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Lines in the sand: The difference between submissiveness, assertiveness, and aggressiveness

Posted by Deb Muoio

Jul 3, 2014 4:29:00 PM


Your meal at a restaurant is undercooked. Your client keeps asking for changes to a project even though they’ve already gone over-budget. You’ve been working really hard and feel you deserve to be compensated. Your boss is constantly dumping projects on you when you’re already overwhelmed with work.

Ideally, people in these situations will lift their head high, march straight to whoever’s in charge, and firmly state their desire in a polite but straightforward, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer manner. The problem is, a lot of people won’t take these assertive steps. So the unassertive sit and fume over an unjust world where they never seem to get what they want.

While assertiveness has a lot to do with confidence, there are other factors at play as well. Some of us don’t want to “rock the boat,” some keep mum because they don’t want to hurt others’ feelings, some don’t want to look unkind, and others would rather avoid a conflict altogether.

The problem is, when we don’t give voice to our needs and desires, we start to feel unfulfilled and resentful. When we don’t assert ourselves in situations that demand it, it’s like laying out a Welcome mat and encouraging people to step all over us, over and over again.

The benefits of being assertive are numerous, the most obvious being attaining what we desire. Research has also shown that assertiveness training builds self-esteem and a sense of empowerment (Sazant, 2010), and even reduces anxiety (Wehr & Kaufman, 1987).

In addition, a study we conducted shows that more assertive people tend to have better performance ratings at work and are much more satisfied with their job than their less assertive counterparts. Here are some other statistics from our study using the ARS (Assertiveness Rating Scale):

  • 20% of people have been told that they should be more assertive; 29% were told this by their manager.
  • 20% feel intimidated by authority figures.
  • 29% feel that others take advantage of them.
  • 42% feel comfortable saying “no” to people.
  • 49% don’t feel comfortable asking for a raise, even if they feel they deserve it.
  • 52% admit that they put others’ needs ahead of their own.
  • 56% admit that they replay arguments in their head, wishing they had the guts to say what they really wanted to.

Being assertive requires a certain degree of comfort with vulnerability, and that’s probably one of the main reasons why people hesitate to speak up for themselves. Assertiveness means risking dissention, rejection, and embarrassment. It can spark conflict if the message doesn’t go over well. Some people have trouble being assertive without being aggressive.

But not speaking up communicates to others our own erroneous belief that our needs don’t matter; that we are not worthy enough to ask for what we want. Assertiveness training can be extremely beneficial, along with the realization that being assertive does not imply or require aggression.

How to say “No”

Here are some guidelines for saying “no”:

  • Remember, you don’t have to justify why you are saying “no,” but if you feel compelled to do so, explain your reason for declining the request in simple terms. For example, “I’m sorry, but I just don’t have the time.”
  • Be well prepared. When planning to assert yourself to someone, practice what you will say beforehand. Consider how they might react and be prepared for that as well.
  • Suggest an alternative solution that suits your needs and the person you are saying “no” to.
  • Don’t feel like you need to apologize – or over-apologize. Remind yourself that the decision is entirely up to you.
  • Use your body language to emphasize your “no.” Make your voice firm and direct. Look into the person’s eyes as you refuse. Shake your head "no" as you say it. There’s no need to cross your arms – just stand tall and firm.
  • If you are saying "no" to someone whom you would help under different circumstances, use an empathic response to ease the rejection. “I understand your predicament, but at the moment I don’t have the resources to effectively deal with your request.”
  • Recognize that there’s a fine line between being assertive and being aggressive. Assertiveness does not involve yelling, threatening or intimidating someone.

If you’re interested in using ARS (Assertiveness Rating Scale) or other tests for HR purposes, request a free trial for ARCH Profile here.

Want to learn more about using psychological tests for hiring, leadership development, career development or talent retention? Download our free eBook loaded with down-to-earth information about psychological testing for HR purposes. 

Request your free trial of ARCH Profile!

Topics: Negotiation Skills, Social Skills, Mentoring, Personal Development, Emotional Intelligence, Coaching

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