What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness is one of the tools for dealing effectively with others. It simply means standing up for yourself, speaking directly, and expressing effectively your ideas, wishes and concerns, without "beating around the bush," making excuses, or apologizing.

There are two types of assertiveness-demanding situations. The first is when someone asks you to do something that you just don't feel like doing. There are, unfortunately, people who take advantage of others by trying to elicit constant or excessive favors.

The second type of assertiveness-demanding situation (and this is a point which is not always made), is one in which people behave rudely toward you, try to put you down, insult you, or treat you in a patronizing manner. For maintaining your self-respect, as well as for attaining success, learning effective responses for these occasions is critical as well.


What is the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness?

Two important keys to effective assertiveness are cordiality and cheerfulness. These two attributes are wonderfully disarming: who can resent someone who asks something of them in a genuinely friendly way-or who gently refuses a request that would cause unnecessary inconvenience? Assertiveness doesn't mean developing a snarling, gruff demeanor. That's aggressiveness. Assertiveness means standing up for your rights politely, effectively, and in a way that is most likely to elicit the desired behaviors in others.

Being cheerfully assertive actually means that you will be most likely to maintain the goodwill of others. People respect those who stand up for their rights in a polite, yet confident way. Assertiveness means allowing the other person to "save face," while saving face yourself.


What are some of the traits of an unassertive person?

Those who are unassertive actually suffer from an excess of empathy. They appreciate the other person's feelings and desires so much that they feel guilty about giving preference to their own. But while empathy is a highly admirable quality, too much of it, as with anything else, is no good. Unfortunately, some people, rather than admiring this trait in a person, simply look for further ways to exploit it!

Another problem of assertiveness is the inability to make reasonable requests of others. Even when making a modest request, the unassertive person may still unconsciously feel that he's somehow imposing on the other person. This attitude can communicate itself to the other person--and if it does, he may agree with this assumption!

There is nothing wrong with giving people aid, bailing them out of a jam or lending them money if you are doing so because you truly want to. There is something wrong, however, if you're doing these things only because you can't say no--either because you don't know how to gracefully, or because you feel guilty about doing so.

Says UCLA assistant clinical professor Gary Emery, "We all want people to think we're nice, but millions of people carry it too far. Every moment of their days is spent being nice--and the damage it does to them is enormous!" Some experts say being "too nice" can cause harmful frustration, anger, anxiety, and depression.

Shy people may be especially prone to becoming chronic "people-pleasers," thinking that doing favors for people will make up for lack of extroversion in getting people to like them.

How do you know if a request you agree to is unreasonable? If you feel resentful about it later, you can be sure that what you were asked for was more than just a casual favor.


Should I try to join a clique?

Unfortunately, many people secretly suffer from a lack of self-esteem, and they quite illogically decide that the best way to increase their stature is not through a course of self-improvement but by excluding or putting down others.

Such people get a sense of power and importance by trying to appear superior to others; they do this by keeping others as outsiders, excluding them from the cherished inner circle. This is the whole idea and purpose behind the formation of cliques.

One dictionary defines a clique as "a small exclusive circle of people; a snobbish or narrow coterie." A snob is someone who tries to hide his own inadequacies by putting on airs. So a clique is just an organized attempt by more than one individual to do the same.

One young girl complained to a newspaper columnist that she just didn't seem to be able to gain entrance into a certain clique that existed in her school. The only "cool" kids in her school were members of the clique. All the others were "nerds."

This letter writer's beliefs may seem silly at first, and laughably easy to dismiss, but they may be far more common than we suspect. It obviously never occurred to this young lady that some of the kids at her school might have been too busy trying out for the football team, or playing in the band, or practicing for the debate team to worry about being a member of this or that clique. But she didn't notice these people because she was too busy victimizing herself with beliefs that only succeeded in making her unhappy.

What, then, is the key to dealing with cliques? It is this: simply having no interest in being a member! It is in having the self-respect to trust your own judgment as to who is and is not worthy to have as a friend. It is in forming your own circle of friends, and not being worried about being a member of this clique or that one. When you have no interest in becoming a member of a clique, an amazing thing happens: the clique loses its power over you! And that's a power it didn't need to have in the first place.


How should I handle "tone of voice?"

Someone who wants to be difficult can do so simply by the tone of voice he or she uses in speaking to you. Writer Jay Carter, in his book, Nasty People, gives the example of someone who says "How are you?" "but he vocalizes the word you in something of a guttural tone--the voice of disgust. If you respond with 'Screw you Jack!' then Jack will very innocently relate to everyone that you must be in a bad mood because all he did was ask how you were and you told him off." Or, the difficult person might use patronizing tones in speaking to you.

This kind of behavior seems difficult to deal with because the antagonistic message is concealed--hidden within the tone of voice and quite independent of any words that are spoken. Thus, you can hardly protest "That was an unkind thing for you to say" because the statement itself was actually neutral! And if you object to the tone of voice used, the other person can simply claim that any affront is completely in your imagination.

The best way to deal with this behavior, then, is simply to chuckle at it and let it be seen that it doesn't bother you. This way you will not only defuse any tension that might exist in the situation, but you will keep yourself from becoming angry, frustrating, quite possibly, the intentions of the other person. The stark contrast in your behavioral styles could also have the positive side effect of calling the attention of observers to the unpleasantness of the other person's behavior and to the amiability of yours.

How should I handle teasing?

On the subject of teasing, Dr. Joyce Brothers once wrote:

...almost all teasing carries a lot of hostility with it. It's really a coward's way to relate, because "teasing" is usually a kind of hit-and-run attack. When the other person complains or is hurt, the teaser can always hide behind the defense of "Oh, it was only a joke."

There are four basic ways to handle teasing: ignore it, laugh it off, respond with the "brilliant comeback," or use what newspaper columnist Miss Manners (Judith Martin) calls "freezing politeness." The "brilliant comeback" is seldom easy for most people--at least, for most people to come up with in time--so it is best to concentrate on the other three methods.

But...just in case you are curious, here are two examples of it in action!

First, there is the story of the writer who held a reception to mark the occasion of her latest book. A rival walked up to her and said, "I like your book. Who wrote it for you?" "I'm glad you like it," she replied. "Who read it to you?"

Then there is the story of Winston Churchill, who had been invited by George Bernard Shaw to the opening night performance of one of his plays. Shaw sent two tickets, "one for yourself, and one for a friend--if you have one." Churchill could not attend, but asked for tickets to the second performance--"if there is one."

If you can't think of a clever retort, Miss Manners suggests a good "all-purpose" way to deal with rudeness, a technique she calls "freezing politeness." "When someone says, 'God, you look awful'--a typical remark these days," she says, "and you respond, 'Well, you don't look so hot yourself,' you're lowering yourself to his level." But if you look him in the eye and reply, 'How kind of you to say so,' it might give him pause." This technique is perhaps best used on people who aren't really teasing, but are making an unkind remark in all seriousness. Of course, this technique won't even faze some people.

If there is a possibility that you might not have heard the teaser, ignore the tease. If this doesn't work (or if the tease becomes a kind of "running gag" that the teaser hauls out whenever near you) use weapon #2 mentioned above: when the taunts begin, simply laugh them off and walk away. That's right; laugh them off! And I mean that literally. Actually learn to laugh when people tease you!

The laugh should not be a sarcastic one ("well hardy-har-har"). It should not be a bitter laugh.It should be genuine and good-natured. The hidden message you want to be conveying is: "I'm a really good-natured person, and that kind of remark doesn't bother me in the slightest."

Practice your laugh at home in front of the mirror if you need to. Just don't let the teaser know his teasing bothers you. If the teaser thinks that his remarks don't faze you, it will take all the fun out of his teasing. The last thing you want to do is give him what he wants. This will only encourage him to do it again.

How do you know which technique is the best way to handle the teaser? Unfortunately, there is no easy way. You may have to try all four techniques to see which one works best with any particular person or type of teasing. (In general, the "laughing" technique is best for most situations.) Over time, you will develop a "feel" for which technique will work best in any particular situation.

How do I work with people I don't like very well?

Robert Conklin, author and researcher in the field of human relations, conducted a rather interesting survey. He asked 1,000 people: "Do you feel that you don't get along well with others?" Rarely did he find anybody who said "yes." Interestingly, however, when he asked the same number of people to list their "three greatest pet peeves," 998 indicated that their biggest gripes in life were caused by--guess what?--other people!

Unfortunately, despite all our efforts at good human relations, at times in each of our lives we may have to work with people that we just don't like very much, and who may not like us very much, either. Perhaps this will be due to shortcomings on the part of one or both of us, or just a simple lack of "chemistry." In any event, few of us will be able to boast, like Will Rogers, that we "never met a man (or woman) we didn't like."

Even more seriously, sometimes a part of your life will be determined by such a person. Maybe it will be a team captain, a co-worker, or even a minor supervisor. Maybe it will be the person responsible for handing out jobs on the school newspaper, or the one who divides up the work duties. In any event, the decisions of such a person will affect you directly.

If this turns out to be the case, there may be times when you don't like a decision that person made. If this is the case, try going up to the person, smiling, making pleasant conversation, and then saying, "You know Hal, I really would like to handle the Rogers account, if I could. Or, Donna, I really would like a position on the school paper. May I have one?"

Keep in mind, however, that the fact that you and the other person failed to establish a rapport puts you at a distinct disadvantage. This person, obviously, won't be particularly sensitive to your wishes; he or she has no reason to be. So you should not be surprised if he or she ignores your request. This is human nature.

The fact is, as author Vernon Howard wrote:

"Whenever someone knows that you desperately want something from him he tends to withhold it, for it gives him a very satisfying sense of power over you. He knows that as long as he keeps you at bay you will continue to seek him out. That gives him a great sense of self-importance that he won't easily give up."

Keep in mind as well that it's pointless to try too hard to get that difficult person to change his or her mind. If he or she is being unreasonable, you can express your opinion about the matter--once--in as pleasant a way as possible. If you fail to change his or her mind, however, obviously all you can do is accept the decision. If you cannot accept the decision, then your only choice may simply be to remove yourself from the situation you don't like and try to find a better one.

Wrote Carnegie:

"If a man's heart is rankling with discord and ill feeling toward you, you can't win him to your way of thinking with all the logic in Christendom."

If you try to convince or cajole a difficult person--someone who by definition gets his feeling of importance by having power or control over somebody else--then you will convince him, all right--convince him to continue doing exactly as he pleases!

So don't give such a person the satisfaction of seeing you pound your head against the wall that he or she has set up.


What about criticism?

Dale Carnegie was also outspoken in his advice against excessively criticizing others. He wrote in How to Win Friends and Influence People, "By the eternals, there ought to be a law...a law for whining parents and nagging wives and scolding employers and the whole obnoxious parade of fault-finders." And yet, over fifty-five years after Carnegie penned those words, only a tiny minority of the world's people seem to follow his wise counsel against needless criticism.

Yet some writers and lecturers advise people who are criticized to try agreeing with their critic. I call this the "reverse psychology method" of handling criticism. Surprisingly, even Carnegie himself recommended this method.

The idea behind the "reverse psychology method" is that once you concede the critic's point, he will soften, and sometimes will even retract his initial criticism.

Will this advice always work? Don't bet on it. Says Dr. Robert Bramson, Ph.D., author of Coping With Difficult People on dealing with chronic complainers: "Don't agree with them. That doesn't stop the complaining; it makes them complain more! Don't apologize; because if you say 'I'm sorry,' they'll say, 'Well, you ought to be sorry. Let me tell you what else you're doing wrong.'"

Dr. Bramson is right. If the other person is truly trying to make trouble (and let's face it, some people are) the "reverse psychology method" is unlikely to work very well! Also, sometimes, people may criticize you merely because they're in a bad mood, but at other times they genuinely believe you are doing something wrong. So, if there's a valid reason for doing things the way you did, tell them!

People are constantly told that refusal to listen to criticism evidences small-mindedness and a fragile ego. From childhood on, we are told that to improve ourselves, we must always be willing to listen to the criticism of others. One author wrote, "Criticism is often a gift from someone who knows what you have done wrong and is kind enough to tell you about it."

All this can be true, but unfortunately there are those who take our natural tendency to be open to criticism and turn it against us, using criticism not as a helping hand to support us, but, instead, as a clever tool to gain a psychological edge over us--yet another way to make themselves feel important by putting another down. As Dr. Joyce Brothers has pointed out, "People who constantly criticize others are insecure themselves, and they try to boost their own weak egos by attacking and belittling others."

Sidney B. Simon, in his book Negative Criticism, compared such caustic remarks to daggers that "are just as sharp and deadly as those made of steel and borne by assassins" He wrote: "Perhaps we shouldn't be, but we are definitely diminished to some degree when criticized. And that feeling of diminishment is represented by that chunk of us that gets burned away by the shock of negative criticism."

Dealing effectively with criticism is one of the greatest problems of assertiveness because there are so many kinds of criticism. There's loving criticism and there's hateful criticism. There's valid criticism and there's groundless criticism. Sometimes, criticism can be loving, yet groundless, hateful, yet valid! And there's a whole range and combination of degrees in between.

How should I handle criticism?

Criticisms must be handled with tact. Often, a criticism can be turned around into an interesting philosophical discussion as to the best way to approach a particular task. How well you handle yourself around people influences their level of respect for you.

Another important point: not only should you counter unjustified criticism, but you must also not allow yourself to get upset by it! If difficult people see you get upset, they'll simply get more satisfaction out of criticizing you. If they see that you handle it effectively, they'll eventually give up--and may even discover a new-found respect for you.

All this does not mean that you must become unwilling to listen to other opinions. What it does mean is that you must learn to calmly give your side of an argument if you believe you are in the right.

Newspaper columnist Miss Manners (Judith Martin) once addressed the subject of how to respond when your country is unfairly criticized. Her advice applies equally well to any situation.

A writer to her column complained that when hosting a dinner party in her home for foreign visitors, the simple question "Are you enjoying your stay in the United States?" brought forth a barrage of criticisms about the country in which they were guests. The host and hostess were uncertain about what to do or say, and had to sit through such "America-bashing" for more than an hour. "Our feeble attempts to defend our nation's habits didn't end the discussion," the hostess complained.

Miss Manners instructive reply was that one's choice was not "between submitting to national insult and committing the rudeness of chastising one's guests." The examples she gave of a polite and calm defense of our nation can also serve as a fine example of what to do when you or a friend or a project or a habit of yours is unfairly criticized, and ran as follows:

"Oh dear, I'm sorry you had so much trouble getting through. What is the telephone system like in your country?"

"No, no, we don't consider that our cuisine. It's what we call 'junk food,' and we love it for snacks and fun, but we also have serious cooking and are really very health-conscious. But didn't I hear that American fast food places are doing fabulous business in your country?"

"Well, you see, we enjoy the rough and tumble of the democratic process. Perhaps it's like the way your people turn out for bicycle races."

Miss Manners continued with similar examples of responses to gripes about television, so-called intrusiveness, young people's fashions, and so on. (1988, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.)

The point is this: there are two sides to every argument. Defending yourself gracefully against criticism simply means presenting your point of view in a manner that is calm, rational and even-tempered. In short, there is a delicate but attainable balance between keeping yourself open to fair criticism and defending yourself gracefully against that which is not.

Learning to acknowledge the merits of a critic's opinion, and then giving your own views as well, is the most effective way to do this.


How can I be more assertive in a group conversation?

Surprisingly, very little has been written on the subject of group conversations in books on shyness. But group conversations are important; how well you participate in group conversations, meetings, etc., can determine your success and level of acceptance in a work setting as well as any other situation in which you find yourself with other people.
Fortunately, there are also specific techniques that can determine your success in group conversations just as with one-on-one conversations.
Actually, there are several advantages to group conversations. For one thing, it is easier to keep conversation going; there are more participants and thus less fear of running out of things to say; fewer awkward silences. However, group conversations also present certain challenges as well. Let's explore some of these, as well as the ways to deal with them.

Twelve Challenges of Group Conversations
Thinking faster / Thinking of germane personal experiences
Group conversations can sometimes be difficult for the shy person. Anecdotes fly fast and furious when there are many people involved in the conversation. Everyone in the group is jockeying for attention. As Francis Rodman once said, "Think twice before you speak-and you'll find everyone talking about something else." By the time the shy person has marshaled his or her thoughts on a particular topic, the rest of the group may indeed have gone on to a different subject.
If you have trouble thinking of things to say quickly, then you may have trouble with some group conversations unless you increase your speed.

Making self heard / Finding openings
Another challenge of group conversations, and one closely related to the previous point, is finding openings in a fast-paced group conversation. Getting into a group conversation is kind of like getting onto a crowded freeway; so many people are offering opinions or relating anecdotes that it's hard for the shy or unassertive person sometimes to find an opening!
Don't let someone exclude you from the conversation. If you're part of the group, join in! don't think your participation isn't welcome. If a group allowed you to be part of it, it should allow you to be part of the conversation, as well.
Remember, as a member of a group, you have just as much right to enter into the conversation as anybody else. If somebody excludes you either innocently or deliberately, then you must assert yourself.

Less control over topics under discussion
In a group conversation, since so many people are involved and each plays a role in determining which topics are discussed, this means that any individual member has less control than he or she would have in a one-on-one discussion. This can cause difficulty in the two following cases:

Not having interest in the topic under discussion
In a group conversation, you may not always be fascinated by the topic which is picked up by the rest of the group. One of the rules of etiquette is to participate gamely in the conversation anyway. Skillful talkers are able to pick up on almost any subject and "run with it." Fortunately, topics can change quickly during a group conversation, so you probably don't have to wait long before a more interesting subject comes your way.

Not having knowledge of topic under discussion
A trickier problem is when the entire group is discussing a subject that you have absolutely no knowledge about. Maybe the group is talking about sports or soap operas or U.F.O.s. Or maybe the discussion is centered around people you don't know. This makes it difficult for you to participate in the conversation. Using the various techniques discussed in this chapter can help you get around this problem. If worse comes to worse, you can start a one-on-one conversation with another individual in the group.

Adopting personality/tone of group
This creates rapport with the other members. What does this mean? It simply means being enthusiastic and cheerful about the group conversation. It means picking up on the topics that the group wants to discuss. It also means participating in the conversation whole-heartedly and with gusto. That is what being outgoing is all about..

Not interrupting
This is an important point in group conversations-and one that is all-too-often ignored by group conversation participants. There is a tendency to get so excited by a conversation that you inadvertently "step on the toes" of the other participants. This is especially true during group conversations because there are so many participants and, thus less time proportionately for each participant to hold the floor. This means that each participant must be particularly sensitive to the amount of time he or she is grabbing the limelight and be willing to relinquish it to someone else.

Showing equal interest/courtesy for all participants
This is, of course, important. Sure, some of the members of the group will be more interesting to you than others. Sure, you'll find more interest in the topics some members bring up than others. Nevertheless, it is important to show equal courtesy and consideration for all the members of the group. Try to expand on the points that everyone brings up. You might even help someone who seems to be excluded from the conversation to get his or her two cent's worth in as well by saying things like, "What do you think about that, George?" or "What was that you said, Linda? I couldn't hear you over everyone else."

Resisting the temptation to abruptly change the subject
Just as it is important not to abruptly change the subject in a one-on-one conversation, so too is it important not to do so in a group conversation. Try to follow the direction the group is taking. Of course, this doesn't mean you can't introduce your own topics into the conversation, but don't overdo it.

Parallel conversations
Sometimes a group conversation will split off into what I call "subgroups." Two or more members of the group conversation will go off onto another topic while the rest of the group continues to talk about the current subject (or vice-versa). This can sometimes be confusing, because you then have two or more groups of people talking at the same time. Although there is no rule of etiquette that says that everyone in a group has to be talking about the same subject at the same time, carrying on parallel conversations does require more concentration than usual. You must also decide which tangent you're more interested in and then participate in that one.

Being an "Outsider"
Sometimes, especially when you are a new member of a group, you may find that the topics you bring up are not shown much interest by the others. You may feel you are not one of the "insiders" of the group and are, in effect, being left out by the rest of the group. In most cases, this is not true. After all, the group would not have allowed you to be a part of it if your input wasn't wanted. At first, however, you may have to be more aggressive to get yourself heard in a group situation than would if you were well-known by the other members of the group. This is simply one of the "rites of membership." You should remember that the only way to become accepted is to speak up and show that you have something to say, not to give up and shrink into the corner. This is the time to be assertive. And this leads us to the final challenge of group conversations.

Not being shown much interest by the group "leader"
Many times, a group will have what I call a "leader." This is usually the most outgoing or articulate member of the group. As author Elliot Russell points out, "He is the most important individual...because without him, conversation would end and the group would disperse." People are attracted to him because conversation seems to flow so effortlessly when he's around. (Remember that many people, not just those traditionally considered "shy," often have trouble keeping conversations going by themselves.)

Quite often, however, the "leader" also controls the direction the conversation takes. Since he and the entire group knows that without him, there would be no conversation, he carries a good deal of weight in determining what topics are discussed. If he shows interest in a point a particular member brings up, then he will expand on that point, and the conversation will usually proceed from there. If not, then he will simply go on to another topic, and the rest of the group will tend to follow obediently along behind him. Needless to say, how much status a particular member has with the group leader often determines how much attention his opinions will be given by the rest of the group! Since the leader has a certain amount of power and he knows it, his ego can quite often get carried away in the situation.

How do you handle this particular scenario, then? What if you are a new member of a club, or a new employee at a workplace? If you feel you are somewhat of an outsider, rather than trying to gain the attention of the leader, instead try to gain the attention and esteem of the other group members. Herald and acclaim the points they bring up. Show great interest and comment on the things they have to say. If possible, try to form one-on-one conversations with them before or after the group "convenes." If you gain their respect and goodwill, then it is likely that you will gain the respect of the leader as well. 

What is a good way to learn to be more assertive?

One aid in learning assertiveness, as with any interactive skill, is through visualization. This technique allows you to come to grips with your feelings. When you give yourself time to think things through, you have less likelihood, and thus less fear, of doing "the wrong thing"--of handling a situation badly. You decide in advance which behaviors are appropriate for which assertiveness-demanding situations. You also imagine the worst things that could happen to you if you are assertive. Chances are, you will discover that they are not so terrible, after all.

The next step is imagining how you will handle the various possible responses to your assertive behavior. Finally, choose the most effective responses to what the other person might say, then visualize yourself delivering them. When you give yourself time to think things through (which is essentially what visualization is), things that used to cause you fear will suddenly become more manageable.

Just as you need to make a good impression the first time you meet somebody, you need to create an assertive impression the first time somebody tries to take advantage of you. If you don't, it will be much harder to do so the second time.

People often treat shy people in ways they wouldn't think of with those who are more extroverted. Just as a schoolyard bully will pick on somebody smaller and weaker than himself, so will the verbal bully look for somebody he thinks is less capable of verbally defending himself.

Interestingly, aggressive people (especially in a highly competitive environment) will often "test" the resolve of the new people with which they come into contact to "gauge" their assertiveness. This is their way of finding out just how "controllable" someone is. Confident, assertive behavior will tend to gain their respect, while unsureness or hesitation will usually invite further aggressive behavior.

In short, mastering the art of assertiveness means everybody wins, nobody loses. Other people respect you more, and you like yourself more.

The best way to learn to deal with difficult people is to write down the situations and encounters you have with them and then to repeatedly visualize yourself responding effectively to them (see the section on visualization in this FAQ). Fortunately, visualization can be used to learn to deal with difficult people just as it can be used to learn to deal with any other type of social interaction.

To use visualization to learn to deal with difficult people, start to keep a written record of those situations in which you have trouble with them. Then set aside a regular time during your daily visualization sessions to think about the encounters in which you feel you've been treated poorly. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to enter a relaxed state beforehand. You want to start to associate a feeling of relaxation with the unpleasant task of dealing with difficult people, since remaining calm is one of the most important steps to doing so effectively.

Next call up the difficult encounter in your mind. Review mentally the way you actually responded during the encounter. Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with that response? Why?

Next, act out in your imagination the various ways you could have handled that situation. After a few mental run-throughs, the best response will become readily apparent.

The final step is to go over the situation in your mind repeatedly until you really feel comfortable with the idea of behaving in the way you decided was best. Do this with every difficult behavior you encounter, and continue to make a note of new situations with which you have difficulty. Repeat the visualizations occasionally to reinforce the desired behaviors in your mind. If you keep this up, you will eventually find yourself becoming more and more effective in dealing with the difficult behaviors in your everyday life.

FREE Conversation Mind Map!

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