Learning to be clear about your capacity and needs can help in setting reasonable boundaries and managing work demands. Here we discuss how to use assertiveness to build resilience.
Many of the people we meet through our training and coaching describe overworking to manage huge pressures and demands. They report little space for rest and recovery, and this contributes to overwhelming stress and burn out. These individuals often find it hard to resist the onslaught of demands because they struggle to say no. And this leaves them feeling that they have no control over their workload.
What is assertiveness?
Assertiveness is a form of behaviour that allows us to clearly communicate our own feelings, needs and wants. Being assertive is a skill that we can all learn. It enables us to meet our own needs whilst also being sensitive to others. This is essential to our resilience and wellbeing
Why is assertiveness difficult?
Behaving in an assertive manner can be difficult. In fact, many of us are brought up with barriers to being assertive.
From early in our lives we are taught not to question our parents and teachers, and to respect authority. As social beings we want to be liked by other people and tend to avoid conflict. So we learn to ‘not make a fuss’ and put our needs to one side. We come to believe that it is easier to just soldier on, keep our heads down and accommodate bad treatment or unattainable demands. We learn that standing up for ourselves, getting our needs met or making space for our wishes might be met with resistance, criticism or conflict.
Responding passively, we ignore increasing feelings of stress, frustration and overwhelm. But as the pressure mounts our attempts to bottle up our feelings prove less and less effective. And when we finally try to take a stand, we end up coming across as defensive or attacking. People think we are over-reacting, and respond with anger or criticism. This confirms the idea that trying to be assertive is useless, making it even harder to stand up for ourselves or get our needs met in the future.
Why is being assertive important for resilience?
As stress bites, it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve a balance between different demands. We take on more and more, but feel less and less able to cope. We become overloaded and overwhelmed and this undermines our resilience.
Assertiveness helps us to clearly communicate our needs. It allows us to say no to new demands, put ourselves first and gain better balance. Doing so allows us recovery time and builds our ability to bounce back stronger.
As author of the book Assert Yourself, Gael Lindenfield, reminds us, however, being assertive does not guarantee our needs will be met, but opens up the possibility of negotiation. And this is the route to setting new, more reasonable boundaries.
How to use assertiveness to build resilience
Spotting passive, assertive and aggressive responses
It’s important to distinguish and spot the differences between these responses. Behaving in an overly passive or aggressive way can undermine your ability to get your needs met.
Aggressive non-verbal signs might include using a raised voice, pointing a finger or folding your arms. Verbally you are more likely to be using overly critical, blaming or controlling language such as, ‘You’d better’, ‘If you don’t’, ‘Should’, ‘Bad’ or ‘Stupid.
Passive non-verbal signs might include downcast eyes, stooping, shuffling fidgeting or a quiet voice. Verbal signs are using indirect language such as, ‘I wonder’, ‘I guess’, ‘Would you mind’, ‘Maybe’ or over-using the word ‘sorry’.
Assertive non-verbal signs might be using a calm and controlled voice, having a relaxed and upright posture with direct eye contact. Verbally you are likely to use ‘I’ statements reflecting how you are feeling or thinking, for example, ‘I think’, ‘I want’, ‘I feel’. You are likely to express an interest in collaborating with phrases such as, ‘How can we resolve this?’, ‘What do you think?’.
Rain check no
Saying no can be one of the hardest aspects of assertiveness to master. We are often so afraid of upsetting people, particularly in the work context, we end up saying yes before we’ve had a chance to think about it. The ‘rain check no’ buys you time. It allows you to take a step back and ask yourself if this is really something you a) want to do, b) have the skills to do and c) have the time and resources to do. By telling the other person ‘Let me think about it’, or ‘I’ll have to check my diary and get back to you’ you are already preparing them for the answer to be no. And when you come back to them to say no, try using the ‘broken record technique’ to help you persist.
Often known as the ‘broken record technique’, this skill is all about sticking to your point and repeating it until the other person takes on your position or agrees to negotiate. It involves not allowing yourself to become drawn into arguments aimed at diverting you from your point. It is particularly useful in situations where you are likely to be distracted by clever but irrelevant arguments, or where you might be affected by criticism or put-downs.
The key to negotiation is to first acknowledge the other person’s perspective. For example, ‘I can see this is an important issue for you’ or ‘I understand that you don’t have time to do this right now’. You may need to ask for clarification or reasoning of their position before expressing your point of view.
When you express your view, try to keep calm, have any facts and figures you need at your fingertips and keep to the point. Being aware of when you are becoming side-tracked by clever arguments is key to ensuring you stick to the matter at hand. Be prepared to offer a compromise rather than waiting for the other person to ‘give in’ first.
How we use assertiveness to build resilience is a personal choice. It involves recognising that we need to stand up for ourselves and understanding our own particular barriers to being assertive. Try writing down any negative thoughts that get in the way of you acting assertively and ask yourself whether thinking in this way is helpful. You might want to check out our flexible thinking blog to help you find more balanced ways of viewing assertiveness to overcome those self-imposed barriers.