A number of recent PT blog posts on the subject of being assertive make it sound as if assertiveness is all about what you say. Various writers have offered lists of three or ten or eighteen “phrases” or “assertive responses” to use in expressing yourself. Helpful perhaps, but only part of the story.
In more than forty years of teaching, consulting, writing about and researching healthy elements of assertive expression, I’ve learned that it’s really not so much what you say as how you say it.
Think of it this way. If I tell you that “you really look great today,” and say it while making eye contact and smiling and speaking in a friendly tone, you’ll likely take it as a compliment. If I say the same words while rolling my eyes, shaking my head, scowling, and speaking with derisive inflections, you’ll know I’m being sarcastic and critical.
The non-verbal components of an assertive message are really the key to its effectiveness.
Eye Contact. If you look directly at the person you’re talking with, it helps to communicate your sincerity and to increase the directness of your message. If you look down or away much of the time, you present a lack of confidence, or a quality of deference to the other person. If you stare too intently, the other person may feel an uncomfortable invasion. Don’t try to maximize eye contact, but keep in mind that a relaxed and steady gaze at the other person, looking away occasionally as is comfortable, helps make conversation more personal, shows interest and respect, and enhances the impact of your message.
Body Posture. Solid research has shown that how you stand or sit is a huge part of how you come across—and even how you feel. Watch other people talking with each other; notice how each is standing or sitting. An active and erect posture, while facing the other person directly, lends additional assertiveness to your message. A slumped, passive stance gives the other person an immediate advantage, as does any tendency on your part to lean back or move away.
Gestures. Gestures go with posture to lend strength to your self-expression.Accentuating your message with appropriate gestures can add emphasis, openness, and warmth. While gesturing is a culturally‑related behavior, a relaxed use of gestures can add depth or power to your messages. Uninhibited movement can also suggest openness, self‑confidence (unless the gesturing is erratic and nervous), and spontaneity.
Distance/Physical Contact. Distance from another person has a considerable effect upon communication. Standing or sitting very closely, or touching, suggests intimacy in a relationship, unless the people happen to be in a crowd or very cramped quarters. The typical discomfort of elevator passengers is a classic example of the difficulty we have in dealing with closeness! Coming too close may offend the other person, make him/her defensive, or open the door to greater intimacy. It can be worthwhile to check out verbally how the other person feels about your closeness. While this element varies a good deal among cultures, don’t overlook it as you consider how to communicate more effectively.
Facial Expression. Let your face say the same thing your words are saying! Your expression should agree with your message. Ever see someone try to express anger while smiling or laughing? It just doesn’t come across. An angry message is clearest when delivered with a straight, non‑smiling countenance. A friendly communication should come with a smile. Get to know how your facial muscles feel in various expressions—relaxed, smiling, angry, questioning. Try making faces at yourself in the mirror and note how you look—and how you feel—when you express those emotions. As you gain control of your facial expression, you can make it match what you are thinking, feeling, or saying.
Voice Tone, Inflection, Volume. Again, it’s all about how you say it. The same words spoken through clenched teeth in anger offer an entirely different message than when they are shouted with joy or whispered in fear. A level, well modulated, conversational statement is convincing without being intimidating. A whispered monotone will seldom convince another person that you mean business, while a shouted epithet will likely bring on defensiveness. Listen to your tone (is it raspy, whiny, seductively soft, angry?), your inflection (do you emphasize certain syllables, as in a question, or speak in a monotone, or with “sing‑song” effect?), and your volume (do you try to gain attention with a whisper, or overpower others with loudness?). Learn to control and use your voice effectively; it’s a powerful tool in self‑expression.
Fluency. A smooth flow of speech is a valuable asset to get your point across in any type of conversation. It isn’t necessary to talk rapidly for a long period; but if your speech is interrupted with long periods of hesitation, your listeners may get bored, and will probably recognize you are very unsure of yourself. Clear and slow comments are more easily understood and more powerful than rapid speech filled with long pauses and stammering. Record yourself talking on a familiar subject for thirty seconds. Then listen for—and work to correct—pauses and space fillers such as “uhhh…” and “you know….”
Timing. Spontaneous assertion will help keep your life clear, and will help you to focus accurately on the feelings you have at the time. But it’s never “too late” to be assertive. Even though the ideal moment has passed, you will usually find it worthwhile to go to the person at a later time and express your feelings. At times it’s necessary to choose an occasion to discuss a strong feeling. It is not a good idea to confront someone in front of others, for example; defensiveness is sure to be present. A private time and place are almost always best.
Listening. Assertiveness includes respect for the rights and feelings of others. That means assertive receiving—sensitivity to others—as well as assertive sending. Listening is not simply the physical response of hearing sounds—hearing-impaired persons may be excellent “listeners.” Effective listening may involve giving feedback to the other person, so it’s clear that you understood what was said. Assertive listening requires tuning in to the other person (stop other activities, turn off the TV, ignore other distractions, focus your energy in his or her direction); paying attention to the message (make eye contact, nod to show that you hear); and actively attempting to understand before responding (attend to the feelings behind the words—rather than trying to interpret or come up with an answer). Good listening will make all of your assertions more effective, and will contribute hugely to the quality of your relationships.
Thoughts. Do you agree that it’s a good idea in general for people to be assertive? What about speaking out yourself when the situation calls for assertive action? Some people, for instance, think it’s not a good idea for anybody to express himself or herself. And some say it’s okay for others, but not for me. If either of these beliefs rings a bell with you, it’s time to reconsider your attitude about thinking and behaving assertively.
Persistence. Actor Alan Alda gave this advice to his daughter: “Be fair with others, and keep after them until they’re fair with you.” Persistence means not giving up. Not saying, “Oh well, there’s nothing I can do about it.” You’re worth it, and there very likely is something you can do about it—if you keep at it. When it matters to you—that pothole in the street, a problem with your car that just won’t get fixed, an unfair policy at your child’s school, the VA’s treatment of returning combat vets—it’s time to act. You have to choose your battles. But when you’ve decided it’s worth it, go after it “until they’re fair with you.”
Content. Of course what you say is important. Just remember that how you say it is at least half of the message.
There is no magic bullet that will make all relationships perfect, whether intimate, close, cordial, or distant. And “assertiveness” is not defined simply by a few memorized phrases or by standing up straight. Nevertheless, you can make a difference in the way others treat you by expressing yourself effectively. Working on the nonverbal components of your communication is one effective way to do that.