by Andrew Lawless, John Quinn, Sue Wilcox

Recognising assertiveness

You can pretend anything, and master it.

Milton Erickson

In order to become assertive yourself, it is useful to be able to recognise assertiveness in others so that you can model their behaviour and way of being.

Here is a list of the sorts of things that assertive people do. As you read through the list, think about people you know, including yourself, who already do these things.

Think about how you could incorporate these into the way you behave.

The assertive model

People who are assertive will exhibit the behaviours listed below.

They are happy to be human

  • They admit to being human. They realise they are capable of doing as good or as bad a job as anyone else. They do not get hang-ups about mistakes they make. Their self-image is based on themselves as they are, not the job they do.
  • They’re not afraid to say ‘I don’t know’. They ask questions without fear of feeling stupid because of imagined feelings of ignorance. They realise that they are learning all the time, and that they can never ‘know it all’.
  • They demonstrate their right to be heard. If they have anything relevant or important to say, they say it. They expect the same rights that they extend to others; they will not be shouted down or intimidated.

They are positive

  • They send more positive messages than negative. Their basic life approach is based on a positive mental attitude. As managers, they catch people doing things ‘right’ and praise them rather than wait for them to do something ‘wrong’ and verbally kick them.
  • They do not take other people’s problems just because they are given to them. They ask for the solution as well as the problem, because they want people to learn to support themselves, rather than be dependant on them.
  • They set objectives for their actions by stating the end result of their efforts. By presenting the objective to all involved, they create a sense of purpose in others, which can encourage greater effort and efficiency, as well as promoting any new ideas from others involved.
  • They control their responses. They accept that they cannot control their environment or other people’s reactions, but they can control their response to that environment and they know that people’s reactions are based on inner feelings not external happenings, as a general rule. It is therefore well worth the effort of practising control.
  • They do not feel the need to justify their actions. Their self-esteem is high enough to make this unnecessary, especially as others are possibly not interested anyway.

They communicate clearly and well

  • They communicate clearly and concisely. They use the KISS method: Keep It Short and Simple. Ambiguity is avoided as well as the time which would otherwise be wasted in explaining what they meant.
  • If they are reprimanding or seeking resolution to a problem, they use the first person ‘I’. For instance, if they are querying an invoice amount they do not say ‘You have made a mistake on your invoice’; they say ‘I feel there is a mistake on this invoice.’ This avoids use of conflict language and so helps avoid confrontation where the invoicer may entrench their position. Rather, they encourage cooperation and, by using ‘I’ language, accept the remote possibility that they (the speaker) might be mistaken. Similarly, they do not say ‘You make me cross’, but rather ‘I get cross with you!’
  • They are not afraid to criticise constructively when it is necessary and they always follow up criticism with praise. In this way, people think about the criticism rather than the manner in which they feel they may have been treated.
  • They do not complain – they offer solutions to problems. A problem presented with no suggestions is a complaint. Assertive behaviour means never being called a ‘complainer’.

You know where you stand with them

Key point

Assertive people will always look for a win-win outcome, wherever possible.

  • If someone is bothering them they tell that person. They get it off their chest and avoid internal stress.
  • They act on facts, not hearsay.
  • They do not feel guilty saying ‘no’, which means they suffer less stress; they choose which activities they take on, or explain any consequences of acceptance (for example, delay in other work).
  • They set limits to their requests. If they ask someone to do something, they give a time limit. If someone asks them, they quantify exactly what, when and how many. In this way, they avoid confusion and procrastination and their work is finished on time.
  • They do not make promises they cannot keep, whether business, social or domestic. Thus they are seen as people who are reliable and they avoid giving themselves the stress involved in saying ‘yes’ when they really mean to say ‘no’.
  • They do not threaten unless they are prepared to carry out their threat. In this way, as with their promises, they gain a reputation for being a person who is prepared to do what they say.
  • They do not seek conflict. If they do find themselves at loggerheads with someone, they try as quickly as possible for a win/win result, or they possibly choose to retreat. They realise that winning a battle may not help them in their long-term objectives. Their ‘ego’ state is mature enough to realise that conflict does not help anything, especially in business.