Learning how to be more assertive can massively improve your quality of life.
All of us can think of times when we know we should speak up, but we don’t.
When we feel like we’re being taken advantage of, but we just accept it.
And it’s rarely as blatant as getting robbed at gunpoint. Usually, it’s more subtle, like:
- Our co-worker not pulling their own weight, so more work lands on us
- A friend or a family member not respecting our boundaries
- A neighbor ever so slightly exploiting our good nature
- Getting jerked around by a company when we’ve gotten bad service or a defective product
- Feeling neglected or unappreciated in our romantic relationship
Later, we kick ourselves, thinking: “If only I would have said something!”
Nice Guy Syndrome
Often, lack of assertiveness is a sign of a more serious pattern called “Nice Guy Syndrome.”
In his book, No More Mr. Nice Guy, Dr. Robert Glover describes how many guys fall into the habit of denying their own needs and boundaries. Instead of feeling confident to express their opinions, they seek validation from others and avoid confrontation at all costs.
As Glover told me in our podcast interview, Nice Guys think that because they’re being selfless, somehow their needs will magically be met.
And how does that work out for them? Not well.
The Challenge of Speaking Up
On the surface, Nice Guys put on a smiling face, but inwardly resentment builds up.
By the time they get around to speaking up, they erupt with an over-the-top rant—something Glover calls a “victim puke.”
Sometimes this explosion of emotion is so aggressive that they feel guilty afterward, which only compounds their sense of frustration and powerlessness.
As psychologist Adam Galinsky describes in his TED Talk, “How to Speak Up for Yourself,” many people feel this double-bind about expressing their own needs or boundaries: If you don’t speak up, you’re screwed. And if you do speak up, you’re screwed as well.
So how do we avoid this?
The key is learning how to communicate assertively.
The Definition of Assertive
The meaning of “assertive” is often misunderstood. Many people confuse being assertive with being aggressive. But they’re not the same at all.
To appreciate the distinction, it’s helpful to understand the four main styles of communication:
- Passive: You don’t speak up, and you put other’s needs before your own, readily accommodating other people’s agendas.
- Aggressive: You speak up loudly and try to gain control, wanting other people to submit to your will.
- Passive-aggressive: On the surface, you appear passive and don’t directly express your needs. Inwardly, frustration may be building. You vent your needs indirectly, often lashing out in subtle ways.
- Assertive: You speak up calmly and express your needs, but you are respectful of other people’s needs and agendas as well.
You could argue that the first three styles have some surface-level benefits, depending on what your goals are. But for obvious reasons, they create collateral damage along the way.
The fourth style, assertive, is generally the most effective and healthiest form of communication. Assertiveness gives you the benefit of directly expressing yourself without the negative fallout of the other styles.
Assertive Does Not Mean “Aggressive Lite”
Contrary to what some people think, being assertive isn’t about trying to bulldoze other people with a smile on your face, either.
As Randy J. Paterson says in The Assertiveness Workbook, “Assertiveness is about controlling your behavior, not someone else’s.”
Being assertive is about taking responsibility for your own needs and actions and communicating them in a constructive way. Rather than using intimidation or fear to control other people, assertive communication involves being calm, smart, and appealing to others’ better natures.
Why Assertiveness is Healthy
When you learn to be more assertive and can advocate for yourself, other people have more respect for you.
More importantly, you respect yourself. No longer do you kick yourself for not speaking up. And you maintain a healthier mindset because you’re not carrying around all this resentment, like those men who struggle with Nice Guy Syndrome.
Assertiveness Isn’t a Personality, It’s a Skill
By now, you might be thinking, “Sounds great, but I’m just not an assertive person. That’s not my personality.”
It’s true that some people are naturally more assertive communicators. But communication styles are not fixed characteristics—they’re fluid. In fact, most of us oscillate between the various communication styles on a daily basis, depending on the situation.
Being assertive is about taking responsibility for your own needs and actions and communicating them in a constructive way.
As much as I consider myself an assertive person—and as much as I detest passive-agression—I know I’ve had my moments of slipping into passive-aggressive communication. I’ve also had moments of being a totally aggressive jerk. Nobody’s perfect, and it’s a constant process to work on this stuff.
The point is, assertiveness is something you can develop, even if you naturally gravitate towards one of the other communication styles.
In the next section, I share some specific tips and techniques for how you can be more assertive in almost any situation.
7 Tips for Communicating More Assertively
Watch the video below or continue reading.
1. Get In Touch With Your Own Needs
One of the biggest barriers to assertively expressing your needs is not knowing what they are.
A lot of people are trapped in this frustrating cycle where:
- they don’t know what their needs and boundaries are
- things don’t go the way they want
- they get upset because people are “treating them badly”
- meanwhile, the other people have no idea why their panties are in a bunch
But it’s not really fair to other people if you can’t even articulate your own needs.
Pay close attention to yourself and evaluate:
- What are my triggers? What makes my blood pressure rise?
- What are my minimum requirements for physical comfort?
- What are my boundaries? When do I feel “ick” or disrespected?
- What strong preferences do I have? (either positive or negative)
These don’t have to be dramatic things, either. Sometimes our biggest stressors are tiny annoyances that lurk just below the surface for years.
Because I worked as a waiter in college and later in client services in advertising, bad service is a HUGE trigger for me. I used to really let it get under my skin.
Now that I’m aware of it, rather than letting a crappy customer service experience ruin my day, I deal with it in a healthier way.
Like either (A) catching myself and realizing, “Ok, this person is probably just over-stressed and doesn’t mean to be inattentive/rude”; or (B) calmly providing constructive feedback about the experience to either the service professional or their supervisor.
Another thing I finally discovered deep into adulthood is that I am much happier during the holidays if I limit family visits to about 3-4 days.
Family time is great. But quickly getting back to my life and having some “me-time” (and some “us-time” with my wife) is critical for my sanity.
Once you’ve taken the first step of identifying your needs, now you need to effectively communicate them to other people.
2. Be Confident if Your Ask Is Reasonable
One thing that often keeps people from communicating assertively is when they lack confidence that their needs are valid.
Assuming your “ask” is reasonable, be confident that you can communicate it to other people.
You shouldn’t feel guilty telling people what you need, as long as it’s not something ridiculous—or something that severely inconveniences other people.
Let’s say your colleague has decided to blow off work on Friday so he can go on a last-minute ski trip. He sends a hastily written email Friday morning asking you to cover two key tasks for him that day.
You don’t feel right saying no because he’s covered for you before. At the same time, you feel he’s crossed a line by blind-siding you with the request last-minute. So you respond calmly with:
“Bill, I’m happy to help you this time. But in the future, I’d really appreciate if you can give me at least 48 hours notice so I can juggle the additional workload.”
Since your request is reasonable, Bill can’t help but agree. And rather than silently being a martyr, you feel better because you stuck up for yourself…AND you set some ground rules for how you’re willing to help in the future.
3. See the Other Person’s Point of View
Even though a big part of assertive communication involves zeroing in on what you want, you’ll be more successful if you consider other people’s needs, too.
Recognizing the needs and interests of the other person can give you leverage to help get what you want. This is an age-old negotiation technique: looking for ways to create “win-win” situations.
When you see the other person’s perspective, it may help you identify something you can give the other person in exchange—or it may just help demonstrate that what you’re asking for is reasonable in the grand scheme of things.
To do this, you need to cultivate a genuine empathy for the other person. Don’t assume they’re trying to screw you; they’re just self-interested like you are.
Using the coworker example from a moment ago, it helps to acknowledge Bill’s deeper motivations:
“Bill, I know you want to ski as often as you can when the powder is good. I’m happy to scratch your back, especially since you’ve helped me out in the past. But if we don’t give each other a heads-up on stuff like this, balls are going to start dropping. And if we both get fired, NEITHER of us will be able to afford a ski weekend!”
And of course, this approach is key to being more assertive in a relationship too. Sometimes the biggest source of domestic tension is when one person simply feels like they aren’t being heard. Showing that you truly understand your partner’s needs can help smooth the path to getting what you need as well.
4. Signal Flexibility by Providing Options
While it’s good to be direct, forcefully laying down the law about your needs and boundaries can often backfire.
According to Adam Galinsky, the key is to provide options.
Rather than saying “this is how it has to be!”, you appear more reasonable if you propose a few different ways to achieve your goal. (The secret, of course, is to make sure the options you offer are at least somewhat consistent with your needs and boundaries).
Back in my advertising days, I used this technique all the time to push back on clients. Often, the VP of marketing would ask me, “Can your team create this spread ad for $50,000 instead of $80,000?”
Rather than just say no, I’d say something like:
“I don’t think we can do a two-page spread for that budget. BUT…if cost is a concern, perhaps we could look at scaling this down to a single-page ad to reduce hours. Or we could limit the number of revisions your team gets—which wouldn’t get us to $50k, but at least we could shave off a few dollars.”
Without consciously realizing it, I was being assertive that our project rates weren’t negotiable. We couldn’t give a discount just because the client wanted to pay less.
But rather than say that sound like a jerk, I suggested other ways to potentially address their concern—which ultimately helped maintain our boundaries as a company, while preserving the relationship with the client.
Providing multiple options helps reinforce that you are at least TRYING to find a solution. And often, that goodwill is rewarded…or at least appreciated.
5. Keep Your Delivery Calm
While it may sound like a “duh” recommendation, keeping your cool is critical to assertive communication.
Even if you are making a legitimate and reasonable request, delivering it in an escalated or emotional way almost always sabotages your efforts.
Even if a compromise is nowhere in sight, work on maintaining a calm tone of voice, slow down your speech, and keep your volume at a friendly level.
When you’re yelling at the top of your lungs and that vein in your forehead starts to pulsate, you no longer seem reasonable—you seem aggressive. That’s just going to cause the other person to shut down…or to get aggressive right back.
And when that happens, guess what?
They’re going to feel less empathy for your perspective, and they’re less likely to accommodate you…or even meet you half-way. It’s just basic human nature.
We could write a whole post on this. But in short, as evolved as humans are, we are still literally a heartbeat away from reverting to primitive “lizard brain” fight-or-flight mode when we feel threatened.
The only way you’re going to get your “opponent” to listen to reason is if you can keep them calm and in a reasoning human-brain state of mind.
Even if a suitable compromise is nowhere in sight, work on maintaining a calm tone of voice, slow down your speech, and keep your volume at a friendly level.
6. Make Yourself the Scapegoat
When you communicate assertively, sometimes you get into uncomfortable situations where you’re forced to call out someone else’s behavior.
The thing is, people are sensitive and often don’t react well when they get criticized. In that situation, it’s helpful to soften your delivery with the right language:
- Avoid making any broad-sweeping generalizations (like “you never pull your own weight” or “you’re always taking more than your share”)
- Focus your observations and comments on you. It’s less accusatory if you say “I feel” or “for me” or “my view is…”
Ultimately, being assertive is all about you, anyway. According to The Assertiveness Workbook:
Being assertive means making your own decisions about what you will and will not do and accepting the consequences and the responsibility for your behavior.”
This can be an advantage if you are asked to justify your particular needs or boundaries. If someone asks “why,” just make yourself the scapegoat.
You can explain your needs matter-of-factly as though they’re fundamental requirements that can’t be violated (because, for your sanity, they might be).
In the book How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty, Patti Breitman and Connie Hatch go a step further, suggesting you use the phrase “I have a policy…”
This approach can be extremely helpful when you feel pressured to do something or make a decision on the spot.
You could say, “I’m sorry, but I have a policy that I can’t buy anything from door-to-door salesmen.” Or, “I would love to help you, but I have a policy that I can’t do same-day business travel without an overnight stay. Gotta get my beauty rest!”
It’s almost comical, but talking about your fundamental needs and “policies” as though they’ve been dictated by a higher authority somehow makes other people less likely to question them.
When you respect your boundaries, others respect them too.
7. Use the Broken Record Technique
This is probably one of the most useful tactics you might learn in assertiveness training. It can be especially helpful in situations where you’re dealing with a store or a service business and you’re not getting what you want.
It’s pretty much what it sounds like: you continue to calmly repeat your request…over and over again. The operative word being calmly.
Let’s say you’re picking up your clothes from the dry cleaner, and one of your shirts mysteriously ends up ripped. Initially, the staff is defensive, saying that the fabric was old and that they shouldn’t have to compensate you.
Rather than reacting to this initial roadblock and hurling expletives at them, you continue to make a specific request:
“Well, I’d really appreciate it if you could give me a discount on the cleaning” or “Even so, I think you should deduct $15 from the bill for the damages.”
You continue to repeat variations on the request in a calm voice. If possible, it also helps to keep adding additional ammunition for why you deserve what you’re asking for each time you reiterate your request:
“Again, I’ve been coming here for years, and I’ve been a very loyal customer. So I’d really appreciate if you can give me a discount as a gesture of goodwill.”
The other important thing is to make sure your request is specific enough.
The broken record technique would not work as well in this situation if you kept repeating: “yeah, well I still think you guys messed up my shirt” or “yeah, but you’re really screwing me over, here” or “C’MON GUYS! SHIRT. RIPPED. MAAAAAAD! GRRRRR.”
Side note: in the past, I’ve also used the broken record technique to ask for (and get) substantial raises when I worked in advertising.
If you maintain that calm persistence and keep repeating your specific request, this approach can be very successful.
When you communicate more assertively, it’s amazing how much smoother your interactions with other people are.
No longer do you feel like you aren’t being heard or respected, because you’re able to speak up for yourself. And you’re able to advocate for yourself calmly…without coming across like an aggressive jerk.
Again, while some people may be naturally more comfortable expressing their needs, assertiveness is a skill anyone can develop. The best thing is, the more you practice being assertive, the easier it becomes.
Got other specific tips or questions on how to be more assertive? Leave a comment below.