It’s 5 pm on a Friday night and you have dinner plans at 6:30 pm with your friends, when your boss comes up to you and asks you to stay longer to go through some important files. He tells you that no one else is available to stay and the files need to be sorted by midnight. You don’t want your boss to think he can’t count on you but you’ve been working overtime all week and haven’t been able to see your friends in a long time… What do you tell your boss?
Assertive behaviour entails any action that reflects an individual’s best interest such as expressing one’s feelings and standing up for oneself, without infringing upon the rights of others. Being assertive involves communicating your thoughts and feelings clearly and openly, even while being challenged by others.
Assertiveness is considered to fall along a continuum, whereby problems typically manifest as excessive submissiveness or excessive aggressiveness. For example, someone who falls on the side of excessive submissiveness will often put their own interests aside to favour those of others, struggle to advocate for themselves and have difficulty saying no. In contrast, someone who falls on the side of excessive aggressiveness might be very pushy, intimidating, and inflexible to the needs of others.
Why is assertiveness important?
A lack of assertiveness may negatively impact individuals’ perceptions of their own self-worth, particularly in social contexts where they may see themselves as inferior to others. Being assertive can improve and augment the beneficial effects of social relationships and is related to lower depression scores.
Assertiveness also extends beyond the individual and can impact the ease with which a group functions. Research has found that assertiveness positively impacts team task performance and satisfaction.
How to improve assertiveness
Assertiveness is a social skill that can be improved with practice. In fact, various facets of assertiveness training are embedded in many psychological treatment models.
A particularly useful strategy to strengthen assertiveness is taught in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and can be remembered using the acronym “DEAR MAN” (elaborated below). This strategy can be used in any situation requiring assertiveness, such as: saying no to unwanted requests, standing up for yourself, resolving conflict or making a necessary change in a relationship.
The DEAR MAN Skills:
Begin by briefly describing the situation to the other person in an objective manner (i.e. stick to the facts of the situation before elaborating on your opinion/take on it). This helps orient the other person to the context of your request. Importantly, when you describe the situation objectively, you set a neutral tone where both parties can start on the same page.
Example: “Given that the team has gone through many changes lately, I have worked overtime every day this week.”
Express clearly how you feel and/or what you believe about the situation. Don’t expect people to read your mind or know how you feel. By sharing how you feel about the situation, you make it easier for the other person to see the situation from your perspective.
Example: “I am always happy to help the team but it’s equally important for me to maintain a work-life balance, and I have dinner plans scheduled for this evening.”
Ask for what you want (or say no clearly). Don’t assume the other person will know what you want them to do if you don’t actually tell them. Be clear and concise about what you want and don’t beat around the bush!
Example: “I am not able to stay overtime today.”
Reinforce the other person to want to work with you and give you the response you want. This involves identifying how the other person can benefit from giving you what you want. Try to draw a connection between what you are asking for and what the other person might want/need.
Example: “I am more productive and efficient at my job when my work schedule enables me to have a good work-life balance.”
Remain mindful of your objectives in the situation. Maintain your position and avoid getting distracted onto another topic. It may even be helpful to jot down a list of your objectives before you begin the conversation (to prevent getting side-tracked). If the other person tries to change the subject or divert you, do not respond or give the distraction any attention. Just keep making your point.
Display body language that reflects confidence (upright posture, shoulders back, appropriate eye contact) and use a confident tone of voice. This sends the message (to yourself and the other party) that you are effectual and deserve respect. Also, remember that you don’t need to be confident to appear confident (you can always fake it till you make it!).
Be willing to give in order to get. It can be useful to think about what alternatives you are willing to settle on or what else you are willing to offer in order to attain your objective. Alternatively, if you’re having a hard time negotiating, you can always throw the ball in the other person’s court and ask them to think of alternative solutions.
Example: “What do you think we should do here? I am not able to say yes, so how else can we solve this problem?”
Practice makes perfect
Being assertive can have a positive impact on your self-esteem, lead to better relationships, and help you establish more control in achieving your wants and needs. While it might be uncomfortable at first, assertiveness improves with practice! And if you fear that being assertive will make people like you less or want to leave the relationship, ask yourself how you would respond to someone else saying no or asserting their needs. Odds are, most people won’t take these things personally and they might even appreciate your honesty and effective communication. So, take that leap and try to be assertive... You might be surprised with how well it turns out!