Assertiveness: The Key to Building Mutual Respect

Written by on October 9, 2017 in Accountability, Emotional Mastery

Healthy Assertiveness

Your habitually late friend has yet again left you waiting and ruined plans for the evening. It’s frustrating and hurtful, but you’ve given up trying to fix your friend so you suck it up and let it go.

Your mother volunteers you to help with a fundraiser at church. You are already up to your eyeballs in commitments, but you don’t want to rock the boat so you don’t say anything.

You’ve asked your sister-in-law, again and again, to please call to see if you are available rather than just showing up to drop her kids off for you to babysit.

She always says next time for sure, but next time it’s the same. Her thoughtless behavior inconveniences you and ramps up your stress level, but to keep peace in the family you put up with it.

No matter how justified, standing up for yourself and speaking your mind in a clear yet respectful way can be surprisingly hard even on a good day. We worry that if we ask for what we need, we’ll put someone out, or that we’ll come across as being selfish or arrogant.

So we just keep putting our feelings and needs aside and muddle through the best we can.

To live assertively, which means to live authentically, is an act of high courage. That is why so many people spend the better part of their lives hiding their true feelings from others and from themselves. ~Nathanial Branden

The Nature of Healthy Assertiveness

Assertiveness is about being able to express your thoughts, feelings, and ideas in an honest way that is authentic to you and at the same time respectful of the rights and feelings of others.

Healthy assertive communication can help you:

  • Gain self-confidence and self-esteem.
  • Earn respect from others.
  • Establish healthy boundaries.
  • Create win-win situations.
  • Improve your decision-making skills.
  • Create honest relationships.
  • Gain more job satisfaction.

Some people are lucky enough to have been raised in families that modeled healthy assertiveness, but most of us learn to speak up for ourselves (or not) over the years the hard way, by simple trial and error.

Of course, it’s not just what you say but also how you say it that matters.

In the example given about the sister-in-law dropping off her kids, the conversation might go as follows:

“I have to run some errands can you watch the kids today?

A typical passive reply might be:

“Well, I have a lot of work to do today and Jeff is bringing his boss home for dinner tonight, but if you’re in a bind I’ll figure out a way to make it all work.

An aggressive reply would sound like:

“Why do you always do this to me? Can’t you find someone else to watch the kids for a change, do you think I just sit around and watch television all day?”

A more appropriate yet assertive response would have been:

“No. I’m not going to be able to help you today as I’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The person responding passively is willing to set aside their own priorities to comply with the request … essentially saying that their needs and feelings are unimportant.

The aggressive response is unkind and makes it clear they don’t care about feelings and is sure to put the other person on the defensive.

The last response is simple and to the point, yet respectful. There is no need to offer apologies or excuses to justify your behavior.

Of course, there will naturally be variations of these patterns.

For example, someone who suffers from low self-esteem may develop a passive-aggressive approach where they appear to be agreeable, but then express their resentment by looking for subtle ways to undermine you.

How to Be Effectively Assertive

Here are a few steps to help you develop your assertiveness communication skills:

Be Clear and Straightforward

The way you communicate your message really does matter. Take the time to clarify in your own mind the point you want to make and then keep the message simple and straightforward. This will help you to remain calm, and the calmer you are the more confident you will appear (even if your stomach is doing flip-flops).

So, the next time you make plans to meet your always-late-friend you might say something as simple as,

“I’m really looking forward to this evening. I’ll wait 10 minutes for you where we agreed and if you aren’t there then I’ll just go on without you and maybe you can catch up with me later.”

No explanations or excuses; simply make the statement in a calm but firm manner.

Of course, the only way to make this work is for you to actually leave after 10 minutes if they aren’t there!

Keep Emotions in Check

Most people will do almost anything to avoid the risk of a confrontation, which is one of the key reasons we so often fail to stand up for our rights.

Maybe it’s not even the conflict itself as much as the fear of embarrassing yourself by becoming emotional or crying.

While this is a perfectly human response, it can prevent you from clearly communicating your thoughts and feelings in a way that will improve the situation.

If you begin tensing up or feeling emotional, do whatever you can to give yourself some space and a little time to steady your nerves and practice what you want to say in a calm and confident manner.

Use ‘I’ Statements

Using “I” statements let others know what you’re thinking or feeling without sounding accusatory.

For instance, say, “I disagree,” rather than, “You’re wrong.” If you have a request, say “I would like you to help with this” rather than “You need to do this.” Keep your requests simple, specific and non-judgmental.

Use Assertive Body Language

Communication is not just what you say; your whole body communicates your feelings and state of mind.

You may be saying ‘no’ but if you’re obviously anxious, looking down, not making eye contact and fidgeting, then your body language is saying loud and clear that you want to be anywhere else but there and that means you could be pressured into changing your mind.

Assertive body language is maintaining eye contact, but in a calm way that shows you are interested. Avoid interrupting, ask for more information and leave yourself time to think rather than instantly agreeing or disagreeing.

Check for Understanding

Just because someone is looking at you, maybe even nodding as you speak, doesn’t mean they are really hearing or understanding (let alone agreeing with!) what you are saying.

In fact, there’s a good chance that the other person is more focused on what they are going to say in reply than paying attention to you.

So ask questions, check for understanding and really listen when the other person is responding.

Start Small

Begin by practicing your new skills in situations that are low risk. For example, try out your assertiveness on a partner or friend before tackling a difficult situation at work or with family. Evaluate yourself afterward and tweak your approach as necessary.

Effective communication requires more than an exchange of information. When done right, communication fosters understanding, strengthens relationships, and builds trust. ~Liz Papadopoulos

Final Thoughts

Let’s be honest, there is nothing new about the concept of assertiveness, and the benefits to your physical and emotional health are well documented. And yet, most people will continue to choose the path of least resistance rather than stand up for their own rights.

Keep in mind that assertiveness isn’t just about dealing with conflict or the thoughtless behavior of others. It is a core communication skill that fosters healthy relationships based on mutual respect, beginning with YOU.

The very process of developing an assertive style of communication forces you to become clear in your own mind (Possibly for the first time!) about your values, wants and needs in order to effectively express your feelings and rights confidently, without anxiety or guilt.

Bill of Assertiveness Rights

Your Turn: What type of challenges have you experienced when attempting to communicate assertively? What has or hasn’t worked for you when it comes to standing up for your rights?

Related reading:
Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you want to be.
About Marquita Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living click here.

Thank you for sharing!

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  1. Hi Marquita,
    Great subject. Rather than just going along with what others want, learning to be assertive is pretty important in life. Assertiveness is a skill, referred to in social and communication skills training. Being assertive is a core communication skill, helping that you express yourself effectively and stand up for your point of view while respecting the rights and beliefs of others.
    I liked the I statements
    “Let others know what you’re thinking or feeling without sounding accusatory. I have taken some Assertiveness training a long time ago. Great article on the subject.
    Kathryn Maclean recently posted…Do You Blog for Business?My Profile

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post Kathryn. I also took assertiveness training back in the day but I think this is one of those areas that most of us can use a periodic refresher course. 🙂

  2. Lesly Federici

    LOVE the “Bill of Assertive Rights”. For some it’s a challenging thing to say no. But as you have shared, saying “no” can be done gracefully. Someone else’s needs do not need to be yours – and then there’s that fine line of “You don’t care”. But for me I would say I care but it isn’t (depending on the situation) something I can fix, take on, or be involved with. Life and people are a funny thing .. powerful post – thank you
    Lesly Federici recently posted…A Healthy Business ReviewMy Profile

    • Well said, Lesly. As far as the line in the sand on caring, here’s where it is for me … they must care about their own welfare (success, well-being, etc.) more than me. When it’s the other way around we risk becoming caretakers and I know you and I have both been there, done that. Thanks for contributing to the conversation! 🙂

  3. Elise Cohen Ho

    You have offered many wonderful tips and areas of food for thought in this post. I especially love that you remind folks to use “I” statements. This simple change takes aggressiveness out of the equation.
    Elise Cohen Ho recently posted…Can An Adjustable Bed Really Help With Arthritis?My Profile

  4. Edward Thorpe

    Hi Marquita, (Love saying your name out loud)

    Perhaps, as you said, assertiveness isn’t anything new, yet it isn’t practiced consistently.

    If you want to live free, you must become consistent in training others how to treat you – without being confrontational or emotional.

    My quality of life changed for the better when I adopted the underlying core meaning of the following: never complain & never explain.

    Your examples of assertiveness without aggressiveness were excellent. Thanks,
    Edward Thorpe recently posted…2 Delicious Peanut Butter RecipesMy Profile

    • And I’ll bet you even pronounce it correctly! I really like your approach Edward – never complain & never explain – perfect! I’m glad you found value in the article and appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts with us. 🙂

  5. My ability to be assertive varies with the situation.

    I have a friend who is always incredibly late. I have had the conversation with her about how lateness bothers me–multiple times. Nothing changed. Then, I invited her for dinner one evening, told her what time we would be eating. She showed up 45 minutes late. I set a plate on the table for her–she said, aren’t you eating? I said we already did. She hasn’t been late for a meal since that. 🙂

    • Terrific response RoseMary! It’s normal to be more comfortable exercising assertiveness in certain areas more than others. Being aware of those areas so that you can adjust accordingly and give yourself a little extra time to manage challenges is what counts. Thanks for sharing your story with us!

  6. Chery Schmidt

    Hello Marty! Being assertive has never been one of my strong suites, but I am slowly but surely learning how to stand up for my own rights my friend!

    Loved this post.. Thank You, Chery :))
    Chery Schmidt recently posted…Is Fear Stopping You From Reaching Your Goals?My Profile

  7. Hi Marquita,

    Thanks for reminding me of the need to practice healthy assertiveness.

    I read about been assertive when I was in high school, and it has made a lot of difference in my life.

    By nature, I am a core introvert, and most often people would want to take advantage of my quietness and gentleness. Learning and practicing healthy assertiveness has helped me to let people know that my quietness doesn’t mean I am dumb.

    Practicing healthy assertiveness helped me talk when I need to talk, and keep quiet when I need to keep quiet about certain issues.

    From personal experience, all the benefits of healthy assertiveness highlighted in this post are very true.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Taiwo Emayosanlomo recently posted…4 Ways to Deal with Extreme SadnessMy Profile

    • Beautifully said Taiwao! I’m an Introvert myself and understand all too well the misassumptions people make about our quiet nature and need for alone-time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. 🙂

  8. Amber-Jane

    This post is so important to me as I have to practise being Assertive, coming from an abuse relationship I have a tendancy to do anything for peace.

    • I’m glad you found the post helpful Amber-Jane, and I can appreciate your struggle because I’ve been there myself. Thanks for contributing to the conversation.

  9. Mark

    Thanks for sharing and addressing a truly evergreen subject M!

    And I must say, your advice on healthy assertiveness, sounds like my oldest sister!LOL!

    Because she must have studied from your playbook.
    I can see and definitely appreciate, how and why some people develop ulcers, over the years.

    When, had they learned how to properly and effectively assert themselves.

    A ton of their inner, emotional turmoil, could have either, been totally by passed altogether, or drastically reduced.Thanks!
    Mark recently posted…5 Potentially Profitable Ways Email Marketing Adds Value To Your Business!My Profile

    • You are so right about this being an evergreen topic Mark! And yet, most people continue to go along to get along and then bemoan why so-and-so behaves they way they do when what they SHOULD be asking (themselves) is why they continue to allow so-and-so to treat them the way they do. Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

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