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How to Be Assertive

If you struggle with assertiveness, you are not alone! Most people respond to conflict by being overly aggressive (too angry) or overly passive (too nice).

Let’s look at what a passive, an aggressive, and an assertive (just right) response actually looks like in real life.

Here’s an example to illustrate how assertiveness can go wrong, and how it can go right:

You are waiting in line at the grocery store. It’s extremely busy today and there are two people in front of you at the register. Other lines are even longer, so you resign yourself to waiting your turn. After standing for 15 minutes while the people in front of you check out, it is finally your turn. Just then the cashier takes a deep breath, stretches, and says, “Thank goodness it’s break time!” He puts a CLOSED sign on his counter, and starts to walk away.

Here are the potential responses you could give:

Too Weak (Passive):

You say, “Excuse me, are you leaving?” He answers, “Yes. I’ll be back in ten minutes.” You roll your eyes angrily as he walks away.

Too Strong (Aggressive):

You say, in a loud, angry voice which demands attention, “What the heck?! I’ve been waiting here forever! What kind of store is this? Bring me the manager right now!”

Assertive (Just right):

You say, “Excuse me, I’ve been waiting for 15 minutes already in your line, with no way to know that you were planning to suddenly leave. Before you go on break, I really need you to check me out.” as you start loading your items on the counter.

In the Passive example, although it’s good that you are speaking up, you make yourself too easy to walk away from. In the Aggressive example, you are bordering on making a scene. You may get some results, but you make yourself, the victim in this situation, look like the bad guy. You will waste time waiting for the manager, who will have little sympathy for you since you just yelled at her employee and insulted her store. In the Assertive example, you state your case plainly, free of attack. You begin to unload your items, and you are behaving reasonably. This is difficult for the cashier to ignore.

No one is born with a natural ability to be assertive. But if one of your parents had mastered it, there’s a good chance that you learned by osmosis during your childhood. Children absorb the five skills involved simply by watching a parent do it right, and also by having a capable parent coach them through difficult situations throughout their childhoods and teen years.

If neither of your parents modeled quality assertiveness for you, i.e., if each of your parents were either too passive or too aggressive, you may find yourself struggling. You will have to teach yourself. Never fear, just like any other life skill, assertiveness can be learned.

Start by looking over the list of five steps. Identify the earliest step in the process which trips you up. Now set a goal for yourself. For example, a corresponding goal for each of the five skills might be:

1. Pay more attention to what I am feeling
2. Start trusting that my feelings and needs are worthy and deserving of expression
3. Practice managing my feelings, and putting them into words (this may involve learning more feeling words)
4. Pay more attention to what other people are feeling, and why
5. Become more aware of what kinds of tone, behavior, and words are appropriate for different situations and settings.

Although the five skills of Assertiveness are complex, you will find that it’s amazing how much you can improve on each skill simply by resolving to learn it, and keeping it in your mind as you go about your daily life. It always works best to focus upon one skill at a time, in order. Don’t move on to a new skill until you have mastered the one before it.

Use every conflict as a training ground. Try new things, and learn from your mistakes, until you start getting it right. It’s not that different from learning any new skill, like ice-skating for example. You practice and practice, and you fall over and over. Then, one day, it all comes together, and you realize you are doing it.

I’m interested to hear about your experiences and challenges with assertiveness. Share with me and with other readers and get support and help by posting in the Forum. Also, there are many good self-help books on Assertiveness. Some are more geared toward folks who are too passive, and some are written with more aggressive people in mind. If you need extra ideas, I highly recommend you choose one that speaks to you, and use it as a guide during the process.

Suggestion: When I Say No I Feel Guilty, by Manuel Smith, PhD. It's a classic.

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