Monday, 18 February 2013

What's Your Assertiveness Style?

It’s hard to get what we want in life. It’s even harder when we’re so afraid to tell other people what we want that we sit around hoping they’ll read our minds. How often do you have the guts to tell somebody that you want, or don’t want, something? Do you ever feel as if you let people walk all over you? Does the thought of complaining in a restaurant fill you will cold dread?

"Honey, of COURSE I don't mind if you still talk to your
ex every day...." (
It might be something you've never thought about, but picture this: You’re waiting for the bus, trying to balance your take-out coffee in one hand and your mobile in the other. Suddenly, you feel something slamming into you, spilling your coffee and making you drop your phone. You look around and see that a stranger, absorbed in their own phone, just crashed into you without a word of apology. Do you:
a)    Scream at them, telling them to watch where they’re f***ing going!
b)    Silently pick up your coffee and phone, thinking about how much the world steps on you
c)    Say nothing but curse under your breath, perhaps loudly shouting “ouch!”
d)    Approach the stranger and kindly point out what they did

 OK, so this situation obviously depends on a lot of things. You don’t want to miss your bus, and you don’t want to accidentally enrage a stranger, just in case they’re the next serial killer and respond to your “kind” request with a punch in the face, or worse. Besides, they might have a legitimate reason for being in such a hurry, meaning that you’d feel guilty for saying anything. Generally, though, the response you felt the most drawn to gives a clue about how assertive you are.

The first response – to scream at them – is a far cry from being assertive, although many people seem to confuse the two. Sorry, folks – this is just plain aggression. If your automatic response to being wronged is an outburst of expletives and rage, you might need to do a little research into anger management. But isn’t responding like this also a way of standing up for your rights? Shouldn’t you be angry when someone is rude or inconsiderate to you? The difference is that assertive people respect themselves and others, while aggressive people immediately feel that they are the victim. You are angry because you believe that you were not at fault, and perhaps you feel somehow threatened by their behaviour, causing you to lash out. While this might make you feel better for a second, it isn’t going to solve the problem – if you’ve ever been screamed at by a stranger, you’ll know that all it does it make you defensive and perhaps just as angry. You can’t expect to get an apology by shouting; it will just make the other person defend their actions and lead to an argument.

If you chose b), then it sounds like you’re living in victim mode. The world is hard on you, everyone is out to get you, people like you just don’t get the breaks. While a lot of experiences you’ve had might have made you think like that, getting trapped in that way of thinking will only lead you to depression and anxiety. Recognise the power that you have in any given situation, or you will start to feel as if you are floating down the river of life without a raft (and that’s no fun).

Option c) is no more assertive than b), but it comes with an added punch – the passive aggressive style of dealing with things. I am especially familiar with this one because I grew up with it and almost came to accept it as a normal way of dealing with things. You might get overcharged at a shop, but instead of saying anything, you complain online, take far too many bags or knock something over on your way out. Very mature, of course. Imagine your friend or partner wants you to come to some party with them, but you really don’t want to go. The passive aggressive method is to go along but complain audibly throughout the night with comments like “Ah, I was meant to finish all that work tonight. I mean, I’ll probably be fired, but whatever”. You know what you want and don’t want, but for some reason you are afraid to come out and say it directly – you’d rather dance around the subject with sarcasm and hidden meaning, hoping that the other person will understand and give you what you want. The bad news is that most people will either ignore this (because they know what you’re doing and don’t approve) or be blind to it.  

As I’m sure you guessed, it’s only really option d) that shows a level of assertiveness. You are not afraid to stand up for yourself, but you make sure to do it in a way that respects other people, too. When you are assertive, you are far more likely to get what you want, because people realise that you’re treating them with respect and honesty and will want to reciprocate. If you don’t believe me, think about this situation:

You have a co-worker who you get on well with. The two of you are always laughing and joking. You have quite a cheeky sense of humour, so sometimes you make jokes about sex and other such things. Your co-worker often blushes but still smiles. Now, imagine that one day, you crack a naughty joke and your co-worker explodes with “Will you STOP making those horrible jokes!? You’re disgusting!” It seems that your jokes were bothering him all along, but he took the non-assertive route of saying nothing, until it built up and built up and turned into aggression. How would you feel?

Now imagine, instead, that he smiles and says: “Look, I like you and I think you’re very funny, but those sexual jokes really make me feel uncomfortable and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t make them in front of me.” You might be taken back for a moment, but in the long run, you’d probably appreciate the fact that he told you early on and that he did it in a polite way.

Being assertive isn't just about not letting strangers crash into you or co-workers make you feel uncomfortable. When you’re assertive, you can tell your friends when they’re upsetting you or when you really don't want to do something with them. You’ll be happier with your partner, because you can have honest heart-to-hearts with them and tackle the issues that are bothering you. You can say no to things you really don't want (like overtime or more responsibilities or a time-share in Hawaii) and ask for the things you do (like a pay rise, a discount or more time to yourself).

 But how do we reach this elusive assertiveness? It starts with respecting yourself, and then with respecting others. Of course, it isn't easy – it’s taken me years to feel that I can be assertive, and even then it doesn't work in many situations. I still find it hard to get rid of charity fund-raisers on the street or to turn down extra hours at work. It takes time, but if you’re sick of feeling as if the world takes you for granted, it’s your time to take the reins and stand up for yourself. 

I ran my free Shine with Confidence call in April 2013 - click here to download it!

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