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Creating Successful Leaders

Assertiveness may be the most important and influential personal strength you can possess not only for your career, but for every facet of your life. Being assertive increases self-esteem and opens positive lines of communication to those around you. This post will address what being assertive looks and feels like, and common misconceptions about what assertiveness is.

Falling in between passiveness and aggressiveness, assertiveness embodies the best of each of these ultimately negative behaviors. For instance, passiveness “violates [one’s] own rights,” while “others needs are given priority” (Centre for Clinical Intervention). On the other end of the spectrum, aggressive behavior “violates the rights of others,” giving one’s own needs priority at other people’s expense.

Being assertive, contrary to common opinion, is not the same thing as being aggressive. In fact, assertiveness effectively respects the needs of the self and of others. It ensures a consistency between what you are truly feeling and what you are communicating, both verbally and non-verbally. But unlike aggressive behavior, it describes your needs without violating the needs of others.

To illustrate, let’s see how these different behaviors look in practice.


Verbal communication:

-Long pauses, frequent apologies in a soft, unsteady voice

-Self-dismissals (“It doesn’t really matter, but…”)

-Frequent use of fill-in words, like “um,” “maybe,” “sort of”

Non-verbal communication:

-Averting eye contact

-Slouched posture

-Arms crossed for protection

-Smiling when angry

Effects of passive attitude:

-Your true feelings are not adequately expressed, leaving you feeling unsatisfied and frustrated with yourself

-You fall into a habit of neglecting your own needs and rights in order to please people in the short term, yet your relationships in the long term may be weakened due to a lack of true communication

-People may begin to take advantage of how you over-commit


Verbal Communication:

-Sarcastic, condescending voice

-Abrupt, clipped speed and tone in speech

-Use of put-downs


-Opinions stated as fact

Non-verbal Communication:

-Invading others space

-Finger-pointing, fist-clenching, clenched jaw

-Pacing impatiently

Effects of aggressive attitude:

-You’ll often get your way and feel powerful as a result

-However, your neglect of others needs can create enemies and burn bridges, which can lower self esteem and will probably ruin relationships in the long run


Verbal Communication:

-Calm, steady voice

-Clear and direct language

-Short and to the point sentences

-“I” statements (“I think,” “I feel,” “I need”)

Non-verbal Communication:

-Maintaining eye contact without staring open posture

-Facial features honestly reflect your feelings

Effects of assertive attitude:

-Both parties understand what you need

-You feel satisfied that you’ve clearly expressed yourself; your self esteem will raise as a result

-Others respect you for respecting yourself

-You won’t be able to please everyone, true, but at least everyone is on the same page

-Being assertive doesn’t guarantee you’ll get what you want all of the time, but being up front about how you feel will help you in the long run

Manuel J. Smith’s book “When I Say No I Feel Guilty” lays out his “bill of assertive rights,” which can help you remember how to avoid falling into a passive or aggressive pattern of behavior:

  • “You have the right to judge your own behaviour, thoughts and emotions, and to take responsibility for their initiation and consequences upon yourself”
  • “You have the right to say ‘no’”
  • “You have the right to offer no reasons or excuses for justifying your behavior”
  • “You have the right to make mistakes—and be responsible for them”
  • “You have the right to change your mind”
  • “You have the right to disagree with someone’s opinion” (Smith 1975)

Adhering to these rights ensures that you’re taking care of your own needs. However, it is important to remember that part of Smith’s “assertive rights” also means taking responsibility for your own decisions and actions. In practice, this means you must remember to state your needs respectfully and learn to negotiate with others. A lot of times you will encounter conflicts. But by being up front and confident about what you desire in any given circumstance, you will be much more aptly suited to making real progress in whatever you pursue.

If you feel you could work on being more assertive, remember that modifying behaviors takes time. Go easy on yourself as you create new positive habits. Use the “assertive rights” as reminders, and keep track of your progress. You’ll do great.

Centre for Clinical Intervention. Assert Yourself! Improving Your Assertiveness.

Smith, Manuel J. 1975. When I Say No I Feel Guilty. New York: Bantam Books.


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