What is Assertive? A Look at Assertiveness in Theory and Practice

Assertive is a Word you Commonly see on CVs, But What Does it Mean?

Being assertive is needed for interpersonal, communication, and social skills to be effective. Thankfully, it’s something that we can learn and improve over time. But what is assertive? What does it mean to be assertive?

Here we will look at the meaning of assertive as well as what is assertive behaviour. We will also take a look at assertive behaviour in comparison to passive or aggressive approaches. Then we will consider the advantages and disadvantages of an assertive approach. Finally, we will share traits of assertive leadership and putting assertiveness into action for success.

What is Assertive? – Meaning and Application

The Cambridge English dictionary defines assertive as:

“Someone who is assertive behaves confidently and is not frightened to say what they want or believe”.

Merriam-Webster describes assertive as:

“Disposed to or characterised by bold or confident statements or behaviour”.

Whereas, the Collins dictionary defines it as:

“Someone who is assertive states their needs and opinions clearly, so that people take notice”.

Other terms that are linked to assertive are decisive, forceful, boldly positive, and confident without being aggressive. There are, of course, other definitions and explanations of what is assertive. What we will do is look at some of the keywords featured in the above definitions to explain them effectively.

Being assertive means that you are confident. In that case, you should have knowledge about what you are sharing and confidence in your point of view. So, we can see that confidence is a key element of assertiveness.

We also see that assertiveness has to do with sharing ideas, opinions, suggestions, and points of view. This can be one-to-one or in group settings. An important element of assertiveness is the ability to avoid becoming aggressive in your approach. We will see more about that later.

What is Assertive Behaviour? 

Assertive behaviour is about being able to express ourselves in a calm, respectful way. This applies to both verbal and non-verbal communication. So, our actions, word selection, and tone are all taken into consideration. We will share our opinions in a way that others are ready to listen to when we are assertive. This is because we consider the feelings and opinions of others when expressing ourselves when we’re assertive. It is very much about having the know-how to say what you want without causing offense or intimidating others.

Pensive african-american guy looking at blank speech bubble

It’s not always easy to be assertive. Different situations evoke different emotions within us. These emotions can change the way we behave, communicate and lead. They change the tone of our voice, our level of aggression, as well as our ability to listen to others and be aware of their emotions. We are better able to keep all of these aspects neutral and effective when we apply an assertive approach to interactions. Easier said than done in some cases but it is a skill set we can improve through practice and experience.

Assertive Approach in Comparison to Passive and Aggressive

So, what is assertive behaviour in comparison to other approaches? Here we will give you some comparisons to show the differences in the 3 behaviours of assertive, passive, and aggressive.

Assertive Qualities
  • Communicating without upsetting others.
  • Listening to other opinions and ideas.
  • Keeping other people’s emotions in mind.
  • Having the confidence to speak up and share ideas and opinions.
  • Ready to recognise the contribution of others.
  • Passive Qualities
Let’s have a look at some of the key qualities we see in regards to a passive approach.
  • Accepting decisions of others without a fight.
  • Concentrating on others’ emotions rather than their own.
  • Always saying yes to avoid upsetting others.
  • Keeping their own feelings and ideas to themselves.
  • Letting other people take responsibility and lead.
  • Goes along with the group or leader without argument.
  • Aggressive Qualities
Finally, we will see some common qualities of aggressive behaviour.
  • Ignores the feelings of others.
  • Is overly demanding of others to get things done.
  • Can seem rude in their approach.
  • Goes out of their way to disagree with ideas that differ from their own.
  • Want their contribution to be recognised but don’t recognise those of others.
  • Uses intimidating body language to enhance their presence in the group.

For example, you are at work and your colleague asks you to cover a task for them. You are already busy with your own tasks. Let’s see different possible responses for each of the 3 approaches.

A fist punching a flat palm

Assertive: “I can help you out with that if I get my own tasks finished first. Is that OK with you?” (Reassuring smile)

Passive: “Sure, I guess I can manage that. I can add it to my end of month report, payroll updates, and emails I need to respond to.” (Sigh)

Aggressive: “I’m much too busy to help you out. Handle it yourself.” (Eye roll)

Another example is of eating out in a restaurant and you receive the wrong order.

Assertive: “Excuse me, waiter, I didn’t order this. Please could you bring me the correct item?” (Eye contact and neutral smile)

Passive: They say nothing and either eat the item or simply don’t return it. (Head down)

Aggressive: “This isn’t what I ordered (Tut) Get me my right order now or I’ll complain online about this place “. (Stern facial expression, snarling and/or glaring)

I’m sure you can spot the differences. The passive approach shows a lack of confidence as well as eagerness to keep the peace. Whereas the aggressive approach can be seen as arrogant and inconsiderate, even rude.

What is Assertive Body Language in Comparison to Other Styles

When it comes to body language, what is assertive body language like in comparison to passive or aggressive? Let’s have a few examples of all 3 types.  

Assertive Body Language Includes
  • Making good eye contact. 
  • Has close proximity within the group without invading people’s personal space. 
  • Smiling. 
  • Nodding in agreement. 
  • Firm but comfortable handshake.
  • Stands straight with relaxed arms.
 Passive Body Language Includes
  • Keeps further apart from the group.
  • Tries to avoid eye contact.
  • Shy smiles.
  • Limp or weak handshake.
  • Slouching.
Aggressive Body Language Includes
  • Standing over others.
  • Glaring and staring.
  • Invading someone’s personal space.
  • Hard handshakes and pats on the back.
  • Crossing their arms when talking with others.
  • Stands erect, chest puffed out.

Again, we can easily see the differences between the 3. Most people react best to the assertive approach and respond more positively. This is because it makes people feel more at ease because assertiveness takes other people into consideration during interactions.

Advantages and Disadvantages to Assertiveness

Let’s now have a look at the advantages and disadvantages of using an assertive style with others.

Advantages 

Man with thumb up on a white background

Assertive people create better working relationships. This leads to better collaboration and, in turn, results. This is because they consider the feelings and opinions of others.

Also, being assertive shows confidence in terms of decision-making and problem-solving.

When we’re assertive, we both share our opinions and listen to others. It’s very much a two-way system. This increases the motivation and collaboration in the team as a whole.

Assertive people are able to gain respect from those around them more easily. This is because they are respectful themselves in their actions and behaviour. This comes from assertive people considering others during their dealings with them.

Another advantage is that assertive people are able to create win-win situations in the team. Unlike aggressive people, assertive people are ready to compromise so they are willing to meet people in the middle. This leads to everyone getting at least something that they were looking for. This again helps build team relationships and a better understanding in the team dynamic.

 

Disadvantages 

A man hand with thumb down isolated on white background

We really need to learn to control our emotions to be assertive. This can be a tricky obstacle to overcome. Some find it easier than others. And very often, it depends on the situation and other people who are involved at the time.

There is a very thin line between assertive and aggressive behaviour. Some in the group can see your forcefulness as being coming on too strong.

It’s not always easy to get the passive personalities on board even with an assertive approach. This can be because they may still feel intimidated by the level of confidence portraited.

Not everyone likes and appreciates the direct and honest approach of assertive people. No matter how careful you are and considerate of others, you might still make some people uncomfortable or ill-at-ease. For some people, honesty isn’t always the best policy in their minds.

Assertiveness and Emotional Intelligence

We have seen some important factors about assertiveness. Now, we will look at what is assertive in terms of Emotional Intelligence or “EI”. According to Daniel Goleman, there are 5 key elements to Emotional Intelligence. These are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. We will now look at the connection between assertive behaviour and Emotional Intelligence.

Self-Awareness

We all need to be able to understand our own emotions and the impact they have on others. Assertive people have this ability as they are able to acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses. We are able to think in advance of how our actions or behaviour might affect others around us. This is important in terms of knowing what our stresses are, as these could lead to aggressive rather than assertive behaviour. While we’re not always able to control them in every situation, we need to be more aware of ourselves.

Self-Regulation

As assertive people, we need to be able to understand what to say and how to say it, depending on our audience. This level of self-regulation is important when considering the feelings and well-being of others. Those who are assertive get this right better than those who are aggressive, for example. We will know when to speak up but also when to stay silent and let others voice their opinions.

This aspect of self-regulation creates better harmony in the group. We see poorer results when this element is missing in our interactions. This is because when we speak our minds without considering others, we may cause offense or alienate others in the group.

Motivation

You Can written on wooden dice with 'can't on the flip side

Assertive people have a great ability to create an environment where others feel motivated. This links back to what we said earlier about consideration of others. People feel motivated when others recognise their opinions and efforts. They also gain confidence when they receive recognition and praise. Assertive people do not see the abilities of others as a threat. Instead, they understand the importance of having strength within the team in terms of skills, knowledge, and contribution to achieve results.

Empathy

Remember, assertive people continually take other people’s feelings into consideration. This is also reflected in their level of empathy shown to others. As assertive people, we know the right level of empathy to show in different situations. Aggressive people only consider themselves in terms of importance. Passive people can be overly empathetic, even when it is not called for. Because of their ability to find the right balance, those with effective assertiveness get it right more often.

Social Skills

So, we can see from all of the above elements that assertive behaviour creates better social interactions. This is in relation to our ability to listen to, connect with, and consider others. These social skills are key in terms of developing the team dynamic and achieving results. When the team dynamic breaks down, results will be much harder to achieve. Therefore, we need a level of assertiveness in order to get this element of EI right.

Important Traits for Better Assertiveness

So, we all want to be assertive. But what is assertive behaviour when it comes to qualities or traits? In terms of being assertive leaders, we can achieve better results through the practice of certain skills and traits.

Here are some key traits to practice.

Engaging with Others

Being assertive comes with being part of the group. We can relate to others as we are open-minded and ready to have other opinions shared. As a result, we can engage with others better. This is because we make the effort to understand others. This makes others in the group feel comfortable and appreciated.

Building Self-Confidence

Here, we are ready to stand up for ourselves and others. Also, we have confidence when we speak, make decisions and handle challenging situations. This self-confidence should not stretch into arrogance or we have gone a bit too far. Be careful with that. When we get the confidence level right, others are ready to listen and also share their points of view. This confidence helps us to lead by example and inspire others to be open and honest.

Communicating Carefully

Assertive people take time to consider what they say and how they say it. This is because they are more thoughtful of others around them. They will make an effort to avoid offending others in terms of their words, tone or gestures. They will consider their target audience and adjust their communication style accordingly.

Providing Effective Feedback

The word Feedback spelt out in biscuits

Being able to provide feedback to your team is important. If the approach is aggressive, people might feel insulted or take offence. If the person is passive in their approach, the feedback may only be positive without highlighting important areas of improvement. However, we use assertive communication to deliver feedback in a positive and constructive way.

Showing Consideration of Others Feelings and Opinions

We have seen already that assertiveness includes consideration of others. This is a key element of this approach. We can be both firm and caring at the same time when being assertive. Assertive people are aware of the feelings of others in different situations. They are also aware that their opinions may differ from others. However, we outwardly show understanding and consideration of others in all of these areas. This creates a better relationship among the team members involved.

Practising Active Listening 

So, what is assertive in terms of communication? One key aspect is listening to others. Assertive people are not simply waiting for their turn to speak. They are actively listening to others around them. They are ready to listen to other sides of the story and differing opinions. This leads to a better understanding of these other perspectives.

Being Ready to Compromise

Assertive people understand that sometimes you need to compromise in order to get results. This is a part of problem-solving which assertive people are efficient in. Being willing to give and take is something assertive people do better than aggressive or passive people. Passive people will constantly give without properly considering themselves. Aggressive people will only think of themselves, sacrificing the needs of others. This is where the assertive approach will find a much better balance between both.

Showing a Level of Emotional Control

Because of their level of confidence, assertive people can handle rejection and criticism better than others. This is because they have better self-awareness and, therefore, can take the feedback better. This level of emotional control contributes to assertiveness in terms of communication and leadership in a positive way. It helps us avoid straying into aggressive tendencies. It also pulls us away from over-emotional interactions that can lead to conflict.      

Putting it into Practice

So, we now have many pieces of the puzzle in terms of understanding what is assertive behaviour, the advantages, and disadvantages, and key traits we need to practice. We have also seen the characteristics in comparison to passive or aggressive approaches. Now, let’s see how we can get great results from using an assertive approach to our team.

Assertive leader in team in Meeting
One example is sharing with the team what needs to be done. The aggressive approach would be to simply tell, no questions asked. Instead, we will state the task, with clearly defined goals. We would also define each person’s roles and responsibilities in the given task. And we would also include expectations in terms of time frames, standards, and end results. However, we would also include the chance to ask questions among the team. This would be a 2-way communication system and would allow others to share their ideas, suggestions, and ask questions for clarity.

Another example might be representing your team in an interdepartmental meeting. Here, we might find ourselves defending the actions or outcomes of the team and this can turn aggressive quickly if mishandled. Therefore, we need to be ready to give explanations and not excuses. We should also be confident to admit any mistakes and show steps that will be put in place to avoid them happening again. Remember, when we think about what assertive behaviour is, one aspect is being able to state your case in a way that others are ready to listen. And this works well in meetings where planning and preparation have happened and assertive tendencies come into play.

Summary of What is Assertive

So, we really need to make sure we have the balance right when it comes to our assertive approach. I highly recommend simply remembering to ASSERT yourself.

Avoid Aggressive Tendencies

We saw already that there is a fine line between assertive and aggressive behaviours. We need to make every effort to avoid slipping down the aggressive slope. For example, don’t just start an argument for the sake of it or to try to prove someone else wrong. We need to make sure we are selecting our battles carefully and with the right data, facts, and approach.

Select your Communication Style

We need to be aware of what we are communicating and how. With that in mind, we need to think before we speak or act. That way, we are conscious of our audience and we select our style accordingly.

State Your Case Clearly

We get better results when we are able to explain our points of view plainly and clearly. This avoids misunderstandings and even conflict from occurring. We need to use our confidence on different matters to argue our side of things without causing offense.

Encourage Openness

This applies to keeping an open mind ourselves to other peoples’ views and opinions. It also includes having an open environment where people feel comfortable to share and be honest.

Reign in Those Emotions

Assertiveness is about being able to have a certain amount of control over our emotional reactions to events. It also means that we can behave and communicate in ways that are not overly emotional. It’s not always easy, but we need to make the effort to try.

Think About Others

Our aggressive colleagues think only about themselves. We, as assertive people, think about others. This is a key element of assertive behaviour in use. So, let’s be mindful of those around us, without moving into a passive role of neglecting our own needs and wants.

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