The scenarios described represent the kinds of stressful situations that we all confront each workday. What these situations have in common is that they call for an assertive response. Whether you are a boss, manager, new employee on the bottom rung of the ladder, factory worker, salesclerk, restaurant server, CEO, university professor, administrator, government worker, police officer, doctor, or beautician, situations will arise where you will need to assert yourself in order to deal with the situation and lower your stress level. Assertion involves standing up for your personal rights and expressing ideas, needs, feelings, and beliefs in direct, honest, and appropriate ways without violating the rights of other people (Lange & Jakubowski, 1976). When you are assertive you can accept compliments and take criticisms. You can negotiate for what you need, disagree with another, and ask for clarification when you don't understand. You can set limits when necessary, and you are able to say no (Fensterheim & Baer, 1975).

The basic message you are communicating when you are assertive is: This is what I think. This is what I feel. This is how I view the situation. This message expresses who you are and is said without dominating, humiliating, or degrading the other person. Assertion involves respect for others, but not deference. Deference is acting in a subservient manner, as though other people are right or better simply because they are older, more powerful, more experienced, more knowledgeable, or in an authority position over you. When you express yourself in ways that are self-effacing, appeasing, or overly apologetic you are showing deference. Two types of respect are intimately involved in assertion: (1) respect for yourself—that is, expressing your needs and defending your rights, and (2) respect for the rights and needs of the other person.

Assertive self-expression is the hallmark of effective communication skills. It is a prerequisite for satisfying interpersonal relationships. Being assertive will not give you an ironclad guarantee of having things go your way, but you maximize your chances of success while minimizing the chance of alienating others. Research suggests that assertive individuals are more resistant to the deleterious effects of stress (Honzak, Veselkova, & Poslusny, 1989). Assertiveness leads to higher self-esteem, less stress, and more satisfying interpersonal relationships (Davis, Eshelman, & McKay, 1988).

Differentiating Assertiveness from Passivity and Aggression

Nonassertion, also called passivity, involves violating your own rights by failing to express honest feelings, needs, thoughts, and beliefs and consequently permitting others to potentially take advantage of you. It also involves expressing your thoughts and feelings in such an apologetic, diffident, or self-effacing manner that others can easily disregard you and your message. Nonassertion shows a lack of respect for your own needs. It can also imply a subtle lack of respect for the other person's ability to handle disappointments, to shoulder some responsibility, to handle his or her own problems, and so on. The goal of passivity is to appease others and to avoid conflict at any cost. And often there is a high price to pay for routinely avoiding conflict.

Aggression involves directly standing up for your personal rights and expressing thoughts, feelings, needs, and beliefs in ways that can be dishonest, are usually inappropriate or intimidating, and always violate the rights of other people. The usual goal of aggression is domination and winning by intimidation, forcing the other person to lose—or at the very least, to lose face. Winning is assured by humiliating, degrading, belittling, or overpowering others so they become weaker and less able to express and defend their needs and rights. You need not get physical in order to be aggressive.

We can think of assertiveness, passivity, and aggression as being on a continuum, with assertiveness representing the effective middle ground between aggression and nonassertion. It represents a balance of respecting the rights of others while also respecting your own rights. It represents the effective middle ground of diplomacy between the deference and self-effacement characteristic of passivity, and the intimidation and bullying characteristic of aggressiveness. Put simply, when you are assertive you can set up a win/win situation. When passive, you create a lose/win scenario and, obviously, when you are aggressive you produce a win/lose situation.

There is another ineffective option to assertiveness: passive-aggression, which may sound like a contradiction in terms, but represents a form of behavior that we have all demonstrated at one time or another. Passive-aggressiveness is an indirect form of aggressiveness where we literally get back at someone, not by what we directly do or say, but by what we fail to do or say. For example, a formerly dedicated employee who feels that his boss is too demanding may eventually adopt an “I don't care” attitude, deliberately working slowly and finding excuses to take time off work. The classic example is giving someone the silent treatment.

Negative Consequences of Nonassertion

Failure to handle situations in an assertive fashion can have very negative consequences for you and for your business and personal relationships. In the short run, a passive stance helps you avoid anxiety-producing conflicts. However, in the long run, if you are frequently passive you will feel a growing loss of self-esteem and an increasing sense of resentment or anger. This increases your stress level, which can lead to anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic difficulties (headaches, ulcers, hypertension, and so on). On the other hand, handling situations in an aggressive manner also works in the short run because you may achieve a temporary emotional release and get your needs met through intimidation. But in the long run, the negative consequences of aggressiveness are obvious. Highly aggressive behavior at work may ultimately cost you promotions or even your job. Bullying your employees (if you are the boss), subordinates, or co-workers leads to poor interpersonal relationships and literally invites passive-aggressive retaliation by your colleagues. For example, a tyrannical boss may find that her subordinates react to her aggressive, authoritarian stance with work slowdowns, deliberate mistakes, property damage, theft, backbiting, and so on. In your personal life, aggression can lead to failed relationships, high blood pressure, fights, and even potentially trouble with the law. People who are frequently aggressive eventually feel deeply misunderstood, unloved, and unlovable because they fail to recognize the impact of their behavior on others and how such alienation is inevitable.

Benefits of Assertion

Being assertive maximizes the likelihood that your needs and the needs of others will be met. It will certainly lower your personal level of stress and help ward off illness. Perhaps the greatest benefit of assertiveness is that it will definitely increase your self-respect and self-confidence, as well as garner respect from others.

Why People Fail to Behave Assertively

There are many reasons why people do not behave assertively, and not all of them will apply to you. Ponder those reasons that are relevant for you and be aware of the misconceptions that often underlie your line of reasoning.

  • Fearing loss of approval from others or of getting an angry response.

  • Failing to distinguish between assertiveness and aggression—that is, mistaking assertiveness for aggression. This is a particular problem for women in our culture, who are given so many double messages. For example, they are encouraged to be strong and outspoken and then vilified for being bitchy or masculine (Phelps & Austin, 1987).

  • Mistaking nonassertion for politeness or consideration. How can you learn to differentiate nonassertion from graciousness or politeness? A good rule of thumb is to listen to your body. Certain body signals will cue you when your response changes from politeness to nonassertion. Tension and discomfort will arise that typically are not present when you are being polite. If you are confused as to whether to assert yourself or whether to keep quiet and “be polite,” you need to ask yourself the following questions:

    Am I likely to bring this up later?

    Will my relationship with this person suffer or change if I keep silent?

    Is a hidden expectation present?

    Will I feel used because I have unexpressed expectations about reciprocity that may go unfulfilled?

  • Mistaking passivity for being helpful because agreeing to do things you really don't want to do might help another person. In genuine helping, you eventually make yourself obsolete. In rescuing, you end up in the victim role with feelings of being used or taken advantage of by someone with an expectation that you will always be there to bail him or her out.

  • Behaving aggressively as an outgrowth of feelings of powerlessness, when you believe that you will be controlled too easily by others unless you behave aggressively. Here you tend to behave aggressively as an overreaction to past emotional experiences.

  • Believing that aggression is justified and that the only way to get through to other people can also fuel aggressive behavior.

  • Acting aggressively on feelings of anger or hurt that have built up to a boiling point, leading to an explosion. If the situation had been dealt with assertively in the first place, the aggressive episode could have been prevented.

  • Failing to accept your personal rights. It is hard to be assertive if you do not believe you have the right to express your reactions, take care of your needs, and stand up for yourself. Some people not only feel they shouldn't express their needs, but think they should not even have them in the first place (Smith, 1975).

The foundation of improving your assertive skills involves understanding and believing that you have certain rights as an individual and that it is not only okay, but healthy and useful to yourself and others to stand up for your rights (Alberti & Emmons, 1974). Individuals who are appropriately assertive and self-confident have internalized the following tenets.

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