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InfoQ Homepage Articles Becoming More Assertive: How to Express Yourself, Give Feedback, and Set Boundaries

Becoming More Assertive: How to Express Yourself, Give Feedback, and Set Boundaries

Key Takeaways

  • Assertiveness is a communication style. It is being able to express your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and opinions in an open manner that doesn’t violate the rights of others.
  • The "Bill of Assertive Rights" can guide you in making decisions and show you that it is okay to change your mind, make mistakes, or simply not know the answer.
  • No one is perfect in assertive communication, but as with every skill, we can improve by practicing it.
  • To communicate more assertively, you need to know communication techniques and understand how and when to use them. For example, signal flexibility by providing options that would work for you or get in touch with your personal needs and values and communicate them.
  • Understanding the side effects of being unassertive will help you motivate yourself to work on the skills of assertive people. Asking for help or expressing feelings may help you in your everyday professional communication.

Do you know that feeling when you are brave enough to say "NO" and then you don’t feel comfortable about it? I know that feeling very well.

During my professional career, there have been multiple times that people around me have struggled with setting boundaries. After those experiences, I have decided to learn more about communication skills, and I want to share with you what I have mastered.

In this article, we will build a proper understanding of what an assertiveness skill is, and learn how to identify communication skills we need to work on to be more assertive. You will get information about the characteristics and skills of assertive people. In addition, I will share my personal experience when I struggle with my assertiveness skill and when I practice it. Ultimately, I hope you will be equipped to make some small changes within everyday communication.

Why have I decided to learn more about assertiveness?

In a previous company I worked for, I noticed that many of my coworkers struggled to communicate their boundaries; they were not brave enough, or they lacked the knowledge of how to be assertive. I was even more surprised when I was kind but assertive with my superiors; they simply did not know how to react.

Of course, it was not happening with everyone, but it was still noticeable. My assertive communication and reaction to it in my workplace was a new situation for many of us. I tried to mentor many of my direct colleagues about assertiveness skills, and after I decided to leave that organization, I conducted a session about assertiveness. It was very impactful for some attendees and for me as well.

After that session, I realized how essential and life-changing such sharing can be. And that maybe I should share my skills and knowledge more often.

Defining assertiveness

I have been searching for a good definition, and it was not an easy task! Every source of knowledge seems to create its own definition. If I were to pick one, I would choose the definition I found on the Center of Clinical Interventions site, which is part of the Government of Western Australia:

"Assertiveness is a communication style. It is being able to express your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and opinions in an open manner that doesn’t violate the rights of others."

It resonates with my experience that assertiveness is not just one but multiple sets of skills. As an assertive person, you must be able to communicate your beliefs and feelings but do so without violating others. Numerous times during my career as a Test Lead or Quality Manager, I kept receiving feedback that I was either too emotional or too "aggressive" in expressing myself.

While working on that feedback with its authors, we concluded that people I worked with were simply not used to communicating assertively in a straightforward way.

Skills that assertive people have

Have you ever thought about how many skills you should have to be assertive?

Here you can find a list of skills that assertive people have based on materials from the Center of Clinical Interventions under the Government of Western Australia:

  • Saying "No"
  • Giving compliments
  • Expressing your opinion
  • Asking for help
  • Expressing anger
  • Expressing affection
  • Stating your right and needs
  • Giving criticism
  • Being criticized
  • Starting and keeping a conversation going

Looking at the above list, I was surprised at the length and the versatility of skills needed to gain and practice assertiveness. I was lucky that in my childhood, my parents, teachers, and colleagues taught me how to say "no" and express my opinions or thoughts without worries.

I’m actively using those skills in everyday life - for example, I refuse to drink coffee as I am not a huge coffee fan. The reality is that I dislike the taste, and I often need to use my assertiveness arsenal when someone is offering me a coffee or coffee-themed dessert. I found it interesting how many of the skills from the list above I need to use to be assertive and avoid being a part of the "coffee cult." My co-workers and friends ask me to taste new kinds of coffee, often arguing that "it doesn’t taste like coffee" or "maybe you will change your mind." Thankfully since childhood, I practiced avoiding foods that I don’t like, and later I refused smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol.

Sometimes I struggle with some parts of assertiveness skills, and sometimes I will try these coffee-themed desserts or drinks just to confirm that I do not like them. Below I will share with you some ways to communicate more assertively that I use often. I know I still need to learn a lot about how to take care of my emotions, especially when someone tries to push my boundaries and I become angry. The effects of being unassertive not only manifest situations where we agree to things we do not like, but can also cause other effects mentioned below.

The effects of people being unassertive

The clinical study I mentioned showed what skills assertive people should have and presented what adverse effects can meet you when being unassertive:

  • The main effect of not being assertive is that it can lead to low self-esteem.
  • If we never express ourselves openly and conceal our thoughts and feelings, that can make us feel tense, stressed, anxious, or resentful.
  • It can also lead to unhealthy and uncomfortable relationships.
  • We can feel as if the people closest to us would not really know us.

Do you remember situations at work when someone asked you to take on extra responsibilities or support your team for longer hours, but you already had plans, or were simply tired? If you didn’t speak up before becoming more educated in assertive communication, you probably felt uncomfortable, even more tired, and angry.

As an example of lacking assertiveness, I can recall a situation when I asked off from work to go to my grand-grand-mother’s funeral. Despite my kind request, my boss asked me to stay and support the team. I stayed at work, and for years I felt bad because I made a wrong decision regarding an important situation in my personal life, and I didn’t communicate it properly to my boss and the team I worked with.

What’s more, I discussed it later with my boss, and we both agreed it was the wrong decision. I didn’t communicate that I felt uncomfortable and I missed an important moment in my life. From that day on, I created a list of my life values, and till today, they are navigating me in communicating my decisions - that helps me to be assertive.

I faced another situation during the pandemic. We had all been working too much, feeling stressed and exhausted. Did we communicate properly? I don’t think so. Later, with huge support from our HR Business Partner, my team organized a session on how to deal with stress and recognize when we are burning out. It was an eye-opening session for many of my team members and a great start for the conversation about setting boundaries. We learned that we were stressed and we shared with each other how to recognize this feeling via online tools in a new virtual reality.

What language do we use or behavior we have when we feel stressed? The trainer shared with us some tips on reducing stress or what to do when it stays with us for too long. We could not decrease stress related to the environment or work, but we changed everyday communication and supported each other a lot more. Each of us recognized what values are the most important, and making decisions became a lot easier.  

I need to mention here that when people are joining a new team, organization, or environment, there is a tendency to be less assertive; we want everyone to accept us, like us, and recognize us as professionals. It is a trap that may lead us to all the mentioned negative effects. That’s why I have a printed copy of the "Bill of Assertive Rights" next to my screen at my workplace. Let’s read below what it actually is.

The Bill of Assertive Rights

I found the "Bill of Assertive Rights" when I was reading the book When I Say No, I Feel Guilty: How to Cope - Using the Skills of Systematic Assertive Therapy by Manuel J. Smith. It is an old book, and I am surprised I found it so late in my life. I strongly recommend you read it.

I believe the "Bill of Assertive Rights" is one of the things we all should print and have in front of our eyes, especially during business meetings. As I’ve mentioned, I have it at my workplace, and I read it when I feel that something is expected from me, when someone shares their feedback with me, or when I need to change decisions I’ve made. In Polish, we say "Tylko głupi nie zmienia zdania," which translates to "Only a fool doesn’t change his/her mind," and sometimes it may be the proper thing to do as an assertive person!

"The Bill of Assertive Rights" by Manuel J. Smith:

  1. You have the right to judge your own behavior, thoughts, and emotions, and to take the responsibility for their initiation and consequences upon yourself.
  2. You have the right to offer no reasons or excuses for justifying your behavior.
  3. You have the right to judge if you are responsible for finding solutions to other people’s problems.
  4. You have the right to change your mind.
  5. You have the right to make mistakes - and be responsible for them.
  6. You have the right to say, "I don’t know."
  7. You have the right to be independent of the goodwill of others before coping with them.
  8. You have the right to be illogical in making decisions.
  9. You have the right to say, "I don’t understand."
  10. You have the right to say, "I don’t care."

Now I want to propose one exercise for you - please remind yourself of the last situation you felt uncomfortable with your decision. Then look at the list above. Are your thoughts looking different after looking at the list? For me, often - yes.

I must mention here how shocked I was to see that the book was not translated into Polish even though it was published in 1975. In the Polish language, we have a lot of books on how to avoid manipulation, but only a few on how to communicate assertively. Hopefully, in your languages, there are more translated books like that!

We know now what assertiveness is, which skills we should have, what unassertive effects can cause, and the list of rights we have, but how should we use it in practice?

Practicing assertiveness

I believe each of us needs to find our own way to communicate more assertively with respect to others. We need to consider a variety of factors - for example, gender, cultural background, the organization we are in, and our environment.

Looking at myself compared to others within my environment, I tend to express and fight for my beliefs and opinions stronger than others - so I am currently learning to be more mindful of their opinions, thoughts, or beliefs.

It is not easy for others to express themselves and present their point of view to me or to change my mind. Despite that, I found out that I have a lot of empathy, and I often put others’ needs in front of my own, so this is another thing I have to tackle with assertiveness.

There are so many things that I need to remember when I communicate with others not to cross their or my borders. Despite being perceived as an assertive person, I still have much to learn.

Some time ago, I found a few tips on communicating more assertively. I believe the points below are valuable and useful. Let’s take a look:

  1. Get in touch with your own needs and values.
  2. Be confident if your ask is reasonable, and prepare arguments WHY you need it.
  3. See the other person’s point of view.
  4. Signal flexibility by providing options that work for you.
  5. Keep your delivery calm and firm.
  6. Make yourself the scapegoat.
  7. Use the broken record technique.

I would like to highlight that some tips above may not work for everyone and not on every occasion. For example - "Make yourself the scapegoat." - will depend on the situation, your relationships, and your environment. You can’t be a scapegoat all the time, and you can’t be responsible for others’ mistakes.

Let’s get back to the topic of personal life values. Personal values-based decision-making was a key to feeling good with all things I agree to in my professional and private life.

How to do it?
You can, for example, play in your head with the scenario "What would happen if__." For example, would you quit your current job if your family member got sick and required your full attention? What should you do?

How do I make the decisions?
During my professional career, I’ve learned not to agree on anything until I take time to think about it and prepare a list of questions to set expectations and possible timelines properly.

It was something that changed a lot in my life as I am one of those people who always tries to deliver even if I am left alone with too challenging a task. Before I learned to tackle such situations and make proper decisions, it often made me feel stressed, uncomfortable, or exhausted.

What helped me a lot was learning how to ask for help or changes within deadlines or scope. Every day, I practice preparing arguments for "why" something has to be changed and what options I see.

It saved me many times, and I strongly advise you to say NO and at least provide 2-3 options about what you can do instead. If you take your time to think things through, it’ll be easy to communicate assertively, and you will be happy with your decisions.

As you see, it is a challenging task to be assertive. It requires many skills, communication techniques, and effort, but it may benefit you in achieving your goals and preserving good relationships.

Learning more about being assertive

I’m not an expert or educated psychologist but a dedicated practitioner willing to share my experience with you. I wanted to share what helped me and the people I worked with to be happier and deliver on time.

Below you will find some materials I found helpful during my research. You will likely find a lot more after reading my article and googling a bit.

And my final recommendation to you is to look at children’s books, which may help you to understand emotions and communicate more effectively and calmly.

Other resources which I recommend:

I hope to leave you with some inspiration, an understanding of how to be more assertive, and knowledge about what to work on. Good luck, you can make it!

Homework for you - exercise your communication skills and assertiveness

Your task is to look at the communication skills listed below and analyze how comfortable you feel in communicating with people that you meet the most:

  • Your partner
  • Your parents
  • Your child
  • Your best friends
  • Other friends
  • Strangers
  • Your boss
  • Work colleague

The results will show you which communication skills you should address in your future personal development.

List of skills:

  • Saying "no"
  • Giving compliments
  • Expressing your opinion
  • Asking for help
  • Expressing anger
  • Expressing affection
  • Stating your right and needs
  • Giving criticism
  • Being criticized
  • Starting and keeping a conversation going

The listed skills come from a study about assertiveness made by the Centre for Clinical Interventions - Government of West Australia: What is Assertiveness?

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