Becoming more assertive can be a demanding process, but one thing is certain: everyone can become more assertive.

What is assertiveness? It is the way we speak, act, and think. As such, assertiveness is a special blend of several personality traits and specific behavior. An assertive person is self-confident, self-disciplined, polite, honest, able to take criticism and criticize others, without being aggressive, impulsive, passive, or too agreeable. People who want to practice assertiveness have to focus on all these aspects of self-confident behavior.

What is the difference between assertiveness and self-confidence? While these are two closely related terms, the former is much more specific, while self-confidence is used in wider contexts. To put it bluntly, while assertiveness always includes, to a certain extent, facets of self-confidence, confident people are not necessarily assertive. A person who insults others may seem self-confident, but this behavior is the exact opposite of assertiveness.

That being said, it is important to note that the two terms are often used interchangeably, and their exact meaning depends on the context. We will, however, seek to discern them, because various behaviors that are essentially non-assertive are sometimes perceived as signs of self-confidence.

Lazarus mentions 4 essential characteristics of an assertive person:

  1. Communicate one’s needs and desires openly
  2. Being able to say no
  3. Communicate one’s positive and negative evaluations of things and persons
  4. Establishing meaningful contacts with people 

As we see, there are some very specific traits (e.g. the ability to say no), while others are much more abstract (being able to establish meaningful contacts with people).

These concepts are useful in all spheres of business. For instance, requesting a raise depends on one’s ability to behave in an assertive and confident raise.

 How Effective Is Assertiveness Training?

Yes, according to a recent survey by Speed and Goldstein (2018). This type of training has been around for a long time, and it is used within psychotherapeutic contexts (especially with anxious, aggressive, and overly agreeable individuals). Thus, one can become more assertive with the help of many evidence-based treatment programs.

The two aforementioned authors note that there are two types of such training:

  1. Focusing on skill deficits 
  2. Focusing on cognitive restructuring

Treatment programs that focus on skill deficits usually involve the so-called modeling and behavioral rehearsal. Modeling simply means that a non-assertive person finds an appropriate model, which form then on serves as a good example of assertive behavior. For instance, a person who was too aggressive towards employees might start to observe how a more socially skilled co-worker handles similar situations. While observing, the aggressive employer can take notes and try to remember them when talking with employees.

Behavioral rehearsing is very similar to acting or role-playing. Usually, with a partner, an unassertive person goes through different scenes, thus practicing the desired type of behavior. The aggressive employer we’ve mentioned earlier might practice with a therapist or a friend, and receive meaningful and rational feedback.

For example, polite self-confidence can be practiced reenacting a confrontational scene:

A (the main “actor”- employer)

B (the “victim”- employee)

A: Is the report ready?

B: Well… not really. You see, I was a bit busy lately, and I simply didn’t have enough time to finish the report before the due date.

A: (trying to be assertive) Alright, I understand that a man sometimes has too much work, but we had a plan, and now we’re lagging. While things like these happen from time to time, this shouldn’t be the way we do business. I hope that you understand my point of view- I just want to get the job done.

B: Yes.

While this is a very short example, we can still identify the most important aspects of assertiveness. “A” tries to understand the employee, yet emphasizing that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated in the future.

However, to become assertive one has to learn how to react appropriately even when other people are obnoxious, irrational, and annoying. Let’s see an example of such a situation:

A: Hey, is the report ready?

B: Just give me a break will you? I have loads of work, and now you’re coming here asking me stupid questions. NO, it is not ready!

A: I see that you’re frustrated, but I assure you that there are no reasons to be defensive with me. I didn’t insult you or anything, yet you are being quite aggressive and annoying. You have missed the due date, and I just wanted to see why this happened and how we can sort it out. These kinds of things happen, but we have to talk about it and see how we can solve the problem. The work must be done, that’s for sure. As I see that you’re in no mood for a constructive debate, I’ll let you cool down a bit and come back later. Is this OK with you?

While the first situation was fairly “easy”, the second is much more demanding on the A’s side. An unassertive person would probably reply with the same tone (“What?! You’re talking to me?”).

Now that we’ve seen how to be assertive at work (in both “easy” and “hard” situations), let’s see how a boss shouldn’t behave:

A: Hey, is that report finally ready?

B: Well… not really, I have a bit more work to do.

A: What?! You gave me your word. I thought you were a hard-working person, but now I see that I’ve made a mistake.

B: But… I simply didn’t have enough time I will…

A: (interrupting) I am the one who’s talking here. This is a serious matter, and I shouldn’t have given this assignment to such a lazy person. But I won’t make this mistake again.

B: You don’t even want to let me explain what happened?

A: No need for it, I’ve heard enough.

It’s obvious that something went wrong here- “A” quickly started to generalize his conclusions (“you are a lazy person”), and, most importantly, he became impolite by, for instance, interrupting his employee. This is a good example of how frustration can get in the way of good conversation- “A” wasn’t explicitly aggressive and frustrated, but implicitly, it was obvious that the frustration got the best of him.

Not only will this kind of behavior degrade the relationships with employees, but it will also impede the work progress. “B”, realizing that the employees’ perspective is irrelevant, will be even less motivated to get the job done.

In the worst-case scenario, the employee will counter-react to the employer’s unassertive behavior, and this might lead to serious misunderstandings and contentious debates.

Cognitive Restructuring

In the last section, we’ve mentioned several ways one can become more assertive (modeling, behavioral rehearsal). While some individuals might lack specific communication skills, others might have problems with deep inner beliefs about the world and oneself. These cases are a bit more demanding, as it is sometimes hard to change these beliefs. Luckily, numerous Cognitive Behavioral programs can affect a significant cognitive change.

Quite often, unassertive individuals simply believe that they aren’t good enough, as a result of which they become. People who lack self-confidence might overcompensate by being too aggressive- they believe that the only way to show confidence is to be aggressive and obnoxious. They try to hide their vulnerability behind the wall of “confidence” which stands on the verge of aggressiveness. They have a black-and-white perspective.

For them, it might be useful to represent the problem with a continuum:

Passivity                         <->                              Assertiveness                           <->                      Aggressiveness

Assertiveness and Boundaries

People who are too agreeable have rather vague (and sometimes inexistent) boundaries. Anybody can cross them and abuse their trust.

On the other hand, aggressive people are too strict, and their boundaries are impermeable. Anyone who crosses them will have to face rather harsh consequences.

Assertiveness is all about healthy boundaries. Their rules are flexible enough, while also being nicely defined and consistent.  

Anger Management and Assertiveness

rSome individuals know very well how to behave appropriately (i.e. they have the necessary social skills), and yet they constantly fail to behave assertively. Quite often, excessive feelings of anger and frustration can get in the way of efficient business communication.

Fortunately, there are numerous anger management techniques that these individuals may find useful.

It has been shown that various anger management techniques can effectively decrease one’s propensity towards this kind of maladaptive behavior- most notably the ones coming from CBT and drama-based approaches. These are just some of the areas you can work on if you have anger management problems:

  1. Self-reflection (gaining insight into one’s anger cycles)- realizing that our thoughts and feelings influence the way we behave. Events we experience (i.e. other people) only indirectly influence our actions.
  2. Recognizing anger-triggers, and learning how to identify them in real-life situations.
  3. Empathizing with victims of our anger
  4. Debating issues such as power, control, and masculinity

Therefore, assertiveness is a skill that helps every successful business person to communicate effectively whilst managing and leading teams. This skill, as we’ve seen earlier on is impossible to master without enough self-reflection, developing the ability to communicate, say no, but also to form meaningful relationships. 

Being too passive can mean underperforming in business, whereas being too aggressive can lead to losing your best people in business. And as noone runs a business in isolation, being assertive these days is also about being friendly, to listen well and achieve success together.