Reduce Stress and Communicate Better Through Assertiveness
Assertiveness can help control stress and anger and improve coping skills for mental illnesses. Learn assertive behavior with these steps.
Being assertive is a core communication skill. It means that you stand up for yourself, express yourself effectively and prevent others from taking advantage of you. Being assertive helps boost self-confidence and may help you win respect from others. It can also help control stress and anger. So, if being assertive is so useful and healthy, why is it often so hard to achieve? And how can you become more assertive?
Understanding Assertive Communication
People develop different styles of communication based on their life experiences. For many people, communication style becomes such an ingrained habit that they're not even aware of how they're communicating. And they tend to stick to the same style even when it's ineffective or harmful.
In the majority of situations, being assertive is most effective. Assertive communication revolves around mutual respect — giving and getting respect. Assertiveness shows self-respect because it means that you stand up for your personal rights, protect your self-interests and express your feelings, needs and ideas in a way that is honest and direct.
It's not just what you say — your message — but how you say it that's important. If you communicate in a way that's passive or aggressive, the content of your message may be completely lost because the people you are communicating with are too busy reacting to your delivery. Assertive communication gives you the best chance to deliver your message successfully.
Assertive vs. Passive Behavior
Passive communication shows a lack of respect for your own rights. It gives others the opportunity to disregard your wants and needs. For instance, you say yes when a colleague asks you to take over a project while he or she goes on vacation, even though you're already behind and this means you'll have to work overtime and miss your daughter's soccer game. Or you routinely say something such as, "I'll just go with whatever the group decides." The message you communicate is that your thoughts and feelings aren't as important as those of others.
You may tell yourself that behaving passively simply keeps the peace and prevents conflicts. But what it really does is get in the way of authentic relationships. And worse, it may cause you a lot of internal conflict because your needs and your family's needs come second. This internal conflict may lead to:
- Health issues such as high blood pressure
- Seething anger
- Feelings of victimization
- Passive-aggressive behavior
- Secret desires to exact revenge
Assertive vs. Aggressive Behavior
Aggression is assertiveness gone bad. Aggressive people disregard the needs, feelings and opinions of others. They may feel or act self-righteous or superior. They may bully others, humiliate them, degrade them or even act physically threatening.
Aggression doesn't foster mutual respect. Instead, it indicates a desire for power and domination — winning at the other person's expense. Someone who's aggressive may get too close to you, point his or her finger at you, yell, shove you, and tell you that your opinion doesn't matter.
The Benefits of Being Assertive
Assertive behavior is useful on a daily basis in a variety of situations, including at home, at work, running errands and virtually any place where you interact with other people.
Being assertive offers many powerful benefits. It moves you from being a passive player in your own life to directing and controlling your life. When you're passive, you allow others to violate your rights — to walk all over you, as the saying goes.
In contrast, behaving assertively can help you:
- Gain self-confidence and self-esteem
- Understand and recognize your feelings
- Earn respect from others
- Improve communication
- Create win-win situations
- Improve your decision-making skills
- Create honest relationships
- Gain more job satisfaction
Some research studies suggest that being assertive also can help people cope better with many mental health problems, including depression, anorexia, bulimia, social anxiety disorder and schizophrenia.
Learning to be More Assertive
Some people appear naturally assertive. But if you tend to be more passive, you can learn assertiveness skills with a little practice. And if you tend to be aggressive, you can learn how to tone down your communication style.
Here are some steps in assertiveness training you can try on your own:
- Honestly assess your communication style. Do you voice your opinions or remain silent? Do you say yes to additional chores or tasks even when your plate is already full? Do others consider you to act on the aggressive or passive side? Are you quick to judge or blame? Do others seem to dread or fear talking to you?
- Use assertive language. Use "I" statements so that others know what you're thinking and you don't sound accusatory or blaming. For instance, say, "I disagree," rather than, "You're wrong." Don't beat around the bush — be direct. If you have a hard time turning down requests, simply say, "No, I can't do that now." Give a brief explanation, if appropriate.
- Rehearse what you want to say. If you have a particular issue in mind, focus on that. Otherwise, rehearse typical scenarios you encounter. For instance, if you want to ask for a raise, practice what you want to say. It may help to write a script. Say it out loud. Consider role playing with a friend or colleague and ask for blunt feedback.
- Remember your body language. Assertive communication isn't just verbal. It also involves body language. Act as if you're confident even if you aren't. Keep an upright posture but lean forward a bit. Hold eye contact. Respect the other person's personal space — don't get too close. Maintain a neutral or positive facial expression. Don't wring your hands or use dramatic gestures. Practice in front of a mirror.
- Keep your emotions in check. You may be full of pent-up anger and frustration. Some people may cry when faced with conflict. If you feel too emotional going into a situation, wait a bit if possible. Then, remain calm. Breathe slowly. Keep your voice even and firm.
- Start with small wins. At first, practice your new skills in situations that are low risk. For instance, you may want to try out your assertiveness on a partner or friend before tackling a difficult situation at work. Evaluate yourself afterward and tweak your approach, if necessary.
When You Need Extra Help Being Assertive
Remember, being assertive takes time and practice. If you've spent years silencing yourself, becoming more assertive probably won't happen overnight. On the flip side, if you're driven to aggressive communication because of anger issues, you can learn anger management tips to help cool down.
But if you do rehearse and aim for small wins yet still don't seem to achieve your goals, consider formal assertiveness training. And if you simply feel too overwhelmed, stressed, anxious or angry to cope on your own, consider talking to a mental health provider. Working on these skills with a professional can be both fun and empowering.