In my first article about assertiveness, I explained what assertiveness is and the difference between assertiveness and aggression. In this article, I will expand on that and provide some specific assertiveness techniques and examples of how to use them.
I will intersperse some links to books and workbooks on assertiveness in this article. I think it can sometimes be very helpful to have a guide to follow. (Disclaimer: all links are my affiliate links, so there is no additional cost to you, but I receive a small commission should you decide to make a purchase.)
Assertive Communication Style aka Assertiveness 101
One of the main obstacles in becoming assertive is truly understanding what being assertive IS and what the principles behind assertive communication are. Assertive communication is collaborative. By this, I mean that there is an assumption of mutual respect. This respect is provided to the other individual regardless of whether they do or say something unacceptable. Assertive communication comes from the point of view that people deserve respect even when their behaviour(s) are not respectful.
How do we accomplish this WITHOUT being passive or passive-aggressive?
- Questioning: First, having an active curiosity of what the other person is trying to convey really helps. When you assume an attitude of calm curiosity, it is interesting how quickly things can sometimes be resolved.
- Example: Once upon a time, I knew a young man who worked in high tech. He was tasked with training a young woman and she was having difficulty understanding a certain concept, so he said, “Do you want me to draw you a picture?”
- Now, it happened that he was Francophone (French-Canadian) and he was not aware of the insulting implication of the phrasing he had used. The young woman got mad and stormed off and he told me the story, puzzled as to what “set her off”.
- Her response was passive-aggressive. An assertive response would have been, “I realize that I am not understanding this concept, but I am doing my best, and I find what you said very hurtful and insulting!” Had she said this, he would have explained that he really literally was offering to make a diagram for her and was not being sarcastic and then the matter would quickly have been resolved.
- Asking open-ended questions (i.e. questions that do NOT just have a yes/no answer) and being careful to not make assumptions or jump to conclusions no matter how obvious they may appear is an important technique of assertive communication. What is “obvious” to one person is not “obvious” at all to the next and this is a seemingly “obvious” idea and yet most people miss it.
- Identify what you want and need and be prepared to ask for this. If you have never really considered what YOU want or need then it is hard to be assertive because how can you ask for something if you don’t know what you want? So you might need to do some homework and write down exactly what you want and need. Next:
- Go out and find ways to get these needs met in ways that do not sacrifice the needs of others.
- Ask for what you want.
- Stand up for yourself and your needs. Decide in advance what is or is not worth taking a stand for.
- When you are expressing your needs and feelings, try to stay unemotional
- Learn to say no — without feeling guilty! This reminds me of this book:
- When I Say No, I Feel Guilty by Manuel Smith
- If this is a problem area for you, practice saying “no” with a trusted friend. It can be hard to get the hang of “no” without wanting to explain it away.
- Let go of guilt in general – this can be a hard one, but who does the guilt really help? Think about the situation that is making you feel guilty. Did you really do something wrong? If so, can you do something about it? If not, why are you feeling guilty about it? Work on building a life that moves forward. Guilt usually holds people back and does not actually help anyone.
- Take your time – Sometimes salespeople or your kids or bullies or really, anyone, will try to pressure you into making a decision when you don’t have all the information, you are feeling stressed, or you simply are not ready to make a decision. Always remember that you have a right to PUT OFF making a decision! There are several ways to phrase this. Here are some examples:
- “I will have to get back to you about that.”
- “That sounds interesting, but I will have to check on some details before I can get back to you.”
- “I can’t make a decision on this right now. Shall we set up an appointment to speak about this next week?”
- Some people will try to bully you into “caving” and making a decision right away — use the “broken record” technique below if necessary.
- The Broken Record Technique of Assertiveness – This is probably the most famous of the assertiveness techniques and it is exactly what it sounds like. You repeat your position and you just keep repeating your position regardless of what the other person says.
- Example: Your boss asks you to come in to work on a day you cannot work because you have plans with your kids. You tell him so. He says, “But the team really needs you.” You say, “I realize that, but I have plans.” He says, “Your performance review is just around the corner.” You say, “I realize that, but I have plans.” He says, “This might not look good to upper management,” and you say, “I realize that, but I have plans.”
- Often, I find the word “regardless” can be very helpful with people who are very manipulative. They will come up with 200 good reasons why you should do things their way. “Regardless, I have plans and cannot work that day.” “Regardless” has a surprising amount of assertive power.
- Five Stage Response – A Variation on the Broken Record Technique.
- Stage 1: You state your response. For example, “I am sorry, but I cannot work on Saturday this week.”
- Stage 2: The person asks again and so you re-state your response: “I am sorry, but I cannot work on Saturday this week.”
- Stage 3: The person asks again (with more convincers), but now you say, “I have already told you twice that I cannot work on Saturday this week, and if you ask me again, I am going to have to end this conversation.” (Use discretion when using this with your boss, for example.)
- Stage 4: The person asks again anyhow. “You asked me again, so I am afraid I have to end this conversation.”
- Stage 5: End the conversation (or follow through and do whatever you said you would do if they continued their negative behaviour).
- Fogging – This can be a very disarming technique and it can be used in a number of ways. First, you find and agree with any truth in the other person’s statement (which is extremely disarming) and then you go on to make your point. This is another of the most famous assertiveness techniques.
- Example: “You are late for work every day!” Fogging response: “I sure am and I have been meaning to discuss that with you. My start time coincides with a massive traffic jam in my neighborhood as well as road construction. I wonder if I could start maybe an hour later so that I can be on time and arrive less stressed out!”
- Example: “You can’t return those shoes. They have been worn.” Fogging response: “Yes. I did wear them for one day. Unfortunately, one day was all it took for the heel to fall off the shoe, which is, in my opinion, simply unacceptable and that is why I expect a refund.”
Are there more assertiveness techniques? Yes, but those are the main ones and if you are new to assertiveness, they should keep you busy for a while!
While you are learning about assertiveness, I think it would help to have a notebook or journal (or computer file) devoted to your learning and experiences with assertiveness. Learning to be more assertive is not an overnight process. It takes time to hone the skills and you might find that you are able to be more assertive in one situation such as with your family than in another such as at work (or it might be reversed). This is where keeping an assertiveness journal will help you — it will help you to see where you are being assertive and where you need to work on things.
Be Patient with Yourself
Do not be frustrated by slow success. There may be times when you are passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive. Note these in your journal and try to understand the circumstances around them without being judgmental. That way, you can learn how to improve.
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” – Maya Angelou
Assertiveness techniques can be a wonderful way to build bridges between people. Unfortunately, many of us were raised with passive, passive-aggressive, or aggressive communication styles. It can therefore be hard to learn assertiveness techniques. This is a new way of communicating in which there is no “winner” or “loser”. Rather, each person is able to express their needs and negotiate a way to get those needs met in a way that is best for all parties. That is the goal of assertive communication.
If you are very new to assertiveness, be sure to keep a journal and try some “experiments” with assertiveness techniques and record the results. Think about what went well and what went wrong. Feel free to comment in the comments section below.
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