Updated: May 8
Assertiveness training seems to be an important commodity for those in certain roles, professions or industries. But why is assertive communication an effective strategy for how to deal with disagreeable people? We’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s start with what assertiveness means. The Oxford dictionary definition for assertive is ‘expressing opinions or desires strongly and with confidence, so that people take notice’. ‘Strongly’ and ‘confidence’ seem like words that need a bit more scrutiny. Again, we’ll get to that in a minute.
How to be assertive or how to speak up for yourself is an interesting question to be asking. There are certainly a lot of people out there with thoughts on this subject: Jordon Peterson, Kara Ronin and Alexander Lyon to name but a few. But, I wonder why you’re asking yourself this question? What do you want by sounding more assertive? Respect? To feel more valued? To be taken seriously? To have control?
Thinking that the absence of these things is exclusively to do with your voice means that you’re missing something. If your voice could suddenly sound more assertive but nothing else changed, would you get all those things that you want? You might make people feel scared of you and that might give you the illusion of power and control, but that’s born out of fear. You might get people thinking you’re a hard arse and unemotional, which could make you feel important and respected, but again these things are born out of fear. And don’t get confused by someone who simply impresses you because of their assertiveness skills or assertive behaviour. It might be impressive that someone has assertive communication, perhaps because you feel that you struggle to have that yourself, but is this person someone whom really you trust, someone you deeply respect and someone whom you really value in your life?
Play a game with me: instead of looking for assertive behaviour examples, think of someone you know whom you trust implicitly; someone whose mind, actions and behaviours you respect and value; someone who thoughtfully, fairly and meaningfully makes decisions. You might not be thinking about one single person but whomever you’re thinking of, think about what perceivable qualities they have. What is the quality in their eyes and face? How do they hold themselves physically? What kind of language do they use? Is there such a thing as an assertive personality? And what does their voice sound like? Whatever your answers are to these questions, I bet what draws you to them is more than just their voice.
I know some people worry about differences between assertive aggressive passive. But perhaps there is a difference between how to be more assertive and how to be more decisive in speech?
Perhaps what we want is to have a clear head, to speak with intention and then to hold our nerve in the following silence? You might feel like you’re going to die but you’ve probably just confidently owned your words and been taken seriously. Isn’t that what assertiveness is?
However, getting a clear head or having clarity of thought may be a challenge for you. Maybe when you go to speak in the moment your mind goes blank or you have a thousand thoughts and don’t know which one to choose and so you either don’t speak up or you get tongue tied? Maybe speaking with intention feels too direct and so you don’t fully commit to what you want and then leave people feeling confused or impervious? And maybe the idea of silence in conversation scares you to death or makes you feel like you’re wasting people‘s time and so you fill that space by repeating what you just said in a different way, or undermining yourself with a vocal tag like “do you know what I mean?“ But you are here for a quick fix, right? You want these skills yesterday. So what are you going to do?
What you need is space. How can you locate your thoughts clearly without space to think? How can you know your intention without having space to read the situation? And once you’ve spoken, it’s space that lets others know you’ve made your point decisively.
A way to create space is to take a breath. It sounds deceptively simple. But in the moment, it can feel like the antithesis of what we need or what’s possible. If you want to go a little deeper, we might think about the quality of that breath. How does that breath make us think and feel? Where does that breath arrive in our body?
As someone who struggled to be assertive for years and in my experience as a coach working with people who want to sound more assertive, if you’re looking for a quick fix, I encourage you to reframe your thinking. As you know, your voice (and breath) is controlled by your brain. What goes on neuro-psychologically affects what comes out of your mouth. And re-wiring your brain takes self awareness, courage and time. But, all you can do is take a first step. So give yourself the present of space by taking a breath, and you know where I am if you need some more help.