How to say no: the art of assertiveness
The Holy Grail of human behaviour helps us communicate while building our levels of self-esteem
When it comes to being assertive, many of us will find ourselves wanting at some point, if not all of our lives. The perception is that a lucky few have been blessed with assertive natures from birth and/or assertive parents on which to model themselves, and this has created a certain mystery around the trait, making it a sort of Holy Grail in terms of human behaviour.
However, assertiveness is a skill that anyone can learn and with a little practice, the power of standing one's ground and saying 'no' guilt-free and with confidence can transform both how we interact with others and ourselves.
"Differences of opinion are a daily part of our lives and people behave in different ways in conflict situations," says Dr Malie Coyne, Clinical Psychologist. "Some styles of handling conflict such as the passive and aggressive styles often make difficulties worse, as either your feelings don't get heard (i.e. passive) or your message gets lost through inappropriate delivery (i.e. aggressive).
"Being assertive is the most successful way to express your needs and is vital to your emotional well-being. It is about advocating for yourself in a way that is positive and proactive.
"It is about being direct about what you need, want, feel or believe, whilst also respecting the rights and beliefs of others."
Being assertive may make you more of a hit with your colleagues too. According to new research from the UK's job site, CV-Library, the majority of employees believe there are key personality traits which make people more likeable in the workplace, with assertive ranking high on this list and almost two-thirds of respondents agreeing that assertiveness is vital when it comes to maintaining respect among one's peers.
"Being assertive offers many benefits, such as understanding and recognising your feelings, boosting your self-confidence, creating honest relationships, earning respect from others, reducing conflict, improving your decision-making skills, reducing stress and fostering positive mental health," Dr Coyne explains.
"People develop different styles of communication based on their individual life experiences and on their brain chemistry. Early life experiences of stress over-activate the brain's 'fight or flight' response, which is an evolutionary adaptation that pulls us towards aggression or avoidance and away from calm assertiveness.
"Difficult life experiences can also really impact on a person's belief system and on their sense of self-worth, where the person is more likely to use assertive-sabotaging stances such as: 'It doesn't matter what my feelings are, no one will pay attention anyway.' Gender may also play a role, in that assertive women may be perceived less favourably to men, although thankfully, this is changing.
"Assertiveness is a skill that takes practice," she adds. "Your style may be so ingrained that you find it difficult to change, but rest assured it is possible to learn to communicate in healthier and more effective ways, and it is very much worth the effort."
Sarah O'Hanrahan, educational psychologist with My Life Solutions, believes assertiveness is a crucial life skill, which should be taught early in life.
"Passive kids end up being passive adults if they don't learn those skills at a young age and it can be harder to learn when you are older," she explains. "The power of saying 'no' is important in terms of self-esteem. With passive kids, what we notice is they will often put their heads down or walk away when somebody says something to them and body language can be a huge factor.
"Then you have the other end of the scale, where people can be quite aggressive. Aggression, especially with children, may not involve shouting, but may just be dirty looks and the like. So finding a balanced way to deal with situations helps them hugely in terms of their own self-esteem.
"In our children's workshops, we focus on trying to build assertiveness skills because power and balance is very important. There are a number of different tools we use, but one very simple and effective one is eye contact. If you can keep eye contact, even that is a method of standing up for yourself in an unspoken kind of way and body language again is important," she says.
"We do a lot of role play exercises with the kids and this is also something that parents can use at home to help their children. Having relaxed shoulders, standing with your two feet on the ground with your head up and maintaining eye contact with the person you are speaking to - even doing just that much can be so empowering for kids and adults alike. They sound like small steps but they actually will give you so much more assertiveness."
According to Ms O'Hanrahan, having short sentences or phrases at the ready in advance of issues or confrontation can also be a huge benefit.
"Short sentences or statements can be great and will mean that you don't get tongue-tied or interrupted while you are trying to get out a long sentence, so neutral responses like 'that's your opinion,' can be helpful as they give you something to say. That old-school advice of walking away from confrontation or avoidance simply gives your power to the other party, whereas we try to teach children to hold on to their power and not let that balance tip over.
"It is all about balance because by being aggressive or by being passive, you damage your self-esteem, but in being assertive, you build your self-esteem," she says. "Standing up for yourself is not about being aggressive - it is about getting your point across in a clear manner and not losing your power in the process. Many kids find that really hard, so we always advise them to 'fake it til you make it' because sometimes in life, we have to put on our poker faces, even as adults."
And by becoming more assertive ourselves, there is also the added benefit that this behaviour will impact on younger generations.
"Children can become so much more confident and resilient when they learn to be assertive and we learn so much from our parents, so we always encourage parents to model assertive behaviour too," explains Ms O'Hanrahan. "Seeing their parents being assertive maybe just in the shops or in other everyday situations will help children to learn this skill and become more assertive themselves."