A Case for Assertiveness

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If you have a great voice and never sing, you are frustrated. If you have wonderful coordination and never do sports, you’re frustrated…and in general if you have a point to make and never do, you are frustrated.

If you have a great voice and never sing, you are frustrated. If you have wonderful coordination and never do sports, you’re frustrated…and in general if you have a point to make and never do, you are frustrated.

Assertiveness encompasses the inner strength, and the outer strategies, that enables a person to confide difficult truths to others. I believe assertiveness is a life skill and is required to negotiate most interpersonal situations in life, from the intimate to the obscure. We will probably agree that most of our interactions have a goal, whether it is discussing which movie to go to (or not go to) with a group of friends, negotiating with a child over some home rule or negotiation in a corporation for a better salary or work. How many times have we made the wrong choices because we either didn’t express ourselves clearly, or didn’t express ourselves at all! Almost all human interactions require an expression of feelings, an attempt to influence others opinions or get to a goal, in other words to be assertive.

Before one gets the impression that assertiveness is about manipulation or gaining power or being pushy, it is not! Being assertive allows gaining positive influence and working with collaboration, respecting others rights and be respected, being able to ask what one wants directly. It encompasses being able to say ‘no’ without excessive guilt or making excuses and overall communicating feelings authentically and clearly. All too often we swing from the passive mode (or the submissive mode) to the aggressive mode in our communications. Distinguishing assertiveness from passive or aggressive responses is the necessary first step, since many of us are confused by these differences.

Passive or Submissive mode: Those who are passive have extreme difficulties in saying ‘no’. They try to agree with everybody else in order to avoid conflict and appear nice. It is not uncommon for a passive communicator to come back from an interaction and then think ‘I should have said this’ and ‘Why didn’t I say this?’ Often enough the hesitant, apologetic and meekly expressed opinion of such a communicator is overlooked or not taken seriously. Though being passive may help to avoid conflict in the short turn, it leads to poor self esteem and problematic interpersonal relationships in the long term.

Examples of passive/ submissive behavior: A student when asked to lend a book close to the exams is unable to say ‘no’ because he fears that he will be perceived as selfish. Or a girl is unable to ask her friend to return the money she loaned some time back. Though in dire need of the money, she goes and borrows money herself instead of asking for the money owed to her. In both these cases, the individuals feel internally stressed and upset, though expressing willingness outwardly.

Aggressive mode: Aggressive behavior is self enhancing at the expense of others. There may be a violation of rights of others or a disregard for others feelings. It may get you what you want but it undercuts trust and respect. Others will resent and oppose you and you will not be a likeable person.

venn diagvenn diagAssertiveness is the path between these two. Assertive behavior involves expressing your own way of seeing things, but in a way that is respectful of the other person. Although no one can guarantee that the other person will like what you do or say, assertive behavior requires that the other person be treated with respect. Assertiveness has many advantages both at the individual and interpersonal level and it is skill that is learnt rather than in-born. Assertiveness training can be an effective part of treatment for many conditions, such as depression, social anxiety, and problems resulting from unexpressed anger. Most recently it has been shown that individuals who repress negative emotions, who try to sacrifice their wishes for others, don’t look after their personal needs, don’t just have poorer life satisfaction but they are also more prone to chronic illnesses!

Assertive behaviour is specific to the particular time, situation, and cultural context of a person. In a hierarchical culture like India, restraint and modesty are valued in close relationships, sometimes even when it becomes detrimental for the individual. Very often girls are not taught or encouraged to communicate their emotions and needs directly like boys. Young adults may take up experimenting with drugs because of an inability to say ‘no’ when they come under peer pressure. On the other hand, we also see people in fist fights and abusing each other over small issues as if aggression is the only answer! Unfortunately, adequate models for learning assertiveness are rare in our day to day interactions.

There are some core skills to assertiveness. It requires focusing on both verbal and nonverbal behavior. Verbal behavior is the content of a communication — in other words, what is actually said. This includes expressing requests, feelings, opinions, and limits. Nonverbal behavior refers to the style of communication: eye contact, posture, tone and volume of speech, interpersonal distance, and listening.

• The first step is to identify interpersonal situations where one can be assertive and then take personal responsibility for the situation. Acknowledge that your message comes from your frame of reference and your perceptions. You can acknowledge ownership with personalized (“I”) statements such as “I don’t agree with you” (as compared to “You’re wrong”), “I feel upset when you do this” (as compared to “You make me angry”). Blaming statements, rather than a statement of ownership, will foster resentment and resistance rather than understanding and cooperation. Taking ownership automatically brings down anger and hostility and puts you in a more reasonable mental framework to discuss an issue.

• Our non verbal behavior should communicate our feelings in a respectful manner. We should make adequate eye contact, our posture being non threatening and also be actively listening.

• If we are clear where our limits are, it is easier to let others know. Carefully and courteously tell people where you stand and remind them as necessary. If you don’t tell others, it’s wrong to expect them to read your mind and then feel hurt or upset later. It is also confusing for others if we are not consistent with our responses. Let ‘no’ mean no.

There are certain techniques which are useful for situations in which another person will not acknowledge or accept your message. For example, suppose a salesperson is attempting to pressure you to buy something you do not want (something encountered very often). You respond, “Thank you, but I am not interested in buying anything today.” If he or she continues pushing, you simply repeat the same statement, keeping your tone of voice constant, without becoming upset. Eventually, the person will accept your refusal. This is called the broken record technique. There are many other situations where we need to exercise assertiveness like, returning an item at a store, asking for a rightful seat on the bus, setting limits on someone’s misbehavior.

Let’s look at another example. Your roommate is being extremely messy, she leaves her clothes lying around, she uses your things without asking, and has some friend or other sitting in the room when you come back from college. What do you do? Instead of giving her dirty looks (that don’t seem to work) or complaining endlessly to your parents and friends, try talking with her in an assertive manner. Consider the following possibilities:

Passive response: Say nothing, but get upset when you clean up her messes.

Aggressive response: “You’re such a rude person to leave your filthy clothes and dishes all over the place! I wish I had a single room.”

Assertive response: “I was hoping we could talk about keeping our room clean. I get frustrated when your clothes are lying on my bed. Maybe we could come up with a reasonable solution together.”

Develop self-confidence and positive self-esteem. This position leads to the development of fair assertiveness. In most cases, aggressive or submissive behaviors betray inner personal needs and inadequacies. It’s difficult for others to value you if you have a low self-opinion. Those who are not able to take compliments are often poor at giving compliments and those who are very self critical are critical of others, too!

Remember the following bill of rights:

I have the right to be treated with respect
I have the right to have my own feelings and opinions
I have the right to be listened and taken seriously
I have the right to set my own priorities
I have the right to say no without feeling guilty
I have the right to ask for what I want
I have the right to get what I pay for
I have the right to make mistakes


Mrigaya Sinha is a Clinical Psychologist with a PhD in Clinical Psychology from NIMHANS, Bangalore. She is from Patna and has done her graduation from Patna Women's College. She is one of the very few psychologists from Patna with training from a premier national institute and experience of working in several big institutes apart from NIMHANS including KMC, Manipal; VIMHANS, New Delhi; and Mahavir Cancer Santhan, Patna over a period of eight years, to name a few. She is currently setting up her private practice in the US.

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