Assertiveness, Not Aggressiveness

Assertiveness means standing up for yourself in a nonaggressive way.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published February 12, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Power is a constant player in interpersonal relationships. And the path to power is not dominance over others but the ability to speak up for oneself. The key distinction is the difference between aggression and assertion.

Bullies don’t just pick on anybody. Oh sure, in kindergarten they do. But very early on, by about the third grade, bullies learn to target their attacks, singling out specific people to prey on. They engage in a kind of shopping process to find people they can control.

Research has shown that those who are victimized by bullies radiate a certain kind of vulnerability. They lack the ability to stand up for themselves. One reason bullies get away with their abuse of power is that they choose those who are unable to assert themselves or defend themselves even when picked on. The tragedy is that no one comes to their aid because the inability to stand up for oneself makes everybody very uncomfortable. Self-assertion is a basic skill in life.

Assertiveness means being able to make overtures to other people, to stand up for oneself in a nonaggressive way, to speak up when others make demands, and to make suggestions or requests to others in a group.

For some people, assertiveness requires overcoming psychological traits such as extreme passivity, sensitivity to criticism, anxiety, insecurity and low self-esteem.

The real first step toward assertiveness is self-confidence. You develop self-confidence only one way—through the experience of effectiveness in the world. You have to rack up some successes all your own, in specific domains of experience. These commonly encompass friendships and other social relationships, academic or work achievements, appearance or style, the cultivation of physical or athletic ability, and moral and ethical rectitude. Competence in any domain is not a given. It takes work at developing skills.

It is also necessary to develop basic communication skills:

• Leading, offering positive suggestion to peers or colleagues (“I have a fun idea.”)

• Asking questions in a friendly way (“Can I get to speak first in the next unit meeting?” rather than “How come you never ask me what I think of our proposal?”)

• Supporting, making explicitly positive statements to peers about ongoing activities (“Wow, we’ve got a really strong action plan for the next meeting, don’t we!”)

Above all else, expect that overtures sometimes will be met with failure. It happens to everyone. The trick is to not shrink into a corner, but to collect your wits and get right back into the game. It is not the fact of rejection that distinguishes popular from unpopular people, it is how they deal with rejection.

Whenever a suggestion of yours or a bid for action is met with failure, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and generate alternative responses. What are some other things you can say the next time that happens? The more ways of responding you can come up with, the more successful you will become.