Ultra-Assertiveness Can Be Necessary
A subordinate at work tries to undermine you. A colleague claims your idea as her own. A stranger asks you overly personal questions. An acquaintance insults you. A friend owes you money and does not pay it back. A “therapeutic massage” turns sexual.
If you are the kind person who tries to be considerate of others, you may find that situations like the ones above require a tougher response than you are comfortable with. Even if you are generally assertive, such dilemmas may render you speechless, just when you need to speak up the most. I must admit that I am subject to the “deer-in-headlights” reaction myself.
That’s why I collect stories of people who’ve forthrightly handled difficult situations like those above. Their ultra-assertive responses approach the aggressive zone but don’t cross over. Their stories are described in the scenarios below. But first, let’s set the stage by defining a few terms.
Assertive, Aggressive, Non-Assertive... and Ultra-Assertive
Assertiveness is direct, honest, and appropriate behavior that respects both your own rights and the rights of other people. By contrast, aggressive behavior is when you ignore or violate the rights of the other person by name-calling, criticizing, verbally attacking, or, at its extreme, by use of force. With non-assertive behavior, you let your own rights be ignored or violated. (More on those definitions here.)
In a previous blog post, I described various assertive techniques you can use when there are good reasons to be extra protective of a relationship—sharing more about your reasons for saying no, for example. These situations generally involve valued colleagues, romantic partners, or good friends. You probably want to be extra-careful to communicate with respect, honesty, and sensitivity with these individuals.
By contrast, this blog post will highlight situations where it is important to be extra protective of you. Someone is violating your boundaries, whether intentionally or not, or being aggressive and manipulative toward you. These are not situations that necessarily rise to the danger level of needing to call the police, your human resources department, or a hotline (although if it comes to that, do it!). But they do require extra verbal karate to protect your reputation, your income, your time, or your self-respect.
The heroes in the scenarios below are experts at what I would call ultra-assertiveness—behaviors, verbal or non-verbal, that cut off the invasive behaviors immediately and forcefully, but without the use of aggression. Coming up with ultra-assertive statements that halt aggressive, manipulative, or ill-meaning people in their tracks is not easy.
On the one hand, it is easy to slip into an aggressive mode yourself, with all the risks that entails. On the other hand, you may assume that the aggressor is at heart well-meaning and try to be overly conciliatory, share too much about yourself, or be too nice. While ignoring aggressive behavior can sometimes be the best course of action, often you are only allowing the bad behavior to continue.
The scenarios that follow show that it is possible to be extremely strong with another person and still remain assertive.
Scenario 1: A subordinate acts in ways that make you look bad to colleagues and superiors.
In this blog post, career counselor and blogger Marty Nemko describes a situation in which a secretary “forgets” to pass on important faxes and other emails to a new employee, thereby undermining his effectiveness. Nemko suggests an assertive confrontation along these lines: “I’ve come to understand that not all faxes that come in for me get to me. Please ensure they do.”
Why it works: As Nemko points out, this confronting assertion is blunt without being accusatory. It also prevents the new guy from being seen as a pushover or someone whose good humor can be taken for granted.
Scenario 2: A friend or acquaintance sometimes treats you like dirt.
The friend who insults you or says something cruel now and then may not realize how insensitive he is. If you are a member of the “church of the second chance,” you might respond like this: “I'm offended by what you said. Do you want to apologize?”
I once overheard my beloved aunt say that to a friend and never forgot it. Talk about putting the ball in the other person’s court! Her friend stopped in her tracks and sputtered out an apology. Such a statement shows that you are not to be trifled with.
Why it works: You've given your friend a chance to apologize. Whether he does or not, you've at least expressed how you feel about his comment. In the future, he will know that insults are not OK with you.
Scenario 3: A colleague presents your idea as her own.
You generally like your colleague and even consider her a friend. However, the other day in a meeting, she presented your project idea as her own, not even mentioning your name. You feel angry and betrayed.
This situation was discussed in a New York Times "Workologist" column by Rob Walker. The solution he suggests is to combine a confronting description of the problem with a pointed question, like this: “You presented my perpetual-motion machine concept as if it were yours. Why did you do that?”
Another option: Ask for “restorative justice,” saying something like this: “In our next meeting, I would like for you to make it clear that it was my idea.” Asking your colleague to repair the damage she has caused has two advantages. One, it puts the burden back on her, and two, she understands that she can repair the relationship with you if she chooses to fix what she broke.
If you can be quick-witted in such a situation, you might also speak up in the meeting itself with a comment like this: “I’m glad you like the idea that I had mentioned to you yesterday. I hope we can consider it in this meeting.”
Why it works: You make it clear to your colleague that you noticed what she did and will not tolerate her behavior.
Scenario 4: A stranger or an acquaintance bombards you with overly-personal questions at a party, meeting, or work event.
- “I see your wife is having a third drink. Does she have problems with alcohol?”
- “How’s your sex life? Do you find that sex gets better as you get older?”
- “Do you believe in God? Why or why not?”
Puh-leeze. These questions are beyond the pale. But there is a simple solution. Just say, “I’m not having that conversation.” The great thing about that comment is its flexibility. You can respond with either a smile or frown and change the subject. Or, if appropriate, you can just say, “Excuse me,” turn on your heel, and leave. Inquisition over.
Why it works: Either statement completely cuts off the conversation, leaving your private business private.
Of course, there might be circumstances in which you'd like to have one of the conversations above. In that case, go right ahead!
Scenarios 5: A friend takes advantage of your generosity.
If a friend borrows money and doesn’t pay it back, you can often solve the problem with a confronting assertion. First, describe the promised action: “You said you would pay back this money by May 1.” Second, describe the actual behavior: “But you haven’t done that, despite repeated reminders from me.” Third, describe what you want: “I need this money, and I would like it by the end of the week.”
If that doesn't work, consider an ultimatum (but only if you are willing to follow through): “Unless you pay back this money by Friday, our friendship is over.” (Consider also, "get a lawyer involved," or "take you to small claims court.")
Why it works: You've been crystal clear about what you want and when you want it. If it works, good! If not, you might have to lose some money and end what may be a valued relationship. That's not easy. Still, ending a toxic relationship can be one of the best forms of self-care, as described beautifully here.
Scenario 6: A therapeutic massage suddenly becomes sexual.
I recently heard a young man on local TV describe his experience of what he did when this happened to him. I held my breath to make sure I didn't miss his reply. His response: “Stop! We’re done here.” And then he sat up, got dressed, and left. Later he reported the incident. I so respect the quick response and poise of this young man. It’s amazing that he managed to remain assertive under such conditions.
Why it worked: The strong response was delivered instantly and backed up with action.
Tips for Using Ultra-Assertive Behavior
- Make your voice work for you. Usually, you will aim for a strong and firm tone. Even raising your voice might be a good option at times.
- Use appropriate non-verbal communication—good eye contact and straight posture, for example.
- Avoid apologies, hedging words, or tentativeness. Just say what you have to say.
- Rehearse ultra-assertive statements until they become part of your repertoire of responses. If a particular statement is not comfortable for you, create one that is.
- Use "basic assertions"—short "no" statements that leave no room for doubt. Examples include: "No," "That won't work for me," "Stop," "That's enough," and "I don't want to do that."
- Adopt a few of these ultra-assertive statements to use when appropriate: "I can't respect you when you treat people that way," "I will not put up with this. I need you to change your behavior in this way: ______," "Because of your treatment of me, I will not get together with you again," "I said no, and I mean no."
- Remember that ultra-assertiveness is like cayenne pepper—too much and the dinner is spoiled.
- If you wonder whether and how to be ultra-assertive, try this general guideline. When in doubt, err on the side of kindness.
Why Not Just Be Aggressive and Give 'Em Hell?
There are certainly times when aggression could be the right choice, especially when life or limb is at stake, and you must defend yourself, or when someone continues to disrespect you even when you've called them on it. But short of these situations, aggression can backfire, especially if you must interact with the person again. Moreover, you could overreact and inflict damage that is out of proportion to the problem. It’s hard to live with yourself when you realize that you’ve been a jerk.
Even ultra-assertiveness has its risks. When you are overly brusque or blunt, you risk burning your bridges with the other person. You also risk escalating a situation beyond the level you intended. It’s important to realize, too, that you may not be interpreting the other person’s intention correctly. Your anger might be unjustified. Someone could be from a different sub-culture, socially challenged, or just not communicating clearly.
Even though President Harry Truman was renowned for “giving 'em hell,” I like his famous comment: “I never did give them hell. I just told the truth, and they thought it was hell.” One way to look at ultra-assertiveness is that it's just the plain, unvarnished truth.
© Meg Selig, 2019. All rights reserved. For permissions, click here.
1. Nemko, M. (2018). “Tips for Succeeding in Your Job,” psychologytoday.com.
2. Confrontive Assertion. From Jakubowski, P. and Lange, A. The Assertive Option: Your Rights and Responsibilities. Research Press, Champaign, IL, 1978, pp. 163 ff.
3. Walker, R. (2018).The Workologist, New York Times.
4. West, B. (2017). “This is What Self-Care Really Means,” thoughtcatalog.com.