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What is assertiveness and why is it important?

Many of us have been in situations where we have not received what we wanted or needed. This might have been at work, with friends, family, or in our intimate relationships. It can be easy to think “I am just not an assertive person”. However, assertiveness is actually a set of skills that can be learned. For some people, building these skills will be harder. This might depend on your personality, life experiences, and previous relationships. However, it is possible to learn to be assertive and doing so is likely to make a positive difference in your life.

What is assertiveness?

We can think of communication styles as being on a continuum. At one end is passive communication where someone might be overly mindful of others’ needs, but struggle to confidently voice their own. In contrast, at another end is aggressive communication. This where a person may be quite forthright and demanding about their needs and wants, but they may override the needs and wants of others in the process. Assertiveness is a balance between these two ends of the scale; expressing your needs, wants, preferences and opinions, while being mindful of others’.

 

Diagram of communication continuum - passive to aggressive with assertiveness in the middle

Why is it important to be assertive?

When our needs and wants are not met, this can make us feel stressed or upset. For example, working overtime and not getting paid can lead to frustration, or having a friend cancel on us for the third time can be hurtful. These negative emotions can add up over time and the messages we get from not getting our needs met can detrimentally affect our self-esteem. Therefore, in order to feel good about ourselves and to manage our stress levels, we need to draw the line when it is appropriate. If we stay quiet, this can lead to resentment. However, if we stray too far up the other end towards being aggressive, we risk offending and hurting others, and this can impact the quality of our relationships. While being assertive does not always guarantee we will be listened to, it increases the chances that we will get what we need and want.

How can I be assertive?

  • Reflect on what you would like to be different in your life. Would you like to say ‘no’ to going to parties more, ask for a promotion, ask your partner for more help with the housework?
  • Consider who you have trouble being assertive with? Is there a power imbalance? Are they likely to be considerate of your needs? If not, can you minimise your reliance on these people if they are being unreasonable.
  • Try to minimise blame as this can come off as an attack on the person you are speaking to. For example, if you want help with the housework, saying “I am struggling to get all of the chores done and wondered if we could discuss putting in place a roster” rather than “I am sick and tired of doing everything around here! You need to do more”, will more likely facilitate a positive outcome where both parties feel respected and heard.
  • ‘I Statements’ can help you to take ownership over your feelings and minimise blame towards the other person. Try to be specific in labelling your emotion or feeling, the other person’s behaviour or the situation, and what you would like to change. For example, “I feel worried (feeling) when you don’t show up for our plans (other person’s behaviour) and I would like it if you could send me a text earlier in future (what you would like to change).
  • Start small. Ask for help with those that you trust or with people that you share a less close relationship. For example, you could start by asking a shop attendant for help finding something in a store rather than avoiding this. 

 

Please note

Relationships are complex and sometimes we need support navigating them. Psychological therapy can be helpful to develop skills in assertiveness in a safe space with the support of a therapist who is independent from your current relationships.

If you have any concerns about your relationship, or a relationship someone you know is involved in, please be aware that the following hotline is available for 24/7 support:

1800RESPECT: 1800 737 732

Written by Dr Monique Williams, Clinical Psychologist

More information

If you would like to know more about how assertiveness skills might be helpful for you, or to book an appointment with Dr Monique Williams, or another one of our experienced clinical psychologists, contact our friendly client team by calling 6143 4499 or email via our contact page.

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