First, a definition: Assertiveness is a series of communication techniques to ensure an interaction is fair and respectful. Put another way: assertiveness is the expectation that your core needs and boundaries are important and worth respecting, but it also means you know that others aren’t mind readers, so you have to tell them what your boundaries and needs are.
Example: Imagine you’re in a loooong grocery store line and the man waiting behind you has been standing weirdly, creepily close to you the whooole time you’ve been waiting.
- Option A: ignore it and pray to the gods they open another checkout line.
- Option B: Turn around and yell at the man “DUDE! STEP OFF BRO!”
- Option C: Turn around and calmly ask the man “Hi, can I help you?”
Imagine a different scenario: for the past three weeks at work, your colleague has been interrupting you in meetings. Again and again. What would you do in that situation?
For most of us, we’d opt for some version of Option A in either situation, even though the second situation at work could be hurting our career, and even though in the first situation, it might mean the man is trying to pickpocket us, or means us harm after we leave the store. Many of us would rather stick our heads in the sand and just hope the whole thing resolves itself. At all costs, we leave it up to fate to work it out.
Why is it so hard to be assertive? Researchers have discovered that the human brain uses the same neural pathways to process and deal with social rejection as it does to process and deal with physical pain. Yes. More importantly however, researchers are finding that social rejection is often seen by the brain as WORSE than physical pain. This explains why the names we were called in grade school by still haunt us, but we’ve totally forgotten about that time we broke our leg in high school.
What all this tells us is that we’re wired to avoid either pain at all costs, but especially social pain. This matters in communication because for many of us, we believe that acting in an assertive way means we’re not “going with the flow”, and that not "going with the flow" will lead to conflict and social rejection. For example: our coworkers will tell us we’re being too sensitive; the people in line with us at the grocery store will think we’re acting crazy. So, let's do the math:
- Assertiveness = Rejection
- Rejection = Something to avoid at all costs
- Which means Assertiveness = Something to avoid at all costs
This explains why our brains think they're protecting us by complying and acting passively, rather than standing up for ourselves. The hard truth however is that being a doormat doesn’t make us more loved by the group either. In fact, most of us can think of pretty intense people at work or in school that ruffle lots of feathers and are also strongly liked and even admired by the group. So what’s the right answer here?
The truth is, there are thousands of ways of being assertive while being your best self.
With the right training and practice, being assertive doesn’t have to include a fight or getting kicked off the island (or becoming a selfish jerk who randomly yells at strangers). At this month’s workshop, we’ll be sharing something called escalating assertiveness, which is a handy framework you can use in all kinds of situations. It includes non-verbal techniques (a great place to start if you’re new to all this) and practice time in a safe environment for the verbal ones too.
The goal of assertive communication is to kindly yet firmly express and navigate boundaries and preferences so that interactions with other humans feel mutually respectful and hell, even fun. Yep. Assertiveness can be joyful and make an awkward situation lighter for both parties. In our experience, the more we practice being assertive, the more authentic our conversations are with both strangers and loved ones. Assertiveness, in other words, can lead to a stronger sense of belonging.
Want to learn more? Check out books such as Fierce Conversations, and join us March 11th to learn more.
Thanks to Mia Bariceivc for her help on this topic!