The Basics of Assertiveness (pt. 1)

Assertiveness is a rational and thoughtful approach to dealing with other people. If done well, Assertiveness can help you become a healthier, happier, and more successful person. I cannot emphasize how valuable I have found it in my own life.

When I was in 7th and 8th Grade, I was part of a pilot program in Nova Scotia’s Public Schools to fuse shop, home economics, and life studies into one program, that would also cover some other personal enrichment elements. This class was called Life Skills, and eventually was stripped down and dismantled, much to younger students’ detriment. Among the programs it included were training in Negotiation and Assertiveness that have served me well throughout my life.

When I took courses on coaching one of our most useful course subjects was Assertiveness, not only in the form of being Assertive, but also teaching others to be Assertive. It remains a large part of my one-on-one coaching programs.

To really do it justice, would take a subscription program similar to my Time Mastery system. If you would be interested in such a program, I would love to hear from you.

The Rationale of Assertiveness

Assertiveness training is based on a simple premise: everyone has innate dignity and rights.

When a person’s rights are respected they are most able to move through life and remain happy or become successful. When a person’s rights are disrespected, they become unhappy, and resistant to working with those who are not respecting them. The best way to get the things you need to be happy and successful then is to make sure your rights are respected, and to respect the rights of others so that they are rewarded by working with you.

Assertiveness is the most effective of four styles of behaviour identified in the social sciences. The others include Aggressiveness, in which we bully and abuse others to get our rights regardless of the rights of others; Passiveness in which we do not try to have our rights respected and do whatever others demand of us, even though we end up unhappy; and Passive-Agressiveness where we pretend to be passive, and then angrily sabotage the people who have disrespected our rights without having to face a confrontation.

When we are Assertive, we refuse to let our rights be trampled on by others, but we also understand that others have rights that deserve respect. When our rights clash, we look for the best compromise we can make without compromising our own success or happiness.

The Rights of Assertiveness

This list varies from source to source, but they are always very similar and usually lead to the same behaviours. The list I like is this:

  • To state our needs.
  • To set priorities based on our needs.
  • To be treated with respect.
  • To be respected as an equal human being.
  • To express our feelings.
  • To express our values and opinions.
  • To say “yes” or “no” for ourselves.
  • To make mistakes.
  • To change our minds.
  • To say “I don’t understand”.
  • To ask for what we want.
  • To decline to take responsibility for the actions of others.
  • To interact with other people without needing their approval.

This is a pretty simple list, but it can also be quite radical.

Our culture sends messages to people that are often contrary to those lists, and if we internalize those messages, it can lead to a lot of unhappiness and unpleasant behaviour. It is amazing how many people, for example, feel selfish for asking for what they want. Or how many people are raised to believe that their actions “cause” other people to do things (i.e.: “You hurt my feelings” makes you responsible for someone else’s feelings, when the reality is “When I heard what you said, I felt upset”).

Assertiveness and Respect

The Approval and respect-related rights are very complicated, and taken the wrong way can be confusing. You might notice that there is a bit of a clash between this article and my previous one on Respect, where I pointed out that if we want Respect we really must earn it – and that we are often going to have to accept that we must behave in certain ways and accept that in a hierarchy we will not be treated necessarily with equal amounts of respect.

There are nuances that are often missed with the simple phrasing of these rights. It can lead people to behave very rudely and disrespectfully in the name of Assertiveness. These nuances are why Assertiveness often requires semester-long courses or hefty books to teach.

What I would say is that you have to remember both parties have the right to Respect. That means if you don’t want to tread on their rights in the name of your own, then you have to give them Respect as well. If you choose not to show Respect, you are also abdicating your right to receive it.

By acknowledging you have a right to Respect you acknowledge that this means you don’t have to put up with disrespect and rudeness. You acknowledge that right by dealing with rude people by pointing out their rudeness and then flatly refusing to cooperate (or even deal with them) until they can do so respectfully.

Because Respect is reciprocal – you have to give it to get it, you must be Respectful in order to exercise this right. If you simply assume that people must respect you, you have mistaken a right for an entitlement, which is a very different thing.

“Respect as an equal human being”, should be considered the basic bar for human treatment. People who respect you as an equal human being are not treating you like a thing, they are not using then discarding you, or stripping you of your value and dignity. But this does not erase the issues of Respect within a hierarchy altogether.

Some people have accepted responsibilities and authority over certain behaviours in the group. Let’s use the military as an example. Every soldier is a human being who deserves respect, dignity, and to have their needs met, and the military does that. They do not treat enlisted men as animals just because they are not officers. However an officer has chosen to take responsibility to interpret orders and the authority to command enlisted men. It would be a problem if he had to negotiate with the enlisted men every time he wanted them to do something. They have agreed to Respect his authority as greater than theirs, and defer to his orders. This is a sort of uneven respect that comes from a need for a functional organized relationship. If the officer decided that that Respect entitles him to treat his enlisted subordinates as animals, he has violated their right to be treated as equal humans, and to protect that right, they will refuse his orders until they come from a place of human respect.

As to the matter of Approval – this one can also be confusing, because Respect and Approval are often conflated. Many people are disrespectful of those they don’t approve of. Similarly, lots of people feel that we must approve of everything that a person does if we Respect them. Neither are necessarily true.

I may not approve of people who vote for the Conservative people, but I don’t treat them like fools for doing it; I Respectfully trust that they were doing what they thought was best for the country. Likewise, you might not approve of my choice of career, but that does not mean that I have to put up with disrespect from you.

If we feel like we must seek approval, we can be afraid of being truthful or honest. We may shy way from expressing our needs or values for fear that others might disapprove and treat us badly. This in turn compromises all of our rights.

I will continue with a part 2 on Wednesday with models of how Assertiveness works in conversation.

2 thoughts on “The Basics of Assertiveness (pt. 1)

  1. This is a radical concept for me. I have never studied it before, let alone applied it to my life. I suppose that not understanding this concept would have contributed to my passive behavior in the past (beta) and I’m learning to be more aggressive (alpha). However, understanding assertiveness is very interesting to me. Would you by chance have a book recommendation on this subject? Something not to technical, but more applicable and practical for everyday use….like at work or home? I would love to learn more. Thank you for the post and I am looking to reading your follow up to this post!

    1. I like the fact that you are tying this to the alpha/beta model of behaviour: there is a very strong link between the two! Alpha behaviour is 70% assertiveness and 30% playfulness. In fact, I am planning a post specifically on that topic in the very near future. If you would like a good book on the topic, my money is on Wayne Dyer’s Pulling Your Own Strings.

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