How to be more assertive

Need to get some authority? Here's a few ways to help.

Need to get some authority? Here's a few ways to help.

Feel like your relationships are a bit, well, unbalanced? That you’re always doing what you’re told, avoiding making waves just to keep the peace?

Or perhaps you’ve slipped into the other extreme and become overly forceful; a bossy or a bully, even, to try to bend people to your will.

Somewhere in the middle lies assertiveness. It’s arguably the best way to get what you need in life while remaining an A-grade human.

So why do so many of us struggle to hit the mark? And if we’re not being assertive enough, or our assertiveness has slipped into aggression territory, how can we learn to fake it until we make it?

“Human beings are pretty much hotwired to do what’s in their own best interests,” says organisational psychologist Leanne Faraday-Brash.

So if someone is always passive, they must believe there’s some kind of pay-off. “It might not be a healthy pay-off but there’s usually some sort of pay-off,” she says.

Perhaps they’re avoiding responsibility for decisions, or maintaining harmony in relationships or at work in order to avoid the risk of being ‘unpopular’, says Faraday-Brash.

The downside might be a lack of respect from others, not having your needs met, or feeling and acting like a ‘doormat’.

“By actually asking for what we want or by spelling out what it is we don’t want in life, we’re more likely to get more of what we want more often,” she says.

Being assertive also usually makes for more equitable, balanced and mutually respectful relationships, she says.

If you suspect you’re the one being walked all over, or doing the walking over, there are some simple, practical strategies you can harness.

Faraday-Brash suggests first asking yourself: “Where is the fear? Why are you consistently aggressive in situations where you would rather be assertive? What are you frightened of?”

Then, you can insert a few of these tricks into your conversational repertoire: maintain an even tone of voice, ensure you’re not speaking too softly or loudly and avoid the umms and aahs.

Don't drop your voice at the end of a sentence.

Don’t drop your voice at the end of a sentence.

Likewise, ditch the qualifiers, such as ‘Does this make sense to you? Is that OK with you?’ advises Faraday-Brash.

“Try and make sure that sentences don’t fall away, just sort of dribble away to a silence,” she says. “Start the sentence strongly, finish the sentence strongly.”

And that nervous laugh at the end of the sentence has to go.

“If we’re trying to send a clear, firm, consistent, unequivocal message – undoing it at the end with a nervous laugh is sort of like saying ‘take me seriously, but then don’t’,” says Faraday-Brash.

Pointing the finger is also ill-advised and should be replaced with ‘I’ statements, she says.

“’I believe, I feel, I want, I need, I am concerned about’ – rather than ‘you need to listen to me, or you haven’t been very respectful … because that’s going too far the other way.”

Executive leadership and management coach Jay Hedley says it pays to understand that every situation you deal with is different, and that people change over time.

A nervous laugh at the end of a sentence? It's got to go.

A nervous laugh at the end of a sentence? It’s got to go.

It’s crucial to assert your needs in a romantic relationship (and other relationships), says Hedley.

“That’s one of the biggest issues in a relationship, is people aren’t actually open about their needs because they fear that if the other person really, really knew what they needed they wouldn’t give it to them. So that’s a really big fear that drives people to hide their needs – even from themselves sometimes.

“Say what you need, but be prepared not to get it fulfilled, because that’s not up to you, that’s up to them. However they certainly can’t fulfil what they don’t know about.”

Hedley says people often become subservient to a situation they feel they have no power over, and learn to “squash their needs down”.

“But we’ve got the power to be in the marriage or not be in the marriage. We’ve got the power to leave the job or stay in the job – it might be a scary prospect but then we’ll say to them – scarier than what’s happening now?”

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