Have you ever gone to a party, not because you wanted to, but because you were asked to? Have you taken on an assignment at work because you felt bad saying no, even though you didn’t have the time, resources, or even the interest? On the other hand, have you wanted something but were afraid to ask for it? Maybe you ordered a meal without onions, received the onions anyway but toughed it out because you didn’t want to be seen as a complainer. Times like these call for us to speak for ourselves about what we want and don’t want, can or cannot do. If we struggle communicating our wishes to others assertively, we may instead become aggressive or timid, say yes when we mean no, or no when we mean yes.
Researchers Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons define assertive behavior as “any action that reflects an individual’s own best interest, including standing up for oneself without significant anxiety, expressing one’s feelings comfortably, or exercising one’s own rights without denying the rights of others.” Unassertiveness, to put it simply, is the opposite of this.
Assertiveness is usually distinguished from aggression by virtue of the fact that assertive behavior does not harm others. However, this distinction has limitations, as what is “harmful” to a person is entirely subjective. Tactfully saying no to someone’s request to eat one of your French fries might lead to the requester feeling insulted or rejected, regardless of your intent. I would argue that assertiveness, when done properly, is behavior that strives to be the least harmful as possible while still being clear and direct.
The problem of assertiveness is encoded in our language, reflecting our cultural values. Phrases such as “brutally honest,” the “hard truth,” and “the truth hurts” imply the injurious potential of honesty. Conversely, phrases like “pull punches,” “mince words,” and “beat around the bush” all suggest that individuals in our society are expected to restrain their feelings for the sake of others.
Why Assertiveness is Important
While society demands that we bridle our real feelings in certain situations, doing so too often can come at our own peril. Unassertiveness is associated with a number of individual and interpersonal problems. Individuals who score low on assertiveness are more likely to experience social anxiety, depression, lowered self-esteem, and relationship and job dissatisfaction. In addition, unassertive individuals are less likely to advocate and negotiate for themselves, resulting in lower salaries when starting a new job.
Forms of Unassertiveness
There are many ways we choose not to stand up for ourselves, but the following tendencies are common:
Minimization. One way that we prevent ourselves from being assertive is to “minimize.” Minimization is when we recognize a fact but downplay its significance. For example, if you were insulted by a coworker, you might describe how you felt by saying, “I’m a little irritated,” rather than stating plainly, “I am angry.” The problem is that “a little irritated” does not accurately convey what you are feeling and may therefore compromise your ability to address it. Perhaps feeling angry might lead to a productive discussion with the person with whom you are in conflict, while feeling “a little irritated” might lead to stomaching the upset and dismissing it as “no big deal.”
Obligation. Most of us feel a degree of obligation to go along with things we’d rather not. There will be plenty of times when we do not really want to do something, but we choose to do it anyway because the benefits outweigh the harms. But at its extreme, an excessive sense of obligation can be a pervasive pattern of saying yes when you really mean no.
Avoidance. Sometimes assertiveness can be thwarted completely through avoidance, which is simply another form of unassertiveness. Not responding to a text, email, or phone call are ways of avoiding a confrontation in which you might be forced to be honest and risk hurting someone’s feelings (or your own self-image as a “nice person”). Perhaps a salesperson is soliciting your business via phone or email. You haven’t responded to them, and they continue contacting you. Instead of stating the truth—that you are not interested in what they are offering—you continue ignoring their attempts to connect.
“Ghosting,” a recent term for cutting off communication with someone without telling them–usually in the context of an interpersonal relationship–captures the culture of avoidance that characterizes the digital age. But ghosting has negative effects on both the ghost-er and the ghost-ed. It misses out on an opportunity to communicate what you are feeling and provide valuable information to another person. In most cases it is better to honestly communicate that you are no longer interested in talking to the person.
Fear of Negative Evaluation
While it is true that standing up for ourselves and asserting our desires in a given situation might elicit a negative response in others, oftentimes these people are understanding and supportive of our decision, perhaps even envious that we were able to declare our desire tactfully. Sometimes a person simply does not know how you feel, so your assertiveness might be welcomed because it lets people in on what is going on.
Researchers Julio Guerra and Sherwin Cotler noted that “many unassertive individuals tend to be overly apologetic and say, ‘I’m sorry’ a great deal of the time (in some cases, almost to the point of excusing themselves for taking up oxygen or space when they are in the same room with people.)” This would suggest a relationship between unassertiveness and guilt. Feeling as though we’ve done something wrong when we express our wants, we may shrink from any interaction that produces inner turmoil. In the process, we lose touch with what we want; we tip-toe through our lives.
Psychologist Karen Horney saw inhibition as a form of repressed hostility. When a person’s aggressive impulses create too much anxiety for them (perhaps because their aggressive behavior as children was met with punishment), they may learn to behave the opposite of aggressive—unassertive and overly solicitous—while deep down harboring aggressive impulses. It might be helpful to ask yourself if beneath all your yeses is a resentful, resounding “NO!”
Negotiating a Salary
The real-life implications of assertiveness are significant. A study conducted on individuals in various industries found that those who negotiated their starting salary earned on average $5,000 more than those who did not negotiate. Why are some people more likely to negotiate than others? It could be for a number of reasons. Perhaps the candidate really needs the job and is afraid that requesting a salary above what is offered might jeopardize their opportunity. A more likely response, however, is that the employer would entertain the negotiation and may even approve the higher salary. As long as the negotiation is handled tactfully (another component of assertiveness), it is unlikely the employer would rescind their offer altogether.
Another factor contributing to low assertiveness in salary negotiation goes deeper. One’s sense of deservedness, namely the belief that they are worthy of their desired salary, might play into their decision to negotiate or not.
But just as someone might underestimate themselves and their financial worth in the working world, so too might some overestimate themselves, believing they are entitled to a salary that does not reflect what their skills and experience warrants. It is up to each individual to decide what they believe is fair for their work.
Assertiveness in Business
Daniel Ames, a professor of social psychology at Columbia, likens assertiveness in leadership to salting a sauce, too much or too little is noticeable and unpleasant.
“Most effective leaders push hard enough to get their way,” said Ames. “But not so hard that they can’t get along.”
Ames believes leaders should have the flexibility to be strong when it matters and to get along when other situations call for it. Being stuck on either end of the extreme is a recipe for ineffective leadership.
Becoming More Assertive
Manuel J. Smith, late author of the 1975 bestseller, “When I say no, I feel guilty,” urges would-be assertives to use a technique he calls the “broken record.”
Said Smith: “One of the most important aspects of being verbally assertive is to be persistent and to keep saying what you want over and over again without getting angry, irritated, or loud.”
In this way, assertiveness acts as a kind of boundary. Even if you are continually pestered by a request you’ve already declined, it is still your choice to get angry when it is asked again. Anger might signal that you feel attacked by the request, that there is an unfair expectation on you to say yes. Indeed, there may be an unfair expectation on you to say yes, but that expectation might be the one you have of yourself. It is important in these moments to discern between the pressure others put on us to be acquiescent and the pressure we put on ourselves. While people can certainly be aggressive and manipulative, oftentimes it is our own expectations and guilt about saying no to others that leads to our heightened anger when requests are continually made of us.
Smith’s book is chock-full of practical tools for learning to be assertive. Here are some of his tools for refusing requests and assertive ways of saying no:
· You have a right to say NO!
· You deny your own importance when you say yes and you really mean no.
· Saying no does not imply that you reject another person; you are simply refusing a request.
· When saying no, it is important to be direct, concise, and to the point.
· If you really mean to say no, do not be swayed by pleading, begging, cajoling, compliments, or other forms of manipulation.
· You may offer reasons for your refusal, but don’t get carried away with numerous excuses.
· A simple apology is adequate; excessive apologies can be offensive.
· Demonstrate assertive body language.
· Saying no is a skill that can be learned.
· Saying no and not feeling guilty about it can become a habit that can be very growth enhancing.
Assertive Ways of Saying “No”:
· Basic principles to follow in answers: brevity, clarity, firmness, and honesty.
· Begin your answer with the word “NO” so it is not ambiguous.
· Make your answer short and to the point.
· Don’t give a long explanation.
· Be honest, direct and firm.
· Don’t say, “I’m sorry, but…”
There is not a person out there for whom assertiveness is not a challenge in some way. Most of us are socialized to be pleasant yea-sayers who take time to weigh our inner feelings against the risks and rewards of communicating them. If we always did exactly what we wanted, chaos would ensue. On the other hand, unassertiveness might keep us from speaking calmly, clearly, and honestly about what we want and don’t want. As a result, our personal and work lives may suffer.
It takes time to tune into what you want so that you’re not so easily moved by the whims of the more assertive. Learning this skill is a lifelong process of listening to yourself and acting from that knowledge.
Assertiveness training seminars and workshops are available across the country. Google search “assertiveness training” and the name of your city to see what options come up.
At A and H Insurance, we are a voice for our clients. We speak up when we see risks and vulnerabilities that need to be protected. And during the claims process, when it is vitally important to speak assertively for the needs and rights of the client, we have a team that fights for you.