Have you ever been told to be more assertive? In the Oxford Dictionary, assertiveness is defined as direct, firm, positive – and, when necessary, persistent – action intended to promote equality in person-to-person relationships. In Psychology Today magazine, we read that assertiveness is a social skill that relies heavily on effective communication while simultaneously respecting the thoughts and wishes of others. People who are assertive clearly and respectfully communicate their wants, needs, positions, and boundaries to others.

There’s no question of where they stand, no matter what the topic. Individuals with high assertiveness don’t shy away from defending their points of view or goals or trying to influence others to see their side. They are open to both compliments and constructive criticism. People can improve their assertiveness through practical exercises and experience.

An assertive person communicates their wishes clearly and sets boundaries but does not make demands of others or lash out at unmet requests. Being assertive allows someone to make overtures to others and stand up for themselves or others non-aggressively. It can also protect them from bullies and other social predators. But keep in mind, sometimes insisting on helping someone out may seem appropriate assertiveness, but to the other person, it could be taken as unwanted interference and lack of trust in their ability.

From a cognitive standpoint, assertive people experience fewer anxious thoughts, even when under stress. From a behavioral perspective, assertive people are firm without being rude. They react to positive and negative emotions without becoming aggressive or resorting to passivity. People unable to assert themselves may experience sensitivity to criticism, extreme passivity, insecurity, anxiety, or even low self-esteem. Sometimes they are treated like emotional doormats whose needs always come second. In extreme cases, they may completely lose sight of what they need and want in life.

Dr. Jeremy Sutton, a writer, and researcher, studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits, tells us that we all seek different outcomes in life. For example, 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. Whether we concede ground or identify creative solutions that accommodate others’ needs can be down to our degree of assertiveness.

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. Conversely aggressive, and passive behaviors such as sarcasm, patronizing, putting yourself down, and avoidance are ultimately self-defeating. They damage the individual and the surrounding people.

Psychologist Joaquin Selva is a behavioral neuroscience researcher and scientific editor. He explains that assertiveness is a behavior used to express one’s needs in a healthy, prosocial manner. Being assertive can be beneficial in various social settings, although there can also be consequences to being excessively assertive. While some people are naturally more assertive, you can quickly learn to be assertive without being offensive.

This last point about equality is vital, as being assertive is about securing what one feels is fair, not simply manipulating people into giving one what they want. Assertiveness is a “stable and distinctive individual characteristic by which healthy and unhealthy persons may be distinguished.

Assertive behaviors can be proactive or reactive as well as verbal or nonverbal so that one can assert themselves in many ways. Some examples of exercising assertiveness at work could include asking one’s boss for a raise, asking a coworker to do their share of a project, or simply not allowing someone to interrupt.

Assertiveness is similar to aggression, but there is a significant difference. Assertiveness involves “standing up for one’s rights without infringing upon those of others.” In contrast, aggression involves “the use of noxious stimuli to maintain rights.” The difference is that assertive people seek rights to put them on an equal footing with others, while aggressive people seek more rights. This distinction shows why assertiveness is a healthy, prosocial behavior while aggression is not.

Some literature considers aggressive behaviors to be a subset of assertiveness rather than a distinct behavior. Although, in these cases, aggression is considered “over-assertiveness,” there remains a distinction between aggression and the optimal amount of assertiveness. This difference is also defined as “aggressive assertiveness” and “adaptive assertiveness.”

Studies show, for instance, that more assertive nursing students scored higher on a “psychological empowerment” measure defined in terms of sense of meaning, competence, self-determination, and impact. Nursing students have also demonstrated a positive relationship between assertiveness and self-esteem. These benefits do not come from constantly acting assertively. However, it is essential to be assertive in situations where the issue [is] important and when confrontation [is] agreeable,” but it is also important to be less assertivein situations where the issue [is] unimportant and confrontation [is] not appropriate.

Minimal assertiveness can lead to low achievement in work, while maximal assertiveness can hurt social relationships. In other words, the most significant benefits of assertiveness come from knowing when to be assertive rather than always being assertive and knowing how assertive one should be. Assertiveness can also serve as a protective factor. In some women who had just given birth, having higher levels of assertiveness meant they were less likely to develop postpartum depressive symptoms. While these findings are contingent upon the participant’s level of “cognitive flexibility,” they still show that being assertive can help one during negotiations and be a valuable trait to have in general.

Then Lucia Grosaru, editor of Psychology Corner, offers that a person whose thoughts and actions are guided by assertive principles can openly express their opinions, feelings, needs, and desires while acting according to chosen objectives and goals while at the same time respecting the views, feelings, needs, wants, dreams, and goals of others.

Basic principles linked to Assertiveness include the following:

  • Knowingly claiming your rights while at the same time respecting the rights of others.
  • Having the ability to set and respect personal boundaries.
  • Recognizing and assigning value to yourself and others. 
  • Awareness of your strengths and vulnerabilities and, at the same time, recognizing the strengths of others and treating their vulnerabilities in a considerate manner.
  • Realizing you are in control of your own life. You are also aware that others have the right and skills to control their own lives.
  • Taking an active role in guiding your life.
  • Being guided by a sense of equality and seeking to promote equity in social interactions.
  • Acknowledging responsibility for your actions and understanding the limits of that responsibility. You also understand that others are responsible for their actions.

But what does God’s Word say about assertiveness?

King David made it clear, “Yahweh is our Light and our Protector. He gives us grace and glory. No good thing will He withhold from those who assert right living” (Psalm 84:11-12). And his son, King Solomon, added: “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are as assertive as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1). So, we can see why after Jeremiah the prophet said told God he didn’t think he was able to communicate what God wanted the people to hear, the LORD would tell him, “Don’t say I’m just a child, for you will go wherever I send you and speak whatever I tell you to. Be assertive for I, the Lord, will be with you and see you through” (Jeremiah 1:7-8).

Then when Jesus came, He had a similar message for His disciples and others who followed Him. You’ve heard the old saying, “Love your friends and hate your enemies.” But I have news for you, be assertive and love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will act as your heavenly Father’s faithful children (Matthew 5:43-45).

Later, Jesus was very assertive, warning that no one can become my disciple unless they first sit down and count their blessings – and then renounces them all for me. After all, what good is salt that has lost its saltiness? Flavorless salt is fit for nothing – not even for fertilizer. It isn’t worth anything and must be gotten rid of. Think hard if you want to understand what I just said (Luke 14:33-35).

The Apostle Paul was also conscious of assertiveness as a virtue. He advised believers to stop being untruthful to each other, be assertive, tell the truth, for we are parts of each other, and when we are dishonest with each other, we hurt ourselves (Ephesians 4:25). 

But it was our Lord’s Great Commission that should serve as our reason for being assertive when He charged His followers to go out and train everyone they meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day, right up to the end of the age (Matthew 28:19).

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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