Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Importance of Assertiveness

English: Assertive sheep, Kingston These ewes ...
Assertive sheep - these ewes were anxious to see me off (Wikipedia)
by Dr Neil Thompson

The idea of assertiveness is often misunderstood and given a meaning quite different from what is intended.

For example, we often hear people say such things as: 'Jane's quite assertive. Everyone is scared of her'.

Well, of course, if Jane were genuinely assertive, no one would have any reason to be scared of her, because she would be handling interpersonal interactions very skilfully and sensitively to ensure what the textbooks refer to as 'win-win' outcomes - that is, producing results that all parties involved are reasonably happy with.

We have to be very clear that the term 'assertive' does not mean stroppy or pushy; it means having the skills and commitment to try and ensure that no one is disadvantaged from your interactions with them, and that includes yourself.

Being assertive involves not being ruthless and getting what you want at other people's expense, but also not allowing other people to get what they want at your expense (being submissive or non-assertive). It is a form of negotiation rooted in:


Knowing about the significance of assertiveness and the important elements of interpersonal interactions that we can influence (for example, understanding key factors such as motivation, conflict and effective communication).


Being sufficiently adept at active listening, empathy, and getting your point across clearly and firmly without being aggressive is a central feature of the skills set needed for assertiveness.


There has to be commitment to fairness. Assertiveness is not about winning the battle; it is about being sufficiently concerned about both your needs and interests and those of the people you are interacting with to want to produce a situation which everybody finds acceptable. Assertiveness is about avoiding the need to fight battles, not about winning them.

Another example of when assertiveness is misunderstood is when people say things like: 'You'd better not be too assertive with your boss or you'll get sacked'.

If we think about this carefully, how is it possible to be too assertive, too skilled at producing outcomes that everybody is reasonably happy with or too committed to developing positive working relationships?

So, once again, we have to move away from the idea that being assertive means being stroppy or pushy. Arguably, anyone who is stroppy or pushy towards their boss (or anyone else for that matter) deserves to run the risk of being disciplined.

Perhaps part of the confusion arises from the idea that assertiveness means standing up for your rights. Of course, it does involve standing up for your rights but the key issue is how you do that.

You can stand up for your rights in an aggressive way, disrespecting other people in the process, but that would not be assertiveness - quite the opposite, in fact.

It is often said that being assertive means saying 'No', but this is not strictly true, as simply saying 'No' means I am protecting my own interests but disregarding your interests, so there will be no 'win-win' outcome.

It is better to think of assertiveness as saying 'No, but... ' - that is, not allowing our own interests and needs to be disregarded, but being prepared to find ways forward where the other person's interests and needs are not disregarded either.

Sometimes this is a simple matter of compromise, but the more skilled we become at being assertive, the more creative we can become at finding ways forward that we can all feel happy with. Simply saying 'No' invites further conflict, rather than resolving or avoiding it.

This issue is particularly important in relation to what is increasingly being referred to as 'professional assertiveness'. This term relates to situations where increased bureaucracy makes it difficult for professionals to use their knowledge and skills and practise in accordance with their professional values.

Without a degree of professional assertiveness there is a very real danger that, in these days of managerialism, targets and indicators, some people can risk losing their professional registration if they allow bureaucratic pressures to influence them to behave in ways that are not consistent with their conditions of registration.

What is particularly important about the notion of professional assertiveness is that it opens up the possibility of collective assertiveness, of like-minded people with shared interests working together to produce the best outcomes that are possible in difficult circumstances.

One final oversimplification relates to the effectiveness of assertiveness. Some people (on training courses, I have presented, for example) have wanted to dismiss the value of assertiveness by giving examples of when it hasn't worked.

This is, of course, a flawed argument because the fact that an approach might have a less than 100% success rate does not mean that it is not a valuable and worthwhile approach.

If we were to reject approaches on the grounds that they are not 100% effective, we would end up rejecting all approaches!

So, assertiveness is not a panacea, but it is an important consideration when it comes to relating to other people and managing the tensions and conflicts that are inevitably involved sooner or later.

Failing to develop our assertiveness skills (and the confidence that goes along with it) puts us at a significant disadvantage. Thankfully, these are skills that can be built up over a period of time, and life regularly gives us opportunities to practise them.

The starting point needs to be recognising how important they are and how much we are losing out on if we make the mistake of thinking that assertiveness is something we can do without.


See also books by Neil Thompson: Professional Social Work: Meeting the Professional Challenge, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2009 - this contains material relevant not only to social workers but to other workers in the people work professions. Also published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2009 is People Skills (3rd edition).

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