The Assertive Man: 11 Actions to Develop the Skill of AssertivenessOct 18, 2021
In a perfect world, every person would always feel seen, heard, understood and respected. You wouldn't have to compete for attention, plead for what you want, or fight against what you don't. But this world is not yet perfect and the people in it cannot read your mind and have not decided to put your needs at the center of it. Therefore, the best trait you can develop in yourself to advocate for your thoughts, opinions, rights and space is assertiveness.
What is Assertiveness?
The word assertiveness sometimes conjures thoughts of a boardroom bully who always gets his way or the fella at lunch who always takes the last fry in the basket without offering it to someone else. But when we look at what it means to be assertive we discover that it is not about pushing others aside to get what you want. Instead, assertiveness is a combination of self-mastery - when you are in touch with your thoughts and emotions and are in control of your actions/reactions - and the ability to communicate clearly with others, without expecting a specific response in return.
Assertiveness is an empowered and direct form of communication that shows you are willing to take a stand for yourself, but also recognize that other people also have the right to take a stand for their beliefs, so you remain open to dialogue and compromise.
To be assertive, you can either ask for what you want or express a need, (if you don't ask the answer is always 'No') or you can refuse to fulfill a request that someone is making of you. Going beyond the scope of personal communication, you can use your assertiveness to work toward political change, to right an injustice, to advocate for your children, or for the medical care of a loved one.
Believe it or not, being assertive isn’t just about being right all the time. A truly assertive man is so honest with himself he is also comfortable changing his mind, asking for help, apologizing for his mistakes or taking full responsibility for something that didn’t go as planned.
What Does a Lack of Assertiveness Look Like?
With mixed passive messages like “be polite”, “mama knows best”, in contrast with aggressive messages like "nice guys finish last", "kill or be killed", it's no wonder men have a difficult time calibrating their communications skills, to be honest, direct and unattached to the outcome.
A lack of healthy assertiveness may be presented in a number of different communication forms; passiveness, aggressiveness and passive-aggressiveness.
Let’s look more closely at this spectrum of behaviors
When someone is passive, they either tend to appear shy or meek or like they’re just cool “going with the flow, man”. They often go along with what others do or say, without speaking up when they have a contrasting opinion or need, partly because they are afraid of looking selfish, and more commonly because they do not value their own thoughts and feeling enough to express them.
Those who are passive might put themselves down while silently feel victimized or run over by others. The harsh truth is you teach people how to treat you, so if you don’t respect yourself enough to advocate for your own opinions, nobody else will either and the loop continues where you will be bulldozed by those who are willing to assert themselves.
Passive communicators will often:
- fail to assert for themselves
- allow others to deliberately or inadvertently infringe on their rights
- fail to express their feelings, needs, or opinions
- tend to speak softly or apologetically
- exhibit poor eye contact and slumped body posture
The impact of a pattern of passive communication is that these individuals:
- often feel anxious because life seems out of their control
- often feel depressed because they feel stuck and hopeless
- often feel resentful (but are unaware of it) because their needs are not being met
- often feel confused because they ignore their own feelings
- are unable to mature because real issues are never addressed
The internal conflict created by passive behavior can lead to:
- Seething anger
- Feelings of victimization
- Desire to exact revenge (4)
On the polar opposite side of the spectrum from passiveness, we find aggressiveness - a behavior some use to get what they want at all costs. People who behave aggressively are sometimes mischaracterized as assertive, however the biggest difference in being assertive means you stand up for yourself while being considerate of others, while being aggressive means you don’t care how your behavior affects others, as long as you get what you want.
Being rude, pushy, intimidating or relying on physical dominance to get their way, people who act aggressively have difficulty sustaining healthy relationships. Sadly, they rarely recognize that it is their behavior pushing people away and are left feeling abandoned and victimized.
Aggressive communicators will often:
- Try to dominate others
- Use humiliation to control others
- Criticize, blame, or attack others
- Be very impulsive
- Have low frustration tolerance
- Speak in a loud, demanding, and overbearing voice
- Act threateningly and rudely
- Not listen well
- Interrupt frequently
In past articles, I've talked a lot about the importance of congruence, which is when the way you behave matches the way you truly feel. Passive-aggressiveness is a sure sign that you are not in congruence with yourself as this communication style occurs when you seem to passively go along with something, while simultaneously feeling frustration about it.
Similar to those who display passive behavior, passive-aggressiveness is usually a sign that someone does not feel like their opinions matter. They may be especially averse to direct conflict, but are more comfortable acting out their anger in more subtle ways such as saying they’ll go along with something but don’t show up on time, are grumpy or distant, or generally combative, without actually addressing the problem head-on.
Passive-aggressive communicators will often:
- Mutter to themselves rather than confront the person or issue
- Have difficulty acknowledging their anger
- Use facial expressions that don't match how they feel - i.e., smiling when angry
- Use sarcasm
- Deny there is a problem
- Appear cooperative while purposely doing things to annoy and disrupt
- Use subtle sabotage to get even
The Characteristics of an Assertive Man:
So what does it look like to be an honest, direct, empathetic, articulate and empowered communicator?
A man who has learned to harness the skill of assertive communication:
- Feels empowered.
- Does not feel that they are unjustly controlled by others.
- Projects dignity and calmness in their dealings with other people.
- Are proactive. They make things happen, rather than reacting or responding to the words and actions of others.
- Know their own rights and responsibilities when they deal with others.
- Avoid apologetic dialogue or submissive language and tone.
- Are able to resist the aggressive, manipulative and passive ploys of other people. (Downing, 1995).
- Is able to listen to others with the intention of understanding and respecting the autonomy and agency of others.
- Problem solving and accommodation of the needs and desires of others.
Why Do Men Struggle with Assertiveness?
The primary reason men lack assertiveness is they have low self-esteem and do not value their own needs below those of other people. For some men, this is because they don’t feel worthy enough to speak up and they lack the confidence to directly advocate for themselves. While for others, it stems from a fear of hurting someone’s feelings or appearing demanding or selfish. The thought of being disliked or creating conflict just to express their opinions is terrifying. Unfortunately, those who do not assert themselves transmit the message that their opinions aren’t important enough to be considered.
What are the Benefits of Being Assertive?
Sayings like “you always miss the shots you don’t take,” and “if you don’t ask, the answer is always ‘no’” offer especially good examples of why being assertive is so beneficial. Some amazing opportunities have been offered to people simply because they asked.
It takes a certain amount of self-confidence to be assertive and the good news is like so many other habits and behaviors, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
It feels a lot better to speak your mind than stuff your needs or opinions down or play small. Cyclical in nature, the rewards of being assertive compound and build more self-confidence. It’s not about getting what you want all the time, (although assertiveness does help raise the odds of getting what you want more often), it’s about honoring yourself by taking a stand for what you think and feel. Even if you don’t get what you want, you know you did all you could to speak up, while still being respectful of others.
How Do You Develop Assertiveness?
Growing up, you may not have witnessed positive examples of how to behave assertively and have reacted by becoming passive, aggressive or passive-aggressive. We've seen how detrimental these communication styles can be, but just because you have developed one communications style throughout your life, it's never too late to develop a new style of communication that better serves you.
The best place to start building your ‘muscle’ of assertiveness is to practice being assertive in low-stakes environments where the outcome does not feel like a life or death situation.
Here are 11 key ways to assess your communication style and learn to become more assertive.
1 – Ask Yourself ‘What Beliefs Do You Hold About Being Assertive?
It’s vital, as in any attempt to change our behavior, to ask ourselves what beliefs do we carry as it relates to being assertive. Do we believe that we are entitled or worthy to ask for what is important or meaningful to us? Do we hold the belief that others will think poorly of us, or being negatively judgmental if we lodge a complaint or make a request? It’s important for us to be aware of our beliefs about ourselves and about others as we learn to implement these tactics.
2 – Assess Your Communication Style
Honestly examining your dominant communication style is the first step to becoming a skilled and confident communicator.
Ask yourself these questions:
1 - How do you respond when someone tells you ‘no’?
2 - Do you speak up when you disagree with something or would prefer a different outcome?
3 - Do you ask for help when you need it?
4 - Do you take responsibility for your mistakes and work toward a solution?
5 - Do you try to bully or manipulate others to get what you want, regardless of how it affects others?
6 - Do you say everything is okay, but then stomp around in a huff slamming doors and muttering under your breath?
3 – Develop Awareness of Your Triggers
Whenever we face a situation or cue, we experienced a whole range of cognitive, emotional, physiological, and behavioral responses. Simply put, these cues are what we commonly often refer to as triggers. Understanding what triggers you and your responses is necessary in order to know what needs to be changed. For example, if you find it hard to be assertive with a boss because you think that you might be fired, then it is understandable that you might withdraw quietly from stating a need or expectation. Developing awareness is a crucial part of change.
4 – Identify Your Needs, Expectations and Values
It's difficult to convey or communicate our needs when we haven't taken the time to actually determine what they are. Spend some time reflecting on what's important to you, and what you value. Identifying personal values is a beneficial exercise as values form who we and what we stand for. Values help you identify your motivations, establish healthy boundaries and make important life decisions. If it's hard to identify what your values are – try reverse engineering. Start with what you don’t like, or what you would prefer to avoid and work in the opposite direction.
5 - Make a Deliberate Choice to Change.
At first, changing a long-practiced behavior can feel like trying to turn the Titanic around. However, making the decision to change and then consistently taking steps toward that change will yield big results. To practice being more assertive, begin with low-stakes situations. For example, if you are unhappy with your meal at a restaurant, kindly ask your server to replace it with something else. If you want your spouse to stop leaving toothpaste blobs in the sink, ask her to please wipe them out daily. As you practice being assertive, you’ll get better at it and will become more a confident advocate for yourself in more challenging situations.
6 – Rehearse what you want to say
There’s nothing wrong with taking a few practice swings before you step up to the plate. If you’re nervous that when it comes time to assert yourself you’ll either chicken out, fumble your words or get so worked up you start shouting, take some time to think about or write down what you want to say ahead of time. That way you’ll communicate clearly and won’t get off track if you start feeling emotional.
7 – Rehearse Your Body Language
In-person communication is not just about the words we say, but also about the energy we project with our bodies. Passive behavior can result in hunching over or avoiding eye contact while crossing your arms or puffing out your chest can make you appear more aggressive. An assertive stance that exudes calm and confidence, is an open stance where you are upright, maintain eye contact and you aren’t clenching your fists or crossing your arms.
8 – Regulate Your Emotions
Conflict can be very emotionally triggering and although it’s normal to be upset from time to time, getting angry or crying can make it difficult to calmly communicate what you do want. If you find yourself getting worked up, focus on your breath, speak slowly and unclench your jaw and hands. Sometimes this is impossible to do in the heat of the moment, so feel free to communicate that you need some time to walk away from the situation and will come back to it when you’ve had some time to calm down. This will help keep you from saying something you don’t mean or agreeing to something you don’t really agree with.
9 – Deliver Your Message
You are worthy and entitled to share your opinions and make requests. Everyone is. The best way to be heard is to speak your truth firmly with kindness and respect. Avoid placing blame or saying things like, "You always do that to me." This will only foster resentment and resistance rather than understanding and cooperation.
Instead, use ‘I’ statements that take responsibility for your own experience saying something like, “When you do X, I feel X.”
10 – Confirm and Clarify
You may have practiced your “speech”, rehearsed your body language, and spoken your peace like the empowered champion you are, but that doesn’t guarantee your message was heard the way you intended or will garner the response you expect. To help keep things moving in the right direction, ask if they have questions and try to clear up any misconceptions or misunderstandings that present themselves. Be receptive to their feedback and let them know you are genuinely interested in hearing what they have to say. The best case scenario is you can agree on a solution or compromise that is a win-win for both parties, however, if you continue to be at odds and the conflict remains, you can walk away knowing you did your part to the best of your ability.
11 – Be Prepared for a Declined Invitation
Naturally, when we engage someone in an assertive way, we also acknowledge and respect their autonomy as a person. Simply translated, they can always decline and say no. In this moment, it’s easy to pursue, persuade, manipulate or even coerce someone into fulfilling our needs and expectations, however this is a lose-lose for all concerned. We need to step back and accept that the other person has a right to say no. It's up to us to think creatively about what other solutions we can find to ensure that our needs are met. If you're the one who needs to refuse a demand or request – practice saying no. Be direct. If an explanation is appropriate, though they’re not always necessary, keep it brief.
You might not get it right all the time but the payoffs for trying are huge!
Regardless of your past communication style, becoming an honest, direct and open communicator will benefit all your relationships and interactions. But don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get it right every time. Nobody does.
You may be kicking along, speaking your mind and negotiating peacefully when all of the sudden a persona or situation will activate a trigger you didn’t even know you still had, throwing you into an old communication pattern. Healing happens in layers and this is just another example of that. Think of it as an opportunity to dig even deeper, know yourself better so you can do better the next time.
Over time, and with consistent effort, being assertive will become more like second nature and less of a chore. If you've spent your life relying on aggressive behaviors to get what you want, you'll slowly feel more comfortable signaling for someone else to go first at the four-way stop, rather than slamming on the gas to get there first. If you've been passive most of your life, you'll start to find your voice and become more comfortable advocating for what you want. And if you've lived life in passive-aggressive limbo, where your inner and outer lives are in a constant state of tug-a-war, you'll begin to enjoy the peace you feel when your behaviors are congruent with your feelings.
I promise the payoff of being assertive is immeasurable. Not only will you feel more confident and raise your self-esteem, but you’ll also have closer relationships, will draw in new opportunities and will be an active participant in creating the life you want most.
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Simon G. Niblock, MA, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in men’s mental health and wellness. He provides tailored psychotherapy services and online programs for men and is the author of the Anxiety Workbook for Men, Evidence-based Exercises to Manage Anxiety, Depression, and Worry.
Important Notice: The content in this article is for informational purposes only. It does not replace direct professional mental health, medical treatment, or professional care in any way. Seek the support of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider to diagnose and treat any mental health concern directly. Contact 911 or your local emergency services number if you are experiencing a mental health emergency.
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