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  • Irina Ketkin, author of #adventuresofthelearner

So you want to be assertive?

One of the most popular requests I would get for training sessions was assertiveness. A lot of people I’ve come across think of being assertive as a secret formula to happiness, productivity and healthy relationships. And while those may be some of the achieved results, I’ve found assertiveness to be a bit more complicated than that.

Perhaps it’s good to start with the theory. To find what assertiveness is, it’s worthwhile mapping it in the context of all other behaviours, i.e. aggressiveness and passiveness. Usually aggressive behaviour is observed when the intention of the person is to defend his or her own interests. On the other hand, passiveness is more in line with making sure everyone else is happy, regardless of whether their own needs were met. In this perspective, assertiveness sits in the middle – between standing for your own rights and making sure others’ interests are addressed as well.

Below are just some of my observations on what makes assertive people:

  • Confidence. As you’d imagine, to be assertive requires a certain level of confidence. But does confidence come first, or assertiveness. We have a classic case of the ‘chick and egg’ debate on our hands.

  • Saying “No”. For a lot of people transitioning from the passive side, saying “No” can be very difficult. What helps is to give yourself time to think by deferring your decision. “I’d like to think about that, let me get back to you in a couple of hours/days”.

  • Balance. Whether you are aggressive, passive or passive-aggressive, by deciding to become assertive, you are bound to jump from one extreme to the other. And no, it is not comfortable, but what learning experience is? The secret is to test all the limits and find the balance that works for you.

  • Personal style. It may be difficult to start behaving in a different way when you are surrounded by people who know you well. What’s important here is to remember why you want to make the change and stick with it. “If you always do what you do, you’ll always get what you got” – an important mantra to remember.

  • Flexibility. Not every situation requires assertiveness. There may be times when you simply need to be flexible in your approach. What still makes this behaviour assertive is the decision you have made to behave in this particular way.

  • Awareness. One of the very first things to do is to start noticing your words, body language, attitudes and behaviours. Once you have taken full stock of what triggers you have, you can start working on modifying them.

  • Feelings. When it comes to difficult situations, I find it most useful to use language that addresses the consequences of one’s actions. Let’s say your boss has unpredictable mood swings. One (assertive) way to tackle this to explain how those moods affect you.

  • Failures are valuable lessons. It has almost become a cliché to say that you can learn from failure just as much (if not more) as from successes. If you get yourself in a difficult situation, back down and take time to reflect on what went wrong. Then think of what you can do differently next time.

What are some of things you recommend people do when they want to become more assertive? What do you do to help yourself on this path?

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