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Do you find it difficult to say no? Can you ask for what you want? Do you often feel you’re being treated like a doormat? Do people sometimes say they find your reactions aggressive? Do you feel guilty if you think you haven’t been nice enough?
If you identify with some or all of these statements, you may want to develop ways to think, communicate and behave more assertively.
Being assertive means respecting yourself and other people; seeing people as equal to you, not better than you or less important than you. The goal of assertive behaviour is to stand up for your rights in such a way that you do not violate another person’s rights. It is achieved through open, direct and honest communication, valuing others, listening, respecting, problem solving and negotiating with other people.
Becoming more assertive does not mean that you always get what you want, but it can help you achieve a compromise. Remember – you can change yourself but you can’t change other people. Even if you don’t get the outcome you want, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you handled the situation well.
It can be helpful to distinguish between three sorts of behaviour: passive, aggressive and assertive.
Passive behaviour is often about pleasing other people and avoiding conflict. A passive person behaves as if other people’s needs are more important and other people have more rights and more to contribute.
Student A can’t say ‘No’.
He always lets people borrow his lecture notes - even if he needs them himself. A believes that he should help other people, and worries that they won’t like him if he doesn’t do what they want. Eventually A gets tired of allowing himself to be treated like a doormat. He thinks about how to say ‘No’ and practises with a friend. Next time someone wants to borrow his work he replies pleasantly, but firmly: ‘I'm not going to lend my notes any more.‘ A is surprised to find that he doesn’t feel as guilty as he expected about refusing.
Student B finds it difficult to ask for what she wants.
If she gets stuck with an assignment she spends hours struggling, rather than asking a friend for help. B thinks: ‘I should be able to do it myself. He'll think I'm stupid. Anyway, I expect he’s too busy ...’. When B stops to think she remembers that she has helped her friend in the past. She realises that she doesn’t have to do everything herself: it is OK to ask for help. B decides to ring her friend, and says to herself: ‘If he’s busy today I'll ask if we can meet later this week.’
Aggressive behaviour is often about winning: sometimes at other people's expense. An aggressive person behaves as if their needs are most important and they have more rights and more to contribute than other people.
Student C hates being criticized.
When her flatmate points out that C's washing up has been in the sink for three days, she reacts aggressively: ‘You’re always picking on me. Anyway, you haven’t cleaned the bath for ages, and I was the last one to empty the bins, and ...’ The conversation escalates into a row and the ill-feeling lasts for days. C recognises that being defensive hasn't helped the situation and thinks about how she could respond differently. She decides that when criticism is justified (as it was over the washing up) she could say something like: ‘I'm really sorry. Is it OK if I sort it out this evening?‘ This acknowledges the criticism and suggests a way to solve the problem – as long as the washing up gets done!
If criticism is unfair, it’s easy to react defensively and aggressively. An assertive response is to listen to the criticism and acknowledge the other person’s point of view before explaining how you see the situation.
The assertive responses in these scenarios are based on a belief that everyone has the right to be treated with respect; to have and express feelings and opinions; to be listened to and be taken seriously; to say ‘no‘ without feeling guilty; to make mistakes; to ask for help; to change their mind; to ask for what they want; to set their own priorities – and to choose not to assert themselves.
Improving your assertiveness skills takes time and practice. Change isn’t easy, and sometimes it can feel risky – especially when things don’t work out as well as you hoped. Some things to think about:
If you have decided that you would like to communicate assertively, it can help to adopt a step-by-step approach like the one below:
At first, trying to approach situations assertively may feel unnatural. It is important not to give up just because you feel awkward, or if a situation doesn’t turn out the way you hoped. Anticipating some of the difficulties will help you feel more in control:
The Counselling Service offers assertiveness talks for students.
Manage your Mind Butler G & Hope T (1996) Oxford University Press.
A wide range of books and internet resources is available to help with assertiveness and effective communication. Different approaches suit different people, so it’s worth browsing in a bookshop or on the web to find something that works for you. You could try the recommended books in the Bibliotherapy Scheme run by the Counselling Service.