Assertiveness

5 Benefits of Asserting Your Needs—and How to Start Today

Anyone can learn the art of respectful assertiveness.

Posted Jan 18, 2018

Wayhome studio/Adobe Stock
Source: Wayhome studio/Adobe Stock

If you've ever had to express your needs directly to another person, you know it can be hard to do. Our wishes aren't always aligned with the other person's, like when we ask for a refund for something we bought, or try to end a conversation with someone who just won't stop talking. 

Asking for what we need is the principle behind assertiveness. This idea is often confused with aggression, as if being assertive means demanding that others give us what we want.

On the contrary, though, being assertive falls between being passive or being aggressive, as Alberti and Emmons make clear in their classic book, Your Perfect Right. It can be a fine line to walk, but one worth practicing because of the benefits that come from greater assertiveness. 

A few years ago I experienced some of the downsides of not directly expressing what I needed. I was about to go into a therapy session with a patient at the treatment center where I was working. I knew my boss had been looking for me but hoped it could wait so I wouldn't be late to my session. I thought about telling my boss I'd be free in an hour but I was afraid he'd be annoyed with me for not being available, so instead I started my session and put up my "Do Not Disturb" sign.

A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. I was instantly irritated and ignored the knock as I continued with my session, hoping he would realize I wasn't available. A moment later there was another knock, this time louder. When the third knock came I stood up angrily, threw open the door, and said to my boss, "Could you please stop knocking on my door?" 

Only after the words had left my mouth did I see the director of the agency standing next to him, so I had not only barked at my boss but had just embarrassed him in front of his own boss. It would have been uncomfortable to handle the situation sooner and more directly, but doing so would have spared me a mini-outburst that caused a serious rift between my boss and me—not to mention some awkwardness for the person I was treating.

This example also highlights a common outcome when we're not assertive: Our frustration builds as we say nothing, until we finally explode and express ourselves aggressively. 

The assertive thing to do would have been to let my boss know that I'd be free in an hour if that would fit his schedule. Appropriate assertiveness is about balancing our own needs with those of others.

GrinFox/Shutterstock
Source: GrinFox/Shutterstock

A recent journal article by Brittany Speed and colleagues summarized some of the many benefits of being more assertive of our needs. They include:

  • Less Anxiety. Social anxiety improves with greater assertiveness; as we face our fear of upsetting others and let them know what we want and need, our fears diminish. In the process, we often discover that we don't get the upset reaction we expected from the other person. 
  • Less Depression. Asking for what we need can lead to greater need fulfillment, which can lift our spirits. We also enjoy an enhanced sense of self-efficacy, boosting our view of ourselves and raising our mood.
  • Greater Self-Esteem. We practice self-respect when we honor our own needs, which can enhance our view of ourselves. We also provide validation of our perspective by asserting our needs to others. 
  • Greater Sense of Agency. It's easy to feel like a powerless pushover when we're passively swallowing our needs. By exercising our ability to advocate for ourselves, we reclaim control over our lives.
  • Better Relationships. If assertiveness were selfish or aggressive, we would expect it to hurt our relationships. On the contrary, research shows that greater assertiveness actually improves relationships, making them more harmonious and satisfying. Good things happen when people express their needs directly to one another.

If you don't see yourself as an assertive person, take heart: Assertiveness can be learned. My go-to self-help book on the topic is Your Perfect Right, which I often recommend to individuals I work with who could benefit from more assertive communication.

Ready to start practicing today? Here are some principles to follow:

  1. Be honest with yourself. What do you need in a particular situation? Beware of any tendency to discount your wishes. (See this earlier post on identifying our needs.)
  2. Be direct and unapologetic as you let the other person know what you need.
  3. Aim to be positive, expecting a positive response from the other person. This approach can help the interaction get off on the right foot.
  4. Take responsibility for your need rather than making it about the other person. For example, let your partner know that you'd enjoy spending more evenings together, rather than criticizing him or her for being unavailable.
  5. Remind yourself that you are perfectly within your rights to have needs and to express them to people in a position to respond.
  6. Keep in mind the balance you're aiming for—honoring your wishes and those of the other person. A collaborative approach is always the best when possible.
  7. Tend to your non-verbal behaviors. As the authors of Your Perfect Right point out, only part of assertiveness has to do with the words we use. Assertive behavior also is about:
  • Eye contact—neither avoiding the person's eyes nor staring them down.
  • Facial expression—one that matches the words we're saying (e.g., not smiling if we're describing frustration).
  • Posture—standing up straight and facing the person directly, rather than "apologizing" through our body language.
  • Physical distance—too close signals aggression; too far away, passivity.
  • Gestures—moving in a relaxed and fluid way that suggests confidence (whether or not we feel it).
  • Vocal quality—speaking in a clear, firm tone rather than yelling or speaking meekly.

LinkedIn image credit: Mangostar/Shutterstock

References

Alberti, R., & Emmons, M. (2017). Your perfect right: Assertiveness and equality in your life and relationships, 10th ed. Oakland, CA: Impact Publishers. 

Speed, B. C., Goldstein, B. L., & Goldfried, M. R. (in press). Assertiveness training: A forgotten evidence-based treatment. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. doi:10.1111/cpsp.12216