by Andrew Lawless, John Quinn, Sue Wilcox

What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness is not what you do, it’s who you are!

Shakti Gawain

We recognise assertiveness in people’s behaviour. We label someone’s behaviour as being assertive, or not. We see in the behaviour of an assertive person an attitude that inclines them to express their wishes and opinions in a firm and confident manner and to pursue their outcomes strongly, while respecting other people’s rights and wants.

Assertive behaviour occurs when someone

  • Has self-respect, a strong self concept and self esteem
  • Stands up for their own rights without violating the rights of others
  • Recognises and respects other people’s wants and needs
  • Chooses to compromise, looking for a win/win solution, instead of ‘giving in’ or ‘holding power over’.

When you define assertiveness in this way, you can see that many people mistake dominance for assertiveness. Someone who is simply pushy or overbearing is not being assertive; they are just seeking control without regard or respect for others.

When most people talk about wanting to be more assertive, what they usually mean is something like this:

  • How can I become more able to resist the pressure and dominance of excessively dominant people?
  • How can I stand up to bullies (or one bully in particular)?
  • How can I exert a little more control in situations that are important to me?

A balanced approach

These questions spring from a limited view, as true assertive behaviour is about a balanced approach. It is not just about being pushy. It’s about respecting the rights, personal boundaries and feelings of others and expecting others to respect your rights, boundaries and feelings too.

If someone doesn’t respect your rights and feelings, as an assertive person, you communicate it to them. It isn’t about scoring points or getting even by lashing out at them (aggressive); nor is it about feeling hurt and not talking about it so as to not embarrass or upset the other person (passive).

Assertiveness is about respect, for self and others. This respect leads to behaviours that recognise the needs of others, both emotionally and physically, as well as your own. Of course, this means that you must actually be aware of the needs of others as well as your own needs. In other words, you cannot be either totally self-centred or totally subservient.

If you think about what this means in practice, you will realise that assertion, as opposed to aggression or non-assertion, is desirable and effective in most interpersonal situations.

We can accept that assertiveness as defined here is beneficial and useful, but it obviously raises the question ‘Assertive about what?’

You can be assertive about your wants and needs, but at a more fundamental level it is really about what you feel are your rights.