NVCC - Training Day 2 - Handouts

Adapted from: The Centre for Confidence and Well-being:
What is assertive behaviour?
Being assertive means clear, honest and direct communication of positive and negative thoughts, feelings and
opinions while, at the same time, respecting the rights, opinions and feelings of the other person.
1. Communicating when it is important to you/exercising choice
Central to the definition we are using here is the emphasis on communication with others. Behaving assertively
does not mean that we have to tell others endlessly how we feel or what we think. Sometimes this would be
inappropriate or insensitive. Clearly people who are good communicators are able to judge when is the best and
most appropriate way to let others know their feelings. What is more, some people – those with a preference for
introversion (explored more fully in the next chapter) – often do not have a great need to communicate their
thoughts and feelings. So being assertive involves being clear about what is important to you on those occasions
where this communication will protect your rights or what you believe in, or facilitate your relationship with
other people through better understanding or negotiation. The important distinction here is that when you do not
assert yourself, and withhold your thoughts, feelings and opinions, you are making a deliberate choice. You are
not simply saying anything for fear that you might put your foot in it or annoy someone. You are making a
conscious choice which allows you to feel positive about yourself and the decision. This distinction should
become clear in the following examples.
Fifteen year old Derek is with a group of friends who are discussing a film they have seen. Derek likes
the film but the others think it is ‘rubbish’. Derek chooses not to say anything. His decision not to
express his opinion is not about lacking assertiveness skills it is about conserving energy and not having
a need to convince others of his opinion. Derek feels ok about his decision to keep quiet. Derek’s actions
can be seen as a sign of confidence rather than lack of it.
Fifteen year old Amanda is with a group of friends and they are saying nasty things about a girl Amanda
likes. She thinks what they are saying is unfair but she does not want to be different from the others so
she says nothing. However, when she goes home she feels critical of herself for not sticking up for the
girl she likes. Amanda’s failure to speak out in this instance is a sign that she lack assertiveness skills
and confidence.
2. Being direct (but not blunt or rude)
It is very common for people to drop hints or hope others ‘get the message’ rather than being open and direct.
As we shall see below, often this indirect approach is adopted because people do not have the confidence in
their ability to communicate openly with others without giving offence. The problem with this indirect strategy
is that other people often do not take the hint or end up receiving mixed messages. Being assertive means being
open and honest and not leaving clear communication to chance. However, there is a world of a difference
between being so blunt (calling ‘a spade a spade’) that you come across as rude and disrespectful. People who
are good, assertive communicators do not pussy-foot about, but they are not so direct that they appear rude or
obnoxious. Below is an example of the difference.
Rachel is seventeen and her mum asks her if she would go into town with her to help her choose a special outfit.
Rachel just is not in the mood to go into town with her mother as she finds it frustrating to go round so many
shops. Here are various ways in which she could reply:
• Rachel just says ‘no way’ or adds something critical about her mother being ‘too dithery’. Her mother is likely
to feel that Rachel can be quite rude. She is also likely to feel a bit hurt and rejected, particularly if Rachel has a
habit of replying in this way.
• Rachel says: ‘I’d love to go but I’ve got an essay that I have to finish today’. When the mother gets back from
town, she discovers that Rachel has been out all afternoon with friends and she feels rejected and annoyed with
• Rachel says to her mother: ‘I’m sorry but I really don’t enjoy that type of shopping. I think it would be best if
you went with one of your friends’. Rachel could also offer an alternative to make sure that her mother does not
feel rejected or to help her mother see that she does care about her. For example, she could ask her mother to go
into town and narrow down the choices to one or two outfits which she’ll look at with her next week. Or she
could suggest another type of outing which they are both likely to enjoy – eg, going to the cinema together.
3. Being honest
Sometimes on assertiveness courses people question the relevance of the word ‘honest’ in the definition of
assertiveness. ‘Surely it is simply about clear communication?’ they will say, thus making questions of honesty,
or morality, irrelevant. I disagree with this view. For me, the most important facet of assertive behaviour is
honesty. As the quotation from Burns shows, most of us have been brought up in a culture which prizes truth
and honesty and so their value is instilled in us as children. We may be given mixed messages about the wisdom
of being honest (penalising children when they say something truthful which is embarrassing), but nonetheless
for most of us honesty and truth are important guiding principles. When we act in accordance with them we feel
not just ‘true to ourselves’ but also we experience ourselves as ethical individuals. This means that behaving
assertively can give us a strong sense of personal integrity and hence improve the way we feel about ourselves.
However, to really benefit from the sense of personal integrity and self-worth that assertive behaviour can bring,
it is important to treat others with respect and dignity.
4. Treating others with equality and respect
Another important value in Scotland is equality. ‘The rank is but the guinea’s stamp, the man’s the gowd for a’
that’ wrote Robert Burns in ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ that’ – a poem which is recognised internationally a
celebration of basic human equality. The definition of assertiveness we are using here is based on these same
values. It is about how we can balance our individual rights and sense of personal respect with those of other
people who have exactly the same claim. Status and power cannot be denied or ignored but they are only the
context in which we often relate to others. If people have power they can determine how things will turn out.
Power can guarantee that the stronger party will get their needs met or their own way – often at the expense of
the powerless. This power can be based on money, resources, status, authority or, when children are involved,
Nonetheless, the definition of assertiveness we are using encourages us to see the rights and feelings of
individuals as equal – as something to be addressed, considered and catered for. In practice it means that while I
may be a teacher or manager and have authority invested in me to make decisions, this does not mean that I am
essentially a better person than others who are in more junior positions. It does not give me rights to lord it over
others and act in ways which disregard their feelings or violate their rights, including the right to be treated as
an equal human being. In modern parlance, behaving assertively does not mean puffing myself up and
rubbishing other people.
5. Taking responsibility for your thoughts and actions
No-one can make me feel inferior without my consent.
Eleanor Roosevelt
At some point in our lives most of us will have blamed other people for how we feel; ‘he makes me feel
worthless’ or ‘she makes me feel guilty’. We will complain but, as the quote from Eleanor Roosevelt suggests,
we are responsible for how we feel. No-one can make me feel guilty unless I already harbour feelings of guilt.
All that others do is activate these negative feelings. Despite this fact it is commonplace for people to blame
others for how they feel.
Becoming more assertive is partly about taking more responsibility for how we act and think. It is about owning
our feelings rather than attributing their origins to someone else. Of course, some individuals are likely to
trigger our negative feelings by things they say or do but recognising this is different from believing that they
have caused them in the first place. For example, if I say to someone ‘you make me feel guilty’ then I am
blaming that individual for my feelings but if I say ‘when you keep going on about working mothers I feel
guilty about having a job’ then I am not off-loading all responsibility on to them. What is more, the ‘you-makeme-feel’ formula tends to suggest that the person is deliberately trying to induce negative feelings. It is blaming
and so tends to solicit a defensive reaction from the other person. However, when we point out that a person’s
comments or behaviour is triggering off our own thought processes we inevitably have to be very specific in
what we say and it is inevitably less threatening and judgemental. It also does not convey the idea that we think
they are intentionally trying to make us feel bad.
When we take responsibility for how we feel and what we do, we feel more powerful and in control of our lives.
In short, it builds our confidence.
6. Being positive as well as negative
It is common for people to equate assertive behaviour with negative or self-serving behaviour. For example, it is
easy to see assertive behaviour as voicing criticism of others, saying ‘no’ or generally asserting what we want
by asking for help. Being able to say ‘no’ assertively is an important assertiveness skill, as is giving criticism
well, but this is not the full story. Being assertive is also about expressing our positive feelings to others by
letting them know we value or appreciate them. It is also about offering help when we see it is needed; not just
about asking for it. In short, behaving assertively encompasses a range of behaviour and communication: some
of this is about asserting our rights as individuals, and therefore may sometimes be viewed negatively by others,
while other aspects of assertive behaviour are about saying appreciative things or taking positive, supportive
action. In Chapter 14, Positive Psychology, I presented evidence which shows that to keep a relationship
positive we need to make more positive than negative remarks. Even an equal balance will tip the atmosphere
into negative, as negative feelings have much more power than positive ones. This means that when individuals
behave assertively they must make sure that their behaviour falls more in the left, than the right, column or else
they will appear somewhat cold, critical and self-centred.
Assertive behaviours which are likely to have a positive effect on relationships:
• expressing appreciation
• valuing
• complimenting
• praising
• encouraging
• offering help/support
• inviting
• listening and showing empathy.
Assertive behaviours which may be required but can have a negative effect on others:
• saying ‘no’
• setting limits/boundaries
• pointing out what is wrong
• giving critical feedback
• behaving independently
• focusing attention on our own needs.
7. Being open and responsive to others
The essence of our assertiveness definition is communication of thoughts, feelings and opinions. However, it is
also about being responsive to the impact that this has on other people. Behaving assertively thus requires that
we are good listeners and are empathetic enough to pick up the impact that our behaviour has on others. If we
do not listen well or pick up on how people are feeling, then asserting ourselves can have a negative effect on
others, particularly on those who are quieter or more timid. This means that our behaviour could be experienced
as overpowering and undermining.
Summary of assertiveness behaviour
• Communicating when it is important to you.
• Being direct (but not blunt or rude).
• Being honest.
• Treating others with equality and respect.
• Taking responsibility for your thoughts and actions.
• Being more positive than negative.
• Being open and responsive to others.
Advantages to self
• Gives a sense of personal integrity.
• Builds your self-confidence.
• You feel in charge of your behaviour and your life.
Impact on relationships/others
• People know where they stand with you.
• Others respect you, although they may often want you to act in ways which suit them better.
• Helps to build good, solid relationships based on trust and respect.