What is Assertiveness?

Being assertive or communicating in an assertive way means that you are able to express yourself, even when it’s difficult, in a way that both respects the rights of others and your own needs at the same time.

Assertiveness can be hard when emotions are intense, when we are scared to look “mean” or “selfish,” or with people who we find intimidating. Being assertive requires that we are aware and accepting of our own needs, limits, and boundaries, and that we can find the words to communicate them in a respectful way. Often people are afraid to cry or look “weak” in front of others, and this prevents them from being assertive.

What is the difference between being passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, or assertive?

Below are some key differences.

Passive communication style:

  • Example: “Can you help me move my stuff this weekend?”
    “Sure!” When on the inside you really want to say no.
  • Saying “no”: Very difficult, because you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or appear “mean”.
  • Thoughts: “Saying no is wrong. I should be nice and help others.”
  • Feelings: You feel taken advantage of. You feel like a victim. You feel guilty setting limits and boundaries, so you don’t.
  • Behaviours: You’re too nice, act like a “doormat”, feel like people “walk all over you.”
  • Conflict style: You avoid conflict at any cost. The cost is usually to yourself.
  • Impact on relationships: Others don’t realize how you really feel. They keep asking you for more since they think you’re not negatively impacted.

Aggressive communication style:

  • Example: “Can you help me move my stuff this weekend?”
    “What do I look like, a moving service! Call one of those places.”
  • Saying “no”: Forcefully saying no in a hurtful way. Can seem defensive.
  • Thoughts: “Who do they think they are?” or “How dare they treat me this way?”
  • Feelings: Feeling entitled, victimized, or angry, and then guilty or regretful for lashing out.
  • Behaviours: Yelling, sarcasm, harsh words, mean tone of voice, eye-rolling.
  • Conflict style: Bulldozing others with words or actions to get your point across.
  • Impact on relationships: People may start to avoid you, or start being aggressive back to you.

Passive-Aggressive communication style:

  • Example: “Can you help me move my stuff this weekend?”
    You say “Sure I’ll do that.” Then you show up 2 hours late and do a half-assed job, telling yourself that it’s still one butt-cheek more than nothing.
  • Saying “no”: Saying yes but meaning no, actions show you meant no.
  • Thoughts: May lack awareness of thoughts. May think you are “doing someone a favour” even when your tone or attitude is unpleasant.
  • Feelings: Unaware of feeling angry, gets anger out in a behavioural way often without awareness. Anger returns because you think you were kind to others and that others were not appreciative.
  • Behaviours: Trouble identifying own needs and that of others. Actions convey the underlying emotions. Uses sarcasm.
  • Conflict style: You try to avoid conflict but it finds you anyway because people feel angry with you.
  • Impact on relationships: People may feel angry with you, conflicts can start, if you remain unaware they may accuse you of gaslighting.

Assertive communication style:

  • Example: “Can you help me move my stuff this weekend?”
    “I won’t be able to stay the whole time, but would it help if I came by for an hour or two?”
  • Saying “no”: Able to say no when needed. Tries to compromise when possible.
  • Thoughts: “How can I balance my needs and theirs?”
  • Feelings: May feel guilty saying no but does it anyway, and in a respectful manner.
  • Behaviours: Uses compromise, negotiation, and perspective-taking.
  • Conflict style: You try to be diplomatic when discussing your feelings in a respectful way. You work through conflict instead of avoiding it.
  • Impact on relationships: Can enhance relationships with the people who have similar values as you. If your motto is win-win or no deal, some relationships might end if mutual respect is not possible.

How can therapy help with Assertiveness?

Therapy can help you to identify the different communication styles that you use, and to help you to become more assertive in situations where that would be useful. The key is flexibility, as not all situations require assertiveness. For example, if you are being mugged, probably being assertive is not the way to go – just be passive and hand over your wallet. However, extreme situations aside, usually being assertive is helpful, because it balances respecting your needs with that of others.

Therapy can help you to find the words to communicate what’s really in your heart, and to accept and make space for difficult emotions that arise while being assertive. Learning to be more assertive in different areas of your life can give you greater confidence in yourself, your ability to communicate, and can enhance your relationships with others. Assertive communication can be helpful at work or school, in business, with peers, and loved ones.

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