In life, we all seek different outcomes.
One employee wants a vacation, another a raise, and someone else wants flexible working hours to spend more time with their family.
Assertiveness is crucial when our desired outcomes compete with others’. It affects how hard we push to get what we want and varies with time, context, and experience (Ames, Lee, & Wazlawek, 2017).
Whether we concede ground or identify creative solutions that accommodate others’ needs can be down to our degree of assertiveness.
This article explores this essential psychological construct to understand what makes us stand up for our beliefs. We then introduce some real-life examples and examine the benefits of becoming more assertive.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients build healthy, life-enriching relationships.
This Article Contains:
- What Is Assertiveness in Psychology?
- 3 Models of Assertiveness
- 5 Real-Life Examples
- Why Is Assertiveness Important? 5 Benefits
- The Role of Assertiveness in Relationships
- Assertive vs Aggressive & Passive-Aggressive
- 4 Thought-Provoking Podcast Episodes
- PositivePsychology.com’s Resources
- A Take-Home Message
What Is Assertiveness in Psychology?
Assertive behavior reflects an individual’s ability to stand up for their best interests without being excessively anxious. When effective, they are “exercising their own rights without denying the rights of others” (Speed, Goldstein, & Goldfried, 2017).
As humans, we are challenged daily to deal with a wide variety of situations in our lives, often having to choose between a mixture of approaches to handle each one.
Do we engage, compete, or show aggression?
Each behavior has a time and a place, appropriate depending on context and the importance of the outcome.
How we respond and judge our own and others’ behavior exists along a dimension known as interpersonal assertiveness. Too little or too much decides whether we let others’ needs take precedence or whether we push for our own desired outcomes (Ames et al., 2017).
The source and degree of assertive behavior come from aspects of our mental state, including our “motivations, expectancies, and failures of self-regulation” (Ames et al., 2017).
How does assertiveness affect our behavior?
When assertiveness goes wrong, it can lead to negative consequences. Pushing too hard or too ineffectually results in resistance and a failure to meet needs.
“Generations of scholars, in multiple areas, have examined these dynamics in various forms, ranging from cooperative to competitive behavior and from avoidance to aggression” (Ames et al., 2017).
Ames et al. (2017) consider assertive communication an aspect of our behavior, most relevant when our goals are instrumental (i.e., get us nearer to our final goals) and fail to align with those of others. When we avoid others’ needs or our own, we are displaying low assertiveness. And when we compete or show aggression, we are exhibiting a high degree of assertiveness.
Being overly assertive can be appropriate, for example, for a police officer who is moving people away from a dangerous incident but is ill advised when parenting a child who is lacking the confidence to complete their homework.
Balance and timing in assertiveness are everything.
3 Models of Assertiveness
There are several ways to investigate and understand assertiveness.
Some models seek to describe assertiveness directly, while other approaches focus on related behaviors such as positive leadership.
Assertiveness is a complex psychological construct, embedded and intricately linked to an individual’s beliefs, thoughts, and emotions.
Despite the importance of understanding its impact on human behavior, there are only a few assertiveness models within psychology’s academic literature.
We have included the following three, all referenced in recent articles:
1. Mental models of assertiveness
A lack of emotional awareness and the mental models we construct combine to impact our degree of assertiveness. Indeed, “how hard people push depends on the consequences they predict” (Ames, 2008).
Therefore, before we act, we typically imagine the outcome of our behavior.
If I am highly assertive, I may close the deal.
If I am low in assertiveness, I may get walked over.
While forecasting may be accurate, it can also be incorrect, misleading, and lead to mistakes.
Haven’t we all replayed our actions after getting annoyed or frustrated and regretted our response?
The optimal degree of assertiveness varies depending on the person, the situation, and past experiences. Someone lacking in assertiveness is likely to be pessimistic about the outcome if they consider pushing hard for what they want (Ames et al., 2017).
2. Model of leader attributes and leader performance
Stephen Zaccaro’s (2007) leadership model suggests talented leaders result from a balance of traits and attributes that integrate meaningfully rather than increased individual qualities.
We typically see the most respected leaders as assertive yet not aggressive. They also display stability and consistency across different contexts through a combination of traits linked to both the immediate situation (proximal) and more distant factors (distal; Zaccaro, 2007).
3. Model of assertiveness for purposeful conservation
Simon Black’s (2017) model of assertiveness comprises four types of responses. Each one appears at different points along the assertiveness scale, grouped under effective or self-defeating behavior:
- Effective behavior
- Self-defeating behavior
Being assertive or responsive enables the individual to influence others effectively; this could be as simple as providing information or an answer clearly, asking questions, backing up answers with solid reasons, or being persuasive.
Aggressive and passive behaviors such as sarcasm, being patronizing, putting yourself down, and avoidance are ultimately self-defeating. They damage the individual and the surrounding people.
5 Real-Life Examples
When balanced by confidence and respect for others, an appropriate degree of assertiveness can make for outstanding leadership.
Harvard Business Review
In writing about assertiveness for Harvard Business Review, Amy Gallo (2012) provides two valuable examples of being assertive without losing oneself:
Making and keeping promises
Filmmaker and screenwriter Katie Torpey worked in a male-dominated industry, where she often felt unable to speak her mind for fear of upsetting people.
When she pitched her work to producers, she typically asked for less than her worth.
Her lack of assertiveness was damaging her self-confidence and her career.
One day, she decided that whenever she failed to ask for what she really wanted, she would give herself 24 hours to remedy the situation. After going back several times and cleaning up earlier mistakes, she realized that the only way to move forward with her goals was to speak up at the outset.
In time, she gained respect and the courage to ask for what she deserved.
Finding the right role
Attorney Jigar Parikh hated his job with a top New York law firm, so he hired a personal coach to help change his career. With support from the coach, he realized that he liked his profession, but not the firm at which he worked.
He took a bold step and set up his own law practice. To overcome his shyness of reaching out to people he didn’t know, he contacted a couple of people each day. As time went on, and his confidence and assertiveness grew, he found himself talking to strangers and made the jump to leave his old company.
Pratima Rao Gluckman (2018) describes how women in the workplace are often wrongly seen as aggressive when they show assertiveness.
Indeed, 76% of performance review references to being “too aggressive” were attributed to women (Gluckman, 2018).
Two such examples of assertive women wrongly labeled as aggressive include:
The serial entrepreneur
Successful entrepreneur Pam Kostka was dubbed the “dragon lady” because of her (apparently overly) assertive style.
Undeterred, she continued with her direct, no-nonsense communication style, making sure her voice was always heard, and that she was a success.
As CEO and cofounder of an artificial intelligence startup, Shilpa Lawande was also told that she was too aggressive in her dealings with others.
Without losing her assertiveness, she took the feedback and continued to push for equality and fairness in her dealings with others while getting her points across.
Academia and research
Assertiveness is just as essential in academia and scientific research.
Richard Schiffman (2018) tells the story of legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead, made famous by her time spent living among islanders in the South Pacific during the academically conservative 1920s.
Stereotyped by scientists at the time, “Mead’s life and work catalyzed the feminist revolution, busted the myth that biology was destiny and helped fan the fire of the civil rights movement in the US” (Schiffman, 2018).
While irate members of the “boys’ club of academic anthropology” snubbed her work, she carried on regardless, both bold and assertive. Even after Mead’s death, her work continues to be challenged today.
Why Is Assertiveness Important? 5 Benefits
Assertiveness and training programs that increase it are highly effective at improving mental health for a variety of populations (Speed et al., 2017).
Social anxiety, in particular, has repeatedly been linked to a lack of assertiveness. Assertiveness training has proven beneficial in reducing and gaining control over anxiety.
Research has found that increasing assertiveness can reduce the symptoms of depression.
- Serious mental illness
People with severe mental illness often display deficits across cognitive functioning, including social skills such as assertiveness. However, assertiveness training can improve mental health and even chronic conditions such as schizophrenia.
Low self-esteem and reduced self-concept (how someone perceives themselves) are associated with reduced assertiveness. However, when assertiveness training is provided, individuals typically experience less worry regarding others’ opinions and increased confidence in who they are.
Assertiveness training is incredibly valuable at all ages for improving self-confidence and has even reduced the incidence of bullying in school children (Avşar & Alkaya, 2017).
The Role of Assertiveness in Relationships
Research into couples has found assertiveness to be an invaluable component in relationship satisfaction.
Partners found lacking in assertiveness part-way through their marriage (between 7 and 16 years) tend to have poor relationships, increased guilt and anxiety, and even experience hostility.
Over longer relationships, reduced assertiveness leads to increased anxiety, lowered relationship satisfaction, and, on occasion, physical abuse (Speed et al., 2017).
Assertiveness training provided to couples improves relationship satisfaction, trust, and intimacy.
Assertive vs Aggressive & Passive-Aggressive
If being passive is regarded as giving in to what others want, and being aggressive is only considering what we want, then being assertive attempts to sit in the middle, meeting both sets of needs (Ames et al., 2017).
The passive-aggressive person is uncomfortable sharing how they feel. While agreeing with others in public, they may communicate their genuine feelings of annoyance, anger, and frustration elsewhere, often to other people. They ultimately frustrate and hurt themselves and others and can be left with few friends and unstable marriages (Kantor, 2002).
While assertiveness is typically reflected in firm but calm behavior and interactions, it is not aggressive. Despite being confident and assured, the assertive individual remains polite, increases their self-esteem, and earns others’ respect.
4 Thought-Provoking Podcast Episodes
There are many podcast episodes available that discuss assertiveness and how it can be increased. The following list contains a sample of our favorites:
1. How to be assertive without being aggressive
Dr. Linda Papadopoulos explores the psychology behind assertiveness in this excellent podcast episode.
She takes the listener on a journey to help communicate feelings and thoughts more honestly and be assertive without being aggressive.
2. How to be assertive without being a jerk
Dr. Jade Wu talks through a formula for assertiveness and how it can benefit communication and interaction without appearing too pushy.
3. Let’s talk about assertiveness
As part of the Let’s Talk About Mental Health podcast, Jeremy Godwin discusses how improving assertiveness benefits not only relationships with others, but also overall mental health.
4. The art of assertiveness
Author of The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and in Relationships, Randy Paterson discusses the differences between being assertive, aggressive, passive, and passive-aggressive along with a set of skills to help.
We have many resources that can help build self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-awareness, and manage and overcome times when we lack confidence and assertiveness.
- My ‘Love Letter’ to Myself
With this tool, you can learn to recognize and consider the applications of your great qualities as a means to strengthen self-esteem and resilience.
- Self-Esteem Journal For Adults
This worksheet presents a series of journaling prompts that inspire reflection on your best attributes and positive aspects of life.
- My Personal Beliefs
Self-acceptance is fundamental to the positive development of our sense of worth, happiness, and life satisfaction. This tool helps you explore your sense of self-appraisals and begin cultivating a more accepting, appreciative, and loving attitude toward yourself.
- Assertive Communication
Assertive communication is a prerequisite for sharing thoughts and feelings confidently, getting your point across, and reaching an optimal outcome for both parties.
- Understanding Self-Confidence
Teens, adolescents, and adults can benefit from understanding and improving their self-confidence. This valuable exercise encourages you to overcome situations where you lack self-esteem by recalling previous positive memories.
- 17 Positive Communication Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others communicate better, this collection contains 17 validated positive communication tools for practitioners. Use them to help others improve their communication skills and form deeper and more positive relationships.
In addition to the above worksheets, we have another article dedicated to Assertive Communication Worksheets, providing 10 tools and techniques, as a recommended resource.
A Take-Home Message
Throughout each day, we experience people seeking different outcomes from our own. Too much or too little assertiveness results in one or both parties not getting what they hope for or need.
Instead, through assertiveness – in the absence of aggression – it should be possible to stand up for our own beliefs while ensuring a satisfactory outcome for all.
Being assertive takes practice. It is easy to fall into the mistaken behaviors of aggression, passive-aggression, and passivity along the way. In the long term, this behavior is damaging and a risk to our own and others’ mental health.
When habitual, being assertive can reduce anxiety, diminish the symptoms of depression, and improve self-esteem and self-confidence. Whether patient or therapist, assertiveness is a valuable skill to have in childhood and adulthood and a wonderful investment of time and energy.
Review some points made within this article, along with the examples given, and try out the tools available. The podcast episodes may be an excellent place to start. They confirm that we all face similar challenges and that issues with assertiveness are not insurmountable.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.
- Ames, D. R. (2008). Assertiveness expectancies: How hard people push depends on the consequences they predict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(6), 1541–1557.
- Ames, D., Lee, A., & Wazlawek, A. (2017). Interpersonal assertiveness: Inside the balancing act. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(6).
- Avşar, F., & Alkaya, S. A. (2017). The effectiveness of assertiveness training for school-aged children on bullying and assertiveness level. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 36, 186–190.
- Black, S. (2017, September 28). A model of assertiveness for purposeful conservation. The Conservation Leader. Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/theconservationleader/2017/09/28/a-model-of-assertiveness-for-purposeful-conservation/
- Gallo, A. (2012, August 21). How to be assertive (without losing yourself). Harvard Business Review. Retrieved February 3, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2012/08/how-to-be-assertive-without-lo
- Gluckman, P. R. (2018, August 28). When women are called ‘aggressive’ at work. Forbes. Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2018/08/28/when-women-are-called-aggressive-at-work/?sh=6e0f2f4f7bc8
- Kantor, M. (2002). Passive-aggression: A guide for the therapist, the patient, and the victim. Praeger.
- Schiffman, R. (2018, April 26). The original social justice warrior who smashed stereotypes. NewScientist. Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23831750-400-the-original-social-justice-warrior-who-smashed-stereotypes/
- Speed, B. C., Goldstein, B. L., & Goldfried, M. R. (2017). Assertiveness training: A forgotten evidence-based treatment. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 25(1).
- Zaccaro, S. J. (2007). Trait-based perspectives of leadership. American Psychologist, 62(1), 6–16.