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Until recently, when I heard the word ‘assertive’ I thought of someone with an angry face, standing their ground, and not budging from their point of view. With that image, I both wanted to be and not to be more assertive. I desired to have the courage to stand my ground for a worthy cause. At the same time, I did not want to ruffle any feathers or damage relationships because I was being ‘assertive’.

I was so wrong! In the book The EQ Edge, Doctors Steven J. Stein and Howard E. Book define assertiveness as the ability to express feelings, beliefs and thoughts openly, and to stand up for personal rights without being aggressive or abusive. They also explain that assertiveness involves the ability to communicate clearly, specifically, and unambiguously, while at the same time being sensitive to the needs of others and their responses in a particular encounter.

Being assertive does not sound terrible at all. On the contrary, it is a much-needed emotional intelligence skill for healthy self-expression. 

If you can answer always or almost always to these statements, you are assertive.

  • I say ‘no’ when I need to.
  • I am assertive without being offensive.
  • When I disagree with someone, I say so.
  • I am firm and direct when necessary.
  • I stand up for what I believe in.
  • I tell people what I think.

And if you can answer never or almost never to this statement, you are assertive.

  • I back down even when I know I am right.

Assertiveness, like other emotional intelligence dimensions, is a skill and it can be learned and developed. In addition, there are different ways of being assertive. We could use humor, be serious, concise, or eloquent when expressing our thoughts and feelings. We can take the elements of assertiveness and adapt them to our own style.

To be assertive, we want to combine other emotional intelligence skills as well.

First, we want to use our awareness to identify our feelings and emotions before expressing them.

Second, we want to properly use impulse control to adequately express catabolic emotions without escalating to the extremes of these sentiments. Let us not forget about empathy to be sensitive to the needs, feelings, and response from others.

And last but not least, we want to stand up for our rights, causes, and most important values, which means both being able to disagree with others and respect their point of view.

Once we master the skill of assertiveness, we would be able to have deeper relationships especially as we compromise and look for win-win solutions accordingly.

Being assertive does not mean being aggressive. A key component of assertiveness is consideration of the thoughts and feelings of others. This is what separates being assertive from being aggressive.

Nancy, one of my clients, has a new interim manager and her perception of her new manager is not very positive – this is based on limited past interactions and comments from others. Nancy’s coping mechanism so far has been to tell herself that this is a temporary situation, and she is marking each passing day (as if she were serving a sentence). 

This passive stance is very common; I hear it all the time from my clients, colleagues, and friends. Many of us prefer to endure than to express our needs, beliefs, and values.

In our last session, I invited Nancy to imagine a different thought that would be more empowering to her. She came up with ‘this is an opportunity to establish a solid relationship with my new manager, and to learn some skills on how to properly express my needs.’ Nancy moved from being passive to being curious and assertive.

Here are some tips to become more assertive.

1) Learn to say no, not now, or not yet

As part of setting boundaries, it is perfectly fine to say ‘no’, ‘not now’, or ‘not yet’. 

I think part of the fear of setting boundaries and saying ‘no’ is that we may be coming from a scarcity mindset instead of from an abundant one. We are afraid of missing out if we put limitations.

The reality is that the clearer we are with what is acceptable and what is not, the better off we are with people. I started to see it as me helping them understand how we can better work, connect and interact together. The reality is that most people do not want to hurt us or make us feel bad.

And what is acceptable today may not be acceptable tomorrow. Our boundaries are fluid with time and wisdom, so it is important to let the people close to us know of the changes.

“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.” – Brené Brown

2) Graciously disagree

This is a skill I am constantly learning and experimenting with. It is difficult for me to say, ‘I disagree’. Instead, I ask questions to know more about the other person’s point of view. Doing so helps me stay away from judgment and remain curious. And the other person feels heard.

Instead of saying ‘I disagree’, I offer my perspective. ‘My two cents are…’, ‘what I think is…’, or ‘what I believe is…’ Another one I like is ‘that has not been my experience with…’ If the conversation has room for objective information, I may say ‘I did some research, and this is what I found…’

When I share my experience with my clients, I ask them ‘what are your thoughts or reaction to what you heard?’ I do something similar with colleagues at work. I want to offer information that they can incorporate to their knowledge and allow them to modify their perspective without losing face.

“Disagreements are unavoidable, but how you handle them can make all the difference.” Pooja Agnihotri, 17 Reasons Why Businesses Fail

3) Identify your values

Part of being assertive is standing up for your rights, beliefs, and values while respecting those of the other person.

If we cannot articulate what is most important to us, then being assertive will be very difficult. 

When you think about what values are important to you, look at your calendar, to-do list, and notes. If you say that an important value for you is ‘fitness’, for example, and you cannot remember the last time you went to the gym or exercised, then maybe it is not as relevant as you want it to be. On the other hand, if you have a daily gratitude practice, then gratitude is one of your key values.

You can use this tool to start identifying your values based on what is important and how you use your time.

“Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.” José Ortega y Gasset

Being assertive opens many more possibilities than being aggressive, passive, or passive aggressive. It allows us to come up with a win-win solution that we may not have thought about on our own. 

Assertive people achieve their goals because they can express their beliefs, their needs and wants in a clear manner while considering and respecting others’ points of view.

Improving our assertiveness, like any other skill, requires practice, patience, and consistency. Keep at it, and before you know it, you will be a natural.

What are your thoughts about assertiveness? How do you effectively show it? Please, let us know in the comments. You can write in English, Spanish, Portuguese, or French.

As a leadership coach, I enable talent to achieve bold goals with high standards. My mission is to help women transition from mid to senior level leadership positions by creating awareness, increasing emotional intelligence, and unveiling the tools and choices available to them, so they can confidently realize and fulfill their potential.

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