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Coping with 3 Common Blocks to Assertive Behavior

How to manage feeling guilt or anxiety, and avoid sounding aggressive.

photo by L. Grande
Source: photo by L. Grande

Simply put, assertive communication is honest and direct communication. It includes statements of thoughts, emotions, beliefs and opinions. Assertiveness which is respectful of others is generally acknowledged as a very important skill set in the business world whether you work in a large company with 100’s of coworkers, or a small one with fewer than 10 employees (

However, many people overlook the importance of skillful assertiveness in our homes with our family members, particularly with our partners. Such relationships require open communication as well as problem-solving ability. Usually we want to solve a conflict without creating resentments or escalating the situation to a bigger problem. Assertiveness is the most effective way to accomplish that goal. The alternatives to assertiveness are few:

  1. Passive-aggressive avoidance, which is walking away or saying nothing while feeling resentful and plotting revenge (“I’ll show her what I think of all these chores -- I won’t do any of them."
  2. Aggression, which involves blaming, threatening, or shaming (“f you weren’t so lazy and did your share of the work in this place, I would do what you are asking.”); or
  3. Passive avoidance with self-directed blame (“Why didn’t I stand up to her?” “I let her boss me around again.”) None of these alternatives are helpful to you or your relationship. They don’t resolve anything and make it likely that the same problem will occur again.

What stops people from being assertive? In my experience teaching assertive skills, I have seen and managed some common barriers to individuals’ willingness to learn and practice them. A very common barrier is the confusion between assertive behavior vs. aggressive behavior. Assertiveness is also frequently confused with selfishness. It is neither of those when practiced with skill, but it may take practice to get the hang of being assertive and not aggressive. For some excellent suggestions on how to respond with “empathic assertions’” to those individuals that you don’t want to run the risk of alienating, see Meg Selig's post. Even given these helpful tips, you may find yourself resistant to being assertive. Here I will outline some common blocks to starting a more assertive way of communicating, as well as what you might do to manage the risks in your personal relationships.

Block #1: Am I being selfish if I say “No”?

A common block to assertiveness is feeling guilty when saying no to a request. For example, your partner wants you to go with her to join friends for a night out. You’re exhausted from your work day and really don’t want to go, but you feel that you should go with her. If you say no and offer instead to go another time, are you being assertive or selfish? When you are concerned about being selfish but your instinct is to say no, you might stop and consider your values and whether accepting the request is consistent with those values. After reviewing your own values, you may decide that saying no to the request is a matter of self-preservation as opposed to selfishness. Pushing yourself to do that one more thing might mean getting less sleep or leisure time than you need. Your first responsibility is to your own physical and mental well-being. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re unable to help others anyway. For more help with saying no without feeling guilty, see the classic book by Manuel Smith -- When I Say No, I Feel Guilty (1985).

Besides self-care, some values that may affect your decision about being assertive include conscientiousness, being open to new experiences, or agreeableness. As an example, let’s assume that you value your characteristic agreeableness, but that you strongly disagree with your girlfriend’s stated views about current immigration policies. You might say something like, “I respect your opinions but I don’t agree with you. I’d like to agree to disagree on this issue.”

Or, if you feel more strongly about expressing your own thoughts, you might preface them with, “I respect your right to your beliefs. However, in my opinion, … (state your thoughts).”

If she cannot accept this type of friendly assertiveness, I would consider that a red flag in the relationship.

Block #2: How do I avoid being aggressive?

It is helpful to identify aggressive forms of communication. Aggressive communication is disrespectful of others. It may include name-calling, blaming, or shaming, as well as obvious threats to harm the other person either via rejection or physical aggression. The following responses are assertive, but not aggressive. In your personal (non-work) relationships, practice the following responses to requests that you decide to decline:

  • “I am not interested in that.”
  • “I am too busy at this time to take on any more tasks.”
  • “I would like to talk more about this with you, but now is not a good time. I’d like to set a time to talk more about it.”
  • “No, I don’t want to do that.”
  • “No, but thanks.”
  • “No.”

The post referenced above (Selig, 2018) provides ways to make these assertions more empathic, or friendly; however, they are not aggressive just as they are written.

Block #3: Will they react with anger?

Maybe you worry that your significant other will be so offended by your assertiveness that she will “lose it”. That may happen, particularly if you have been a non-assertive person up to now and have suddenly begun responding with assertive statements. In some cases, those who know you may ask why you “have changed” or what you are “upset about”. This was a commonly reported problem for adults in an assertiveness training class that I taught at a university. Partners reacted with defensiveness or anger to statements such as “I’m tired of our routine. I’d like to try some different places to eat out.” Or “I really don’t like this type of movie. I’d like to see a comedy with you.” Practicing assertiveness often involves managing a partner’s reaction to the assertiveness. If one person becomes more assertive, the other may wrongly perceive the new behavior as aggressive when in fact it is assertive.

To manage this risk, it is often helpful to prepare your partner/friends for the change in your behavior. You might say something like:

  • “I am trying to be more assertive because I believe it will be better for both of us,” or
  • “I am learning to be more direct. I hope we can both be more direct with each other.”

I strongly suggest that you make this type of comment before you start to practice more assertiveness in your closest relationships. You may need to occasionally remind others of your intention to make the relationship better.

To sum up, assertiveness is just as important in your close personal relationships as it is in the workplace. All too often, people avoid being assertive because they do not want to see themselves, or be seen by others, as aggressive or selfish. With practice, you can change your communication into a form which is more honest and direct. It will become easier to resolve problems and to get your own needs met more often, while still respecting the needs of those you love, or live with. Once the assertive communication style is established, it is not difficult to maintain. It becomes what others expect of you and, more importantly, what you expect of yourself.

References "Assertiveness -- Tips & Techniques."

Smith, Manuel J. (1985). When I Say No, I Feel Guilty. Mass Market Paperback.

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