How to Be More Assertive – The Quintessential Guide
Last week, I went to dinner with my cousin and her friend who were visiting me in Vienna for some days. They really enjoy Italian food so I booked a table in one of the most traditional Italian restaurants in town. The menu was kind of complicated because we had many options to choose from, so I asked the waiter to enlighten us a bit and suggest some of the most popular dishes.
While talking to the waiter, I noticed my cousin’s friend struggling to keep eye contact with him and also showcasing signs of uncomfortable body language during his presence. I didn’t really pay much attention to his behavior and went on ordering some of the most interesting dishes on the menu.
When the dishes arrived, we had a variety of options to choose from. Pizza, tagliatelle carbonara, penne al’arrabiata, some nice Italian antipasti, and a very tasteful white wine, were just some of the items that composed our dinner. The friend looked really excited about the food choices and started tasting every single dish to get an overall taste of our mini feast.
When he tried the penne al’arrabiata however, he noticed that the sauce was way too spicy. I am not really an expert when it comes to Italian food but, to his defense, I have to admit that the sauce was unusually spicy. Without hesitation, I called the waiter and politely asked him to change the dish and bring us something with a more balanced flavor.
To the sound of my comment, the friend blushed and, in a moment of self-guilt, he urged me not to change anything and that the dish was fine. I went on to ignore him and asked him to relax, explaining that sometimes it is nice to get what you want.
The rest of the dinner flowed naturally and the friend eventually ended up loving the balanced taste of his new penne al’arrabiata.
I am quite sure that most of you have experienced similar situations in your past. Or situations where you were in my cousin’s friend position and you were too scared to communicate your needs and get what you really wanted.
To be honest with you, you shouldn’t feel worried if this has happened to you because this is actually the norm. We live in a society that educates us from a very young age to suppress our needs instead of teaching us an effective way to communicate them in an elegant and supportive manner. The instance with the waiter is just one of the countless examples where lack of assertiveness is forcing us to exist in a reality where our needs are not met and we are left in an unsatisfied and unfulfilled state.
This happens on a daily basis and also during our most critical interactions. It happens when we discuss our pay rise, it happens when we try to negotiate our mortgage payments, it happens when we talk to people we really like, it happens when we can’t defend ourselves against people who disrespect us. But does it really need to be this way?
In order to understand this concept concretely, I will quote a really nice paragraph I found on psychcentral:
Most people think of being assertive as an external thing, as facing up to difficulties with other people in a strong manner. The reality is that the problem goes deeper. To be assertive, we must first learn to face up to some core beliefs about ourselves. We need to see what we are doing to ourselves by being unassertive, and how this is affecting us.
In my opinion, unassertiveness is strongly associated with lack of self-esteem. When you see yourself as a person who lacks value, it is normal to assume that what other people think of you is more important than what you think of yourself. When you don’t assume complete ownership over your own mental space, you automatically degrade your personal value and you let it get affected by the mental space of others.
Dr Robert Glover, in his bestselling book, “No More Mr. Nice Guy” refers to this as a doormat mentality where the unassertive person is trying too hard to please others while neglecting his or her own needs, thus becoming unhappy and resentful. It is a mentality that not only affects the psychology of the person but also causes frustration to others around them because their lack of proper need for communication is usually translated to neediness and approval seeking.
Understanding and eventually accepting this concept was a turning point for me and I truly believe it is the turning point for most people. It is crucial to recognize that we are all different and, consequently, most of us have different needs. And that is ok. Assertiveness is the ultimate tool to communicate those needs in an effective and elegant way.
To make things clearer, let me demonstrate assertiveness in a graphical way:
As you can see, assertiveness is the sweet spot between passivity and aggression.
This is very crucial to understand because most people fail to identify this sweet spot and usually end up confusing assertiveness with aggression. By all means, assertive does not mean aggressive.
In the penne al’arrabiata story, for instance, I was demonstrating assertiveness in a polite way.
I wasn’t being rude or aggressive. I was just communicating my needs.
If you want a more compact and to the point explanation of assertiveness, I also have my personal definition for it:
Assertiveness is a gentle demonstration of confident characteristics.
It is a combination of healthy confidence and the ability to stand up for yourself and your rights, without however disrespecting the rights of others.
When you’re assertive, you are direct and honest with others. You don’t expect people to read your mind about what you want. If something is bothering you, you speak up; if you want or need something, you ask. You do all these while maintaining a calm and civil demeanor.
It is also important to note that assertiveness won’t always get you on the positive side of things. People will almost certainly disagree with the majority of your requests and opinions, but it is within their right to do so. When this happens, a well-calibrated person never loses temper or control. You understand others’ opinions and embrace a “let’s just agree to disagree” frame of mind. Being assertive doesn’t mean that you will always get what you want, but it means that you feel freer because you will know how to express what you want.
5 Proven Ways on How to Be More Assertive
Now that you have a more concrete idea of what assertiveness actually is, it is time to get a bit more practical and suggest some useful ways that can allow assertiveness to emerge as a strong constituent of your character.
1. Harness the Power of Body Language
Assertiveness, like most of the behaviors associated with confidence and influence, is principally demonstrated in a non-verbal way. The major ingredients of non-verbal assertiveness are eye contact, tonality, and posture.
Keeping eye contact while communicating your need is crucial to eventually satisfying it because it demonstrates how serious you are about it. This is, however, a very elegant process and there is a thin line that separates aggression from assertiveness when trying to do it right. Micro-expressions can easily betray your intentions and miscommunicate your message. A relaxed eye contact that sub-communicates a degree of calmness and compassion is usually a great way to go.
Tonality needs to be deep, slow-paced, and subtle. Additionally, the intensity of our message is bolstered when combined with the right amount of playfulness and humor. It goes without saying that the temptation of adopting a more aggressive tone will always be present. Managing to escape this point, distinguishes people who really understand assertiveness from those who don’t.
A great posture is a strong non-verbal indicator of confidence. Amy Cuddy in her famous TED Talk suggests that standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident, can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the body, and have an impact on how successfully we can get our message across.
2. Justify yourself only when it is absolutely necessary.
Justification is oftentimes deemed as a weakness. Influential characters rarely justify themselves. They know that their opinion is strong and they try to base their views on reason and logic. This way of communication does not require justification.
Justification of our actions is only necessary when we know that we did something wrong. It could happen that, in the heat of the moment, our behavior became emotional and we disrespected someone that didn’t deserve to be treated as such. In such a happenstance, a mature person knows how to resolve the issue by justifying their actions.
3. Pay Attention to Your Frame
Another crucial characteristic of an assertive character is their ability to understand and, eventually, hold an assertive frame. This simply implies that you should be able to stand by your arguments and speak up for yourself. By no means am I promulgating that you should initiate verbal confrontations whenever you are attacked or provoked. What I am suggesting is that you should be able to control your emotions and try to communicate support for your opinions with thorough and respectable arguments.
4. Carefully Manage Your Emotions
A pattern identified among passive and aggressive people is that both groups fail to understand other’s intentions, hence they react emotionally. Aggressive people, for instance, fail to understand the frame communicated by others, thus ending up exerting their will through physical, mental, and emotional force.
Passive people, on the other hand, because of their inability to understand other’s views and opinions, constantly submit their will to the will of others. They try to please everyone in a very indigent way that eventually makes both themselves and their surroundings uncomfortable.
Drawing from the two extreme behaviors demonstrated by aggressive and passive people, we come to understand the importance of assertiveness. Assertive people embrace the balance between passivity and aggression but in an emotionally intelligent way. They understand that, although it is important to care for others, firstly, you cannot please everyone and, secondly, you cannot satisfy other people’s needs if your own needs are unsatisfied.
Real-Life Examples of Assertiveness in Action
Now that we have established the foundations of an assertive mindset, I will try and suggest some examples on how to be more assertive.
Two of these examples are real-life events that occurred in my past and have given me a solid understanding of how an assertive mindset can improve your relationships and satisfy your needs while respecting the needs of others. The third example is suggested by Ramit Sehti in his famous “Salary Negotiation: How to negotiate better than 99% of the people” article. All three of these examples are some of the most common situations where assertiveness needs to be exhibited and I truly believe that, if their approach is properly understood, they can find immediate application to any given real-life scenario.
Example #1 – Interaction with a person you met at a bar or a person that was introduced to you via common friends.
Jane: So what do you do for a living?
Me: I am a drug dealer (playfully) but in my spare time I work for a consulting firm.
Jane: That’s an interesting combination.
Me: Yes, I wanna have things spiced up in my life, so I like doing things that keep me constantly engaged.
Jane: I see.
Me: What about you Jane? What are your interests?
Jane: Well, I am a real estate agent but in my spare time I like doing yoga lessons.
Me: That is also a really interesting combination. I always liked yoga but never really tried it out. Maybe you can teach me.
Jane: Hm, I don’t know. I don’t really work with beginners.
Me: I can totally understand your hesitation, but I am certain that I can easily meet your expectations. I always like new challenges.
Jane: Ok we can try it out.
Notice here that an assertive character is extremely good at passing challenging replies when interacting with others. An assertive character also knows how and when to use humor to empower his or her assertive frame. Obviously, in this example, my tonality, eye contact, and posture were as described previously.
Example #2 – Workplace. Negotiating a salary for a new job.
Headhunter: I just want to make sure you are interested in the position and get a good feel as to what your time frame for making a move is? Also, I know we discussed briefly, but I was hoping to get more clarity on what you are looking for from a compensation standpoint?
Me: As for compensation, I’m not sure I could quantify that without getting a feel for where my skill level fits in with some of the other consultants after meeting with them during the business interview. We had discussed the probable need for some training on the technology side, but I’m basically looking to make market rates for a senior associate, so I’m sure your consultants are within that range.
Headhunter: From a compensation standpoint, we would probably be looking in the £40k + or – range. It really depends on how the other interviews go.
This is a great way to show you how when you capitalize on your strengths and also communicate your needs can help you negotiate a better salary.
Example #3 – Airport Terminal – Extra luggage negotiation.
This happened almost a year ago before an Easyjet flight from London to Vienna.
Flight attendant: I am sorry sir but apart from your hand luggage you are carrying a backpack, which is not allowed. This is considered a piece of extra luggage and you need to pay £40 for it.
Me: I don’t think that your argument makes sense. My backpack is extremely small and I can put it underneath my seat. It won’t take any extra space.
Flight attendant: I am sorry sir but the rules say that you are allowed only one piece of hand luggage and you need to pay an extra fee for the second one.
Me: I totally understand your concerns but even if I wanted to pay I am out of cash and my credit card is out of order.
Flight attendant: Sir, I cannot let you in the aircraft if you don’t pay the extra fee.
Me: I don’t think this is an option. I already paid for my ticket and as you can see you are creating problems with the boarding because of a small backpack.
Flight attendant: Anyway sir, please bear in mind next time that you are not allowed to do that.
Me: Thank you. Have a great day.
This is one of the numerous occasions when you will have to deal with people that will try to take advantage of you by following rules and regulations that don’t really make sense. Yes, based on Easyjet’s regulations my backpack was considered an extra item but paying £40 for it was ridiculous. These situations happen regularly in our everyday lives and assertiveness is a great way to overcome them and apparently spare yourself some extra money.
Before I conclude this article, I would like to remind you that, obviously, there are going to be times when assertiveness can’t really help you. Perhaps you are in the army and you need to just follow orders, perhaps you are fighting with your partner and the egos have taken over, or perhaps you are just too tired to argue.
Nevertheless, learning to communicate your needs, defending your frame, and expressing your opinion, will definitely make you a freer and more confident person. Always have in mind that assertiveness is a tool to help you have more control over your life.
Assertiveness is one of the 30 challenges suggested in the “30 Challenges – 30 Days – Zero Excuses” project. I strongly recommend trying it out. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain.
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