Article by Stephanie Helsel
What exactly does it mean to communicate assertively? “ Am I being selfish or too aggressive when I stand up for my beliefs?” “Isn’t it easier and less stressful just to back down when someone challenges me?” “How can I say no to my friends, family members and coworkers when I’m too busy to help with something?” “Setting limits in my relationships makes me feel guilty. Why do I feel this way?”
These are common questions that many of us ask ourselves when we are called upon to offer an opinion, stand up for ourselves in a confrontation, or respond to a request. Basically, we have three choices with regard to how to communicate. We may choose to respond assertively, aggressively or passively in any of these types of situations. When we act passively, we basically do nothing, or agree to something that we are uncomfortable agreeing with, at the interest of keeping the peace. An aggressive response is, basically, a “my way, or the highway” approach, where we show no respect for another’s position in the interest of getting our way.
By definition, the assertive response is one where we stand up for our rights and beliefs, while respecting the rights of the other person. When we engage in assertive problem-solving, we seek a “win-win solution,” by clearly stating our needs and desired outcome in the situation, and then respectively soliciting and seeking to understand the other person’s position as well. We seek a solution, in other words, where both parties “win,” or are pleased with the end result. Of the three types of communication choices, which response yields the more positive result and is more likely to give us what we want?
The answer to this question may seem obvious to us, yet why is it so difficult to be assertive at times? The good news is that all of us are capable of being assertive! For most of us, our goal is to simply increase our assertive responses in a variety of different situations. The most difficult situations tend to be when we have a lot at stake in the outcome, ( e.g., asking for a raise at work), or if the individual that we wish to be assertive with is in a position of authority (such as a boss or supervisor). In these cases, practice makes perfect! Write a script for assertive communication, and practice with someone you trust, who can give you direct feedback on how you are communicating your request. This is a great way to also get feedback on your nonverbal behaviors, such as posture, facial expressions, vocal inflections, gestures, etc. Your nonverbal behaviors need to match what you are communicating verbally. For example, no one will believe you when you say “I deserve a raise,” while you are looking at the floor and speaking in a soft, submissive tone!
In “Your Perfect Right” (1990), authors Alberti and Emmons outlined a “bill of rights” for practicing assertive communication:
- You have the right to ask for what you want.
- You have the right to your unique point of view.
- You have the right to contribute value.
- You have the right to make mistakes.
- You have the right to experience and express your feelings.
- You have the right to say “no” without guilt.
- You have the right to be in a non-abusive environment.
- You have the right to be playful and frivolous.
- You have the right to be treated with respect.
Do you believe that these “rights” apply to you? If you are struggling with any one of these, you may have difficulty being assertive in certain situations that pertain to that core belief. For example, if you don’t believe you have the right to say “no” without guilt, then you are most likely struggling with setting limits with someone in your life when it’s important to do so for your health and well-being. Meeting with a professional counselor can address those long-held core beliefs that may be keeping you from getting what you want.
When practicing assertive communication, remember, you are not alone! There are many influences in our lives that have contributed to how confident we may or may not be when it comes to standing up for ourselves. Let the people close to you know that you are “trying out” a new style of communication, so that they will be in a position of reinforcing your efforts. And, above all, be patient with yourself. Changing a behavior is not easy, it takes time. Communicating assertively doesn’t guarantee that you will always get what you want, but it greatly increases the odds. It pays to be assertive!
Stephanie Helsel is a member of the Pursuits Team as a psychotherapist, EAP counselor and corporate trainer, and has done a number of presentations in the workplace on Assertive Communication. Please feel free to contact her if you would like additional information or assistance on practicing assertive communication.