Too little or too much assertiveness causes problems in multiple areas of a person’s life. Learning to be assertive / confident is a skill everybody needs sooner or later, and learning the necessary steps early on makes life much easier. People who are assertive get treated better by others, and feel more sense of control over their lives and over their interactions with other people.
It is important that your level of assertiveness / outward confidence is appropriate to the country in which you live. Being more assertive than is normal for your society can be misinterpreted as being aggressive or being arrogant. Being less assertive than the norm for your country makes you appear uncertain and weak. A useful guideline when you are thinking of saying something assertive is to reflect on how you would feel if that phrase was said to you, if the positions were reversed. Was the choice of words fair and reasonable? Was the point of view being expressed fair and reasonable? Was the request fair and reasonable? Was the decision to say “No” fair and reasonable, even if it disappointed someone else? We are all programmed to want to please other people within reason, and to therefore say “Yes” to requests that are made of us as far as possible. However, some people make totally unreasonable requests, and make us feel bad when we reject these requests. This has led to the phrase, “When I say no, I feel guilty” (actually the title of an old but best-selling book on the subject, written by Dr. Manuel Smith.
Therefore, it is perfectly normal and perfectly human to feel guilty, and indeed to feel anxious, when we feel like saying no to a request. However, listen to your logic and intelligence, not to automatic, unguided emotions, and be guided by your brain rather than your emotional reactions when pressure is being put on you. Certain requests we will see as totally unreasonable, such as requests for a sexual relationship with a stranger, or a request to wash somebody else’s car every week! Try to judge other requests that are made of you along the same lines and again think whether or not you would actually ask someone else to do what you are being asked in this situation.
Life is much more friendly and easy if we all do favours for each other, but some people seem to continuously ask for more and more demanding favours. A useful technique when asked for a favour, especially by someone who has already asked for quite a number of favours, is to say something like “Let me think about it and I will get back to you”. A few minutes, a few hours or a few days later, you can then say “No, I cannot do that for you” and do remember you do not have to explain your reasoning, if you have judged the issue to be unreasonable. If pressurized, it is a useful technique to simply repeat “No” and then state “I would like to drop this subject”. If you are going to say yes, you may wish to say “Yes I will do this for you, but you will then owe me a favour”. This transmits the message that you have made a personal decision that you will do what is being asked, and you expect a similar favour in return, not that you are a helpless servant of the person asking you.
Do follow the fundamental principle “Don’t be nice all the time, be fair (including to yourself)”.
Do remember that being continuously timid and lacking in assertiveness leads to a sense of life being unfair and of you being exploited, and this causes a build-up of distress, anger and resentment internally. Very easily, this manifests itself as outbursts of extreme anger and irritability over something trivial (“the final straw that breaks the camel’s back”), and is a major factor predisposing people to depression.
Here are some other principles you may wish to keep in mind about the whole issue of assertiveness:
PRINCIPLE 1. PEOPLE CANNOT READ YOUR MIND:
Many people who lack assertiveness spend their lives being nice to other people, and doing things for them, even if they have not been asked. However, the vast majority of the population operates on a totally different basis, namely that if you want something, you will ask for it. The person asking the favour, and the person from whom the favour is asked, can then negotiate with each other, and either do what is asked or work out a mutually acceptable compromise. For example, you may have provided lots of extra comforts to other people when they are sick, but the majority of the population will expect you nevertheless to ask for things you need when you are sick. It is not selfishness when they do not offer, it is that different sections of the population speak different languages in effect.
PRINCIPLE 2. THEY MAY NOT LIKE ME:
We are all afraid that not doing what is asked of us will cause the other person to dislike us. As many people with lack of assertiveness also lack confidence and have low self-esteem, being liked by other people is very important. However, human nature is not that straightforward.
If we do a favour for someone the first time they ask, we reasonably expect that they will be grateful. However, if we continuously do favours (without them being reciprocated) we are taken for granted by the other person, who sees doing favours for them as one of our roles in life. As the pattern continues, the person doing the favours is seen as weak and in many ways a servant, and is seen as a lesser person. So therefore, paradoxically, the more you do for somebody, without asserting your own needs or rights, the less positively they think about you!
In contrast, if you sometimes say yes and sometimes say no, and if you remind the person they owe you a favour in return (and actually ask for that favour!), people develop a higher opinion of you.
Indeed, when you think about who you would seek advice from for a complicated problem, you would be far more likely to seek the opinion of someone you saw as confident and assertive, rather than someone meek and timid who just wanted to be liked.
PRINCIPLE 3. ASSERTIVENESS IS A SPECIES-PROTECTIVE MECHANISM:
As explained above, continuously doing favours for another person without a reasonable number of favours being done for you in return, leads to the situation where you are seen as a servant to that person, or at least much weaker than that person. Do remember that human nature is continuously establishing levels of control and dominance within our local group, which is very useful when the whole group is threatened as a chain of command is already in operation and is understood. However, it is not pleasant being at the bottom of the chain, so tolerating the inevitable anxiety or guilt involved in being assertive means you move further up the chain of command. In day-to-day terms, this means you get seen as a bit more confident and strong, and therefore get treated somewhat differently.
PRINCIPLE 4. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO EXPLAIN:
If you decide to say no to a request, you do not have to explain your thinking and your emotions to someone else. Trying to justify your decision simply gives the other person more room to put pressure on you. You can simply state that you do not wish to discuss your reasoning, that you wish to drop the subject, that you are sorry but the answer is still no, etc. Of course this may be very different if the conversation is between yourself and someone with whom you have a close emotional relationship, in which case, mutual openness in communication is expected ideally.
PRINCIPLE 5. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO SAY YES OR NO IMMEDIATELY:
As indicated at the beginning of this section, you can take the option of “let me think about it”, so that your ultimate decision is seen as you deciding on the other person’s request, rather than you meekly doing what you were told to do.
PRINCIPLE 6. DO SAY WHAT YOU THINK:
While a lot of this section has discussed saying yes or saying no, another part of being assertive and confident is having an opinion. Do remember that your opinion is as valid as anyone else’s, unless they happen to be a particular recognised expert or professional in that area. It is therefore quite appropriate to state “I think that …”, or “I suggest …”, etc. Other people may insist their opinion is totally correct or even a scientific fact!, and it is useful to say something like “I understand your point of view and I will think about it, but I would like you to think about my point of view also”.
As discussed in the section on this site about Stopping Arguments, it is useful to state how strongly you feel about your point of view on a 0-10 scale, and ask the other person to do the same, without raising voices, or saying the same point of view in multiple different ways and in louder and louder voices.