information about assertiveness contact the Clinical Psychologists and Counselling Psychologists at The British CBT & Counselling Service.

If you are suffering with any of the issues discussed in this article and would like to seek professional help then you may find our Low Self Esteem Page helpful.


Dr Emma Gray

Dr Emma Gray

I am often the first person with whom my patients share significant and intimate thoughts and memories; I never take that privileged position for granted nor the opportunity to help someone to feel better about themselves and discover a more fulfilling life. One of my colleagues once described me as a natural psychologist; I guess she was alluding to the fact that I feel at ease being a therapist, I can empathise with people’s distress and discomfort but don’t feel overwhelmed by it, I can understand their problem and know how to help, it has always just felt like what I should be doing.


Read more about my approach to counselling here...


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