How we communicate can have any number of effects on our lives. Being assertive is a particularly important communication skill as it allows us to communicate our feelings, thoughts and beliefs in an open and honest manner. Being assertive also requires having respect for both oneself and the individuals that one is communicating with and thus it requires a sense of diplomacy. By considering what affect our feelings, thoughts and beliefs have on the individuals that we are communicating with, an assertive individual encourages compromise and insures that everyone involved is heard. An assertive individual feels confident to ask for what they want, but can manage the disappointment that may come with having to compromise.
Research has shown that communicating assertively can have a number of positive benefits. Moving beyond the clear positive of getting what you want, acting in an assertive manner can benefit your mental health and overall well-being. Research in the area of assertiveness and mental health has been largely focused on exploring this relationship in specific developmental groups such as during adolescence. Adolescence is considered a critical period for the development of assertiveness skills.
One particular study recently carried out by a team of psychologists, demonstrated significant links between assertive behaviour and psychological well-being. Maria Sarkova and her colleagues demonstrated significant links between reported assertive behaviors and reports of depression, anxiety and self-esteem. They found that adolescents that identified themselves as assertive, reported less feelings of depression and anxiety and higher levels of self-esteem. This is significant because as adolescence is a hotspot for development so to speak, the promotion of assertiveness skill-development may have long-standing positive effects on psychological well-being. An adolescent who struggles to assert themselves effectively early on, may have difficulties in the future stemming from this issue.
Older age may also be considered a period where development or redevelopment of effective communication behaviors occurs. As an older adult, you experience a number of significant life changes – your children may be having children, you might be retiring from working or you might be relocating to another living environment. With these significant life changes, an older person might come to feel unheard or struggle adapting to their new roles. As is sometimes the case under these circumstances, an older person might struggle to retain assertiveness. It is important to be mindful of how our behaviours change and develop as we grow older. By having a sense of awareness regarding your own behaviours, you will notice these changes and can then respond to them accordingly. Research has highlighted that assertiveness training for older adults can have positive effects for maintaining social skills and overall well-being.
Additional research exploring the effect of assertiveness training has demonstrated that increased assertive behaviour is associated with reductions in symptoms of social anxiety, increases in positive body esteem and reductions in stress, among other things. Higher levels of assertive behaviour have also been linked to more positive personal relationships and better academic and work experiences.
Behaving in an assertive manner does not come naturally to us all and it can be difficult to be assertive all of the time. Sometimes, an individual’s temperament or personality might make it more difficult for them to stand up for themselves in a way that is in accordance with the principles of assertiveness. In other cases, an individual might simply never have learnt effective strategies necessary for assertive communication. When this is the case, an individual might communicate unassertively in either one of two ways: passively or aggressively.
An individual who behaves passively is someone who may appear shy or easy-going and who is likely to follow the crowd. The passive individual will often not get their voice-heard or may initially make a suggestion but then cave in order to avoid confrontation. He or she might feel as though they are keeping the peace, when in reality they are hurting themselves. In the long-term, he or she may become extremely stressed, angry or resentful which may in turn impact negatively on their own well-being and potentially the well-being of those around them.
In contrast, an individual who behaves aggressively is someone who may appear confident and intimidating and who will disregard the feelings and desires of others in order to get what they want. This individual is not afraid to put people down and will not settle for compromise. In the long term, an aggressive person may actually get some of the things that they want but their interpersonal relationships may suffer. If an individual cannot develop meaningful relationships, or if their relationships are toxic and unhealthy, that individual is likely to have further problems further down the line.
Consider the following example and decide if you would behave in an assertive, aggressive or passive manner:
You bought a new pair of shoes last week and after just one wear, one of the heels has started to come loose. You paid a lot of money for the shoes and you were hoping to wear them again when you go out for dinner this weekend. You have also lost your receipt. When you return to the store that you bought them in, the sales person informs you that you are not eligible for a refund or an exchange as you have lost your receipt. Do you:
- Accept this without challenge even though the shoes were very expensive and you wanted to wear them this weekend. (Passive)
- Stand your ground calmly and ask for the manager to see if some resolution can be found. (Assertive)
- Start arguing about how unfair the whole situation is and attack the sales-person personally. (Aggressive)
While different situations require varying degrees of assertiveness, consider if the response that you answered above represents your overall way of communicating. Do you behave assertively/aggressively/passively regularly? Do you think that behaving this way is impacting on the well-being of you or the people around you? And would you like to behave differently?
Fortunately for those who identify as an aggressive or passive communicator, behavior is a learnt process, and it can always be relearnt. As highlighted briefly already, this can be done through formal assertiveness training or by proactively taking steps yourself to challenge your existing behaviours and replace them with new alternative ones. It is clear that the way that we communicate impacts significantly on our well-being – it is therefore paramount that we each consider how we interact and respond within the different environments that we find ourselves in. For instance, someone who is extremely assertive whilst at work might be a complete pushover at home. So while this person might identify as largely assertive, their passive behaviours at home may be impacting negatively on their well-being. Adolescents and older adults should be particularly conscious of their behaviours.
Why not dare yourself to try act more assertively – think of a situation in which you would normally struggle to get your point across. Why not buy something expensive and return straight away, send back unsatisfactory food in a restaurant, or ask a really attractive person for their phone number? There are countless opportunities for us to practice being assertive in everyday life. See some helpful links below for practical information on how to be assertive, to get you started.
Some practical tips on developing assertiveness skills
A self-help guide to developing assertiveness skills
Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.