Being Assertive Is Not What You Think

Grant Dryden

Grant Dryden

When you think of the word assertive, what comes to mind? Being a leader? Being in-charge? Telling it like it is? Some of that may be true, but it is not necessarily the root of what it means to be assertive.

The word assertive gets a bad rap sometimes. Sometimes, I’m guilty of using it to avoid being too blunt about someone’s behavior – you can probably relate. Have you ever heard somebody say something like this, “I have a friend who is…an assertive person. You know, they have a large personality.” We all know that’s just a tactful way of saying somebody is bossy! It’s also a very wrong use of the word, and it contributes to assertiveness having a bad reputation.

Hard Conversations

Assertiveness is not a bad trait despite how it may get used from time to time. Being assertive simply means that you don’t allow things to remain unaddressed. Assertiveness can look like the following:

  • If you hurt someone’s feelings, or get hurt, you will take action to repair the situation.
  • When you see someone being a bully, you will confront the situation and help resolve it.
  • If somebody is being disruptive at work, you will speak up and settle the disruptive behavior so others can focus.

All of these conversations are hard. That’s why they’re called hard conversations! We talk more about tough conversations in our article: The Shadow of the Leader.

Hard conversations are awkward and they take preparation. Even if you go into them with everything prepared, the conversation may unravel and go very wrong on you. That’s OK, part of being assertive is having enough courage to start the conversation regardless of the possible outcomes.

A failed attempt is better than no attempt. It feels bad to fail, but it is much worse to have never tried to succeed.

What Does It Look Like to be Assertive?

Assertiveness IS:

  • Positive and constructive
  • A way of relating to others (how you communicate)
  • It respects their needs, wants, and rights
  • It respects your own needs, wants, and rights

Assertiveness IS NOT:

  • Aggressive
    • Demanding someone change their behavior or opinion
    • Belittling someone for past mistakes
    • Threatening to withdraw support
  • Passive
    • Being a door-mat
    • Not expressing your thoughts or feelings
    • Not standing up for what is right
  • Passive-aggressive
    • Being stubborn
    • Pouting
    • Sabotaging other people’s work

Bad News

There is no technique you can “turn on” to be assertive. There’s no life hack or article titled “I tried these 3 weird ways to be assertive. You’ll never guess what happened next…” Being assertive takes practice and is something you just have to do. When you do hard things you get stronger, strength makes the hard things easier to do.

Think about it like going to the gym. How can you bench press 200 lbs? You first start off with 50 lbs and increase the weight over a period of time. Eventually, you can lift 200 lbs. Make the decision to start being assertive today and build that mental muscle.

Expect yourself to fail, acknowledge the failures, and continue moving forward.

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  1. Great points, assertiveness is very misunderstood these days. I’m trying to get better about speaking up to others, I guess it just takes time.

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