How to Improve Your Assertiveness Skills

Dr. Purushothaman
September 30, 2013

Have you ever wished that you could become more assertive? Well, the good news is assertiveness is a skill that can be learned and honed and you start increasing your assertiveness today by following the following six steps.

The first two steps enable you to become more assertive with yourself. The third step is the bridge between you and the outside world. The last three steps are how you demonstrate your assertiveness to others.

The first step, and probably the most important, is to understand the nature of your behaviour. There is a range of behaviours from passive at one extreme to aggressive at the other. By passive behaviour we do not mean calm and relaxed. Passive to me is letting others take advantage of you; being submissive.

Aggressive behaviour can come in two forms, direct or indirect. Direct aggression is the archetypal form where the person is physically and verbally abusive to others, often threatening and swearing.

The indirectly aggressive person has the same objective, to get their own way, but they want to do so without attracting the reputation of being aggressive. Consequently they tend to use a less threatening but more sarcastic manner.

The key point to understand is that whether you are dealing with passivity at one extreme or aggression at the other, you are dealing with emotional reactions to situations; i.e. your emotions are running the show.

Assertiveness is not a half-way house. It is a considered response to situations. It starts with taking time, often just a few seconds or minutes to decide consciously how you want to behave in this circumstance and exercising your choice.

The second step is to mind your inner language. That voice in your head can be a great friend or enemy depending on what it says to you. It might be empowering you by giving you all the reasons to do something. Or, it might be disempowering you by telling you how hopeless you are at DIY. Be careful how you talk to yourself!

Step three is to watch your body language. This is your bridge to the world. Both aggressive and passive behaviour has a pattern of body language associated with it.

Assertive people generally stand upright but in a relaxed manner, looking people calmly in the eyes, with open hands. Experience what it feels like to change from being in a passive or aggressive stance to using assertive body language. Just standing in a confident, calm way can feel empowering.

Step four is to say “no” to requests that others make of you if you believe it to be the right thing to do. If it is so important, why is it such a difficult word to use? I believe that too many people are conditioned to think they can’t say “no” to their boss.

Think about these two questions. If you never say “no”, what does that make your “yes” worth? Secondly, wouldn’t you want someone to say “no” to you if they genuinely couldn’t help you?

You’re probably saying “You don’t know my boss!” and you’re right. But if your relationship is good, saying “no” genuinely will not be impossible – just watch your tonality and your body language as you do so. The more you do it, the more confident you will become.

The fifth step is to handle criticism. If someone criticises you or your performance you have three options: - accept the criticism if you believe it’s valid, accept any valid element but dispute anything that is not (“Yes, I was late twice last week but I was on time on the other days”) or reject it assertively if it’s not valid. One of the easy ways to do this is to ensure that objective criteria are being used, not just their subjective opinion of you as a person.

The final step is a big one; to learn how to manage conflict. Managing conflict assertively means you have to make conscious choices about how to do it. Thomas & Kilmann provide a great framework to do this with their five option model:

Competing: having a high focus on getting what you want with less on helping the other party producing a win/lose outcome

Collaborating: high focus on both parties producing a win-win solution

Compromising: moderate focus on both parties with both making concessions. This can produce a win/win outcome, but it is not always the case

Avoiding: low focus on your needs and also on the other party, potentially producing a lose/lose outcome

Accommodating: having more focus on helping the other person reach their outcome than standing up for yours, getting a lose/win outcome

As no one of these conflict management strategies is appropriate 100% of the time, the assertive person has developed the skill of knowing which style to use under each circumstance to get the optimum result and the skills to use each style.

In summary, assertiveness is a skill that can have huge benefits if learned and practiced effectively. These six steps provide a track or process to follow.


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