Assertiveness is a type of behavior which is used to express one’s needs in a healthy, prosocial manner. Being assertive can be beneficial in a variety of social settings, although there can also be consequences to being excessively assertive. While some people are naturally more assertive than others, assertiveness can also be trained fairly easily. This article will cover assertiveness and its benefits, as well as how to best teach oneself to be assertive, particularly at work.
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What is Assertiveness?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, assertiveness can be defined as “[c]onfident and forceful behavior”. In the context of Psychology, “[a]ssertive self-expression is direct, firm, positive – and, when necessary, persistent – action intended to promote equality in person-to-person relationships” (Alberti & Emmons, 2008). This last point about equality is key, as being assertive is about securing what one feels is fair, not simply about manipulating people into giving one what they want.
Assertiveness is a “stable and distinctive individual characteristic by which healthy and unhealthy persons may be distinguished” (Vagos & Pereira, 2016). Assertive behaviors can be proactive or reactive as well as verbal or nonverbal, so one can assert themselves in many ways (Ames & Flynn, 2007). Some examples of exercising assertiveness at work could include asking one’s boss for a raise, asking a coworker to do their share of a project, or simply not allowing someone to interrupt.
Assertiveness versus Aggression
Assertiveness is similar to aggression, but there is a significant difference. That is,
“[a]ssertiveness involves standing up for one’s rights without infringing upon those of others, whereas aggression involves the use of noxious stimuli to maintain rights” (Richins & Verhage, 1987).
The difference is that assertive people seek to gain rights to put them on an equal footing with others, while aggressive people simply seek to gain rights. This distinction shows why assertiveness is considered a healthy, prosocial behavior while aggression is not.
Some literature considers aggressive behaviors to be a subset of assertiveness rather than a distinct behavior (Ames et al., 2017). In these cases, though, aggression is considered to be “over-assertiveness”, so even this literature marks a distinction between aggression and the optimal amount of assertiveness. This difference has also been defined as “aggressive assertiveness” and “adaptive assertiveness” (Thompson & Berenbaum, 2011).
The Benefits of Assertiveness
Nursing students who are more assertive scored higher on a “psychological empowerment” measure which is “defined in terms of sense of meaning, competence, self determination and impact” (Ibrahim, 2011). There has also been a demonstrated positive relationship between assertiveness and self-esteem in nursing students (Ilhan et al., 2016). These benefits do not just come from constantly acting assertively, though.
It is important to be assertive “in situations where the issue [is] important and when confrontation [is] agreeable”, but it is also important to be less assertive “in situations where the issue [is] unimportant and confrontation [is] not appropriate” (Kammrath et al., 2015). In a work setting, low assertiveness can lead to low achievement, while high assertiveness can hurt social relationships (Ames & Flynn, 2007). In other words, the greatest benefits from assertiveness come from knowing when to be assertive rather than always being assertive, as well as knowing how assertive one should be.
Assertiveness can also serve as a protective factor. In some women who had just given birth, having higher levels of assertiveness meant they were less likely to develop postpartum depressive symptoms (Skowron et al., 2014). While these findings were also based on the participant’s level of “cognitive flexibility”, they still show that being assertive can not only help one during the moment of a negotiation, but can also be a valuable trait to have in general.
How to Train Assertiveness
Two single 90-minute assertiveness training sessions separated by a month have been shown to significantly increase assertiveness in nurses (Nakamura et al., 2017). These sessions were made up of a lecture on assertiveness and small-group roleplaying to practice assertiveness. This procedure has also been used with success on International students in the United States (Tavakoli et al., 2009).
Based on these findings, one way to train oneself to be assertive would be to learn how to be assertive, then practice being assertive on a friend or family member in a no-stakes roleplaying situation. Of course, in both the Nakamura (2017) and Tavakoli (2009) studies, trained professionals delivered the lectures on assertiveness, which most people reading this will not have access to. The roleplaying aspect, however, can be performed by anyone and practiced as many times as necessary.
A cognitive-based model of assertiveness training has been proposed by Vagos & Pereira (2016), which begins with these steps:
- Teach the difference between assertiveness and aggression
- Teach how to recognize the “cognitive and emotional products” that lead to aggression
- Teach how to change these cognitive and emotional factors into factors that will encourage assertive behaviors instead of aggression
For example, an office worker might often get upset with their coworker for being rude in the mornings, and might aggressively respond with anger towards that coworker. Once the office worker knows the difference between aggression and assertiveness, though, they can change the way they think about the situation to lead to an assertive response rather than an aggressive response. In this case, they might remember that their coworker has just had a baby and may not be sleeping well, leading the office worker to offer their coworker coffee and ask if they can help with anything.
How to be Assertive at Work
The above research on training assertiveness can easily be adapted for someone who wants to teach themselves to be more assertive. The first step is learning what assertiveness is and what it looks like, as well as the difference between assertiveness and aggression. After that, like the cognitive model above explains, it is a matter of changing one’s thoughts from thoughts that lead to aggression to thoughts that lead to assertiveness. Roleplaying assertiveness can also go a long way in training oneself to be more assertive.
It is not just a matter of being assertive at work, it is a matter of being the right amount of assertive. That means understanding the difference between important times to stand up for oneself and less-important issues that one can concede. For example, it would be important to be assertive when asking for vacation time or a raise, but it is not necessarily important to be assertive when someone is picking where to eat lunch.
5 Tips for Being Assertive at Work
- Turn aggression into assertiveness: instead of yelling at a coworker for being rude, remind your coworker that you also have responsibilities you need to focus on.
- Keep the focus on yourself, instead of on your coworker: use sentences like “I work better when…” instead of “You need to stop…”.
- Declare your needs unapologetically: Do not provide multiple excuses when declaring your needs, just declare them. When asking for time off, do not provide multiple reasons such as the fact that you have been really busy with family issues, and you have been having headaches, and one of your coworkers recently got time off. Instead, just firmly ask for time off and say you will be ready to resume working hard when you get back to work.
- Declare your needs, then stick to them: if you had previously been granted a day off and are asked to come into work the day before, politely but firmly decline.
- Only be assertive when you need to: if you assert yourself at every turn for unimportant issues, being assertive is less likely to work when you really need it to.
A Take Home Message
While being assertive generally leads to better outcomes in many aspects of life, being overly assertive can also hurt relationships. The key is being “adaptively assertive” rather than “aggressively assertive”, and finding the right situations in which to be assertive. In other words, one should use assertiveness simply to secure equality for themselves, and never to take away from someone else.
This last part is an important aspect of positive psychology. The teachings of positive psychology are not meant to simply benefit those who study positive psychology, but are meant to benefit society as a whole. Learning about assertiveness and how it can benefit not only you but also the people around you is just one step towards a more just and equal world.
- Alberti, R.E., Emmons, M.L. (2008). Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships (9th Edition). Atascadero, CA: Impact Publishing.
- Ames, D., Lee, A., Wazlawek, A. (2017). Interpersonal assertiveness: Inside the balancing act. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(6), e12317. doi:10.1111/spc3.12317
- Ames, D.R., Flynn, F.J. (2007). What breaks a leader: The curvilinear relation between assertiveness and leadership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(2), 307-324. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1997
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- Kammrath, L.K., McCarthy, M.H., Cortes, K., Friesen, C. (2015). Picking One’s Battles: How Assertiveness and Unassertiveness Abilities Are Associated With Extraversion and Agreeableness. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(6), 622-629. doi:10.1177/1948550615572635
- Nakamura, Y., Yoshinaga, N., Tanoue, H., Kato, S., Nakamura, S., Aoishi, K., Shiraishi, Y. (2017). Development and evaluation of a modified brief assertiveness training for nurses in the workplace: a single-group feasibility study. BMC Nursing, 16(1), 29. doi:10.1186/s12912-017-0224-4
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- Skowron, A., Fingerhut, R., Hess, B. (2014). The role of assertiveness and cognitive flexibility in the development of postpartum depressive symptoms. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 32(4), 388-399. doi:10.1080/02646838.2014.940518
- Tavakoli, S., Lumley, M.A., Hijazi, A.M., Slavin-Spenny, O.A., Parris, G.P. (2009). Effects of Assertiveness Training and Expressive Writing on Acculturative Stress in International Students: A Randomized Trial. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 56(4), 590-596. doi:10.1037/a0016634
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- Vagos, P., Pereira, A. (2016). A Cognitive Perspective for Understanding and Training Assertiveness. European Psychologist, 21(2), 109-121. doi:10.1027/1016-9040/1000250