Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Introduction to Assertiveness


Other articles on this website describe optimism as a skill valuable in helping individuals obtain a positive and satisfying life. This column will provide some insights into another skill, assertiveness. Mental health therapists are too often seen as "shrinks" useful only in helping troubled people deal with severe problems. While this is true in some cases, other therapists, especially cognitive-behavioral therapists, have studied positive psychology and life skills and are able to provide resources to help optimize happiness and positive life changes.

Why should you care about assertiveness? Consider whether you feel a need to respond effectively to some frustrating situations: your neighbor's dog barks all night and you can't sleep; your boss gives you more work assignments than your coworkers; you are overcharged and have to call to correct a bill; people break ahead of you in line; your friend takes advantage by always asking for favors without reciprocating. Do you recognize those situations? These kinds of life problems present opportunities to act effectively to change the situation and avoid being victimized by others.

There are three or four basic behavior styles possible in responding to these kinds of situations. An assertive response is a goal-oriented response where an individual takes effective action to meet his or her needs in a situation without harming others. Many people confuse assertiveness with aggressiveness. An aggressive response has a hostile component when an individual attempts to satisfy personal needs without respect or empathy for the needs of others. It's "my way or the highway." A passive response is designed to avoid conflict at all costs by giving in or going along so that an individual's needs are seldom fulfilled. Another response style is the passive-aggressive style where an individual will disguise aggressive responses in order to avoid taking responsibility for them. A possible fourth response style is alternating different approaches, often responding to conflict passively until anger builds into a hostile response or aggressive outburst.

One myth about assertiveness is that an individual has to have an "assertive personality" to behave in this manner. However, assertiveness is a skill, not a personality, a style of behavior common to many different kinds of personality. Learning assertiveness is basically learning to take effective action to meet individual goals while considering the rights and opinions of others. An assertive response often includes a willingness to work out a solution acceptable to others without compromising the rights of either person.

If assertiveness is such an effective strategy, why do so many people have difficulty behaving in an assertive manner? Why do they often end up, instead, with a passive or angry reaction? There are many reasons for passivity including low self-esteem, need to placate others, learned helplessness, as well as fear of criticism and rejection or offending others. The passive style does not always include social withdrawal. The unassertive individual may have difficulty saying "no" and may actually be overworked striving to please others. The aggressive style is often seen when individuals have low frustration tolerance, poor control of angry feelings, lack of empathy and possibly a need to control others. Passive-aggressive reactions are often seen in angry but anxious individuals whose worry about their anger leads them to disguise aggression to avoid taking responsibility or incurring consequences.

Self-help books or, better, therapists can help individuals learn about the origins and consequences of their own behavior style to develop effective styles of assertive behavior while decreasing passivity or aggression. The solution will often involve analyzing barriers to assertiveness and practicing more effective responses. Assertiveness includes behaviors such as: stating your desired goal in a situation; voicing your opinions and feelings; describing your understanding of the other person's position; listening to the other person with respect and empathy; finding compromises or common ground to meet the needs of both people; avoiding win-lose scenarios; and keeping anger under control. Attempting an assertive response does involve being willing to encounter some criticism or rejection, although an effective assertive response will usually encounter less negativity then imagined or feared. The bottom line is that you will be unlikely to gain what you want out of a situation unless you ask!

Developing assertiveness will increase your range and choice of behavior. Encountering frustrating situations, passive or aggressive individuals often feel they have little choice but to continue with their habitual behavior which is often unsatisfactory to them. Assertive responding is about picking your battles, choosing when to try an assertive response. You don't have to be assertive all the time. In fact individuals who appear to be using "assertive" responses in all life situations may be masking aggression by trying to prevail in all situations. Assertive behavior is one of many skills which can be learned or maximized to increase life satisfaction.