Why Assertiveness Helps, Not Hurts, Relationships

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It is not uncommon for individuals to feel that many of their needs go unmet regularly in their most important relationships. Being in a healthy relationship with friends, colleagues, and family means compromise and consideration; but, what do you do when you feel it is you who is doing the majority of the compromising? How can you let your needs be truly known without pitching a fit or becoming aggressive? The answer is assertiveness. Assertiveness, when done appropriately, not only lets others know what your needs are, but it increases the assertive individual’s self-confidence for future encounters.
So what is appropriate assertiveness? Assertiveness is an interpersonal skill in which an individual demonstrates confidence, not cockiness. The individual learns to stand up for their rights, needs, and wants while at the same time respecting the rights, needs, and wants of others. A person with an assertive interpersonal style is likely to be direct and honest as well as articulate in regards to their needs and wants.
When you’re assertive you understand that you can make a request or state an opinion and others are within their right to say no or disagree without you becoming upset. Assertive individuals stay in control, work to develop compromises, and accept that they will not always get what they need or want in all situations. Assertive individuals are often some of the very best listeners because they know that in turn they will express their needs and wants as well.
What assertiveness is not? Assertiveness is not aggressiveness. An individual with an aggressive interpersonal style spends most of their time demanding—not clearly stating—their needs and wants. They are often out of control emotionally during conversations about their needs and the needs of others. They are unlikely to accept compromise and most certainly have difficulty accepting the reality that just because they demanded it doesn’t mean they will get it.
The following are 3 specific benefits that assertive people enjoy.
1. More confidence. Assertiveness increases one’s internal sense of control. When you are comfortable being assertive you come to realize that you can make changes to improve your own circumstances. This empowers people to do more, get involved, and take healthy risks.
2. Less stress. By being assertive you say no to requests that would otherwise spread you too thin. By being less overloaded you feel less overwhelmed and have more time to focus on your personal development and/or the development of things that you choose. You feel more in control of your life and enthusiastic about your work.
3. Better intimate (and other) relationships. If one person feels they aren’t getting their needs met, resentment for their spouse, partner, friend, or colleague ensues. This resentment, if left unaddressed, acts like a disease that consumes the enthusiasm the individual once had for the relationship.
But, like many things in life, it’s easier to talk about being assertive than it is to actually develop this quality, or is it? Here are 6 things you can do starting today to increase your assertiveness without making drastic lifestyle changes.
1. Establish an assertive mentality by visualizing yourself being successful at being assertive. Prior to being assertive at work, for example, take 5 minutes to visualize the interaction in which you’d like to be more assertive.
2. Start with small challenges. Try being assertive in mildly tense situations that have a low probability of conflict. Make requests such as asking to be seated at a different spot at a restaurant or changing your drink order with a waiter.
3. Be simple and direct. When you’re asserting yourself, less is more. Keep your requests and preferences simple and direct. Then be comfortable with the silence that may ensue while others consider what you’ve said.
4. Pick your battles. Perhaps the most common mistake many people make when learning to be more assertive is trying to be assertive all the time. Consider that there are some cases when being assertive won’t get you anywhere. In these situations another approach is needed.
5. Express your needs, wants, and feelings with clear “I” statements. Don’t assume others can read your mind, because they can’t. You’re likely to realize that by being clear about your needs you actually reduce the tension that others are feeling in the situation.
6. Set boundaries by saying no. Again, this can be overdone by individuals who are learning to be more assertive. Be careful to think things through first, but be willing to say no to things that create undue pressure or reduce the quality of your life. Saying no is not selfish; setting reasonable limits is an important factor in healthy relationships.

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About Author

Matt Woolley, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Department Psychiatry at the University of Utah. He completed his Doctoral and Masters degrees at Wichita State University in Clinical Psychology, an internship at the University of Kansas Medical School and a post-doctoral residency at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. In clinical practice Dr. Woolley conducts psychological assessments, sees patients for psychotherapy, and teaches doctoral students in psychology and residents in psychiatry. He is a regular guest on KUTV Channel 2’s Fresh Living discussing relationships and parenting. He has also been a long-standing weekly radio guest on local radio, podcast host and public speaker.

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