Assertiveness refers to the ability to express one’s feelings and needs directly while maintaining respect for others (American Psychological Association, 2020). Although this sounds simple enough, practising assertiveness does not always come naturally. For example, if you have ever been cut out from discussions, had your opinions ignored, felt misunderstood and had negative feelings as a consequence, it might be worth looking at your assertive levels.
Why is it important?
The unassertive tend not to make their opinions known, thereby limiting their contributions. This could either stem from a lack of confidence, an expectation that their opinions will not make a difference, or that it is not their rank and role to speak up. Such beliefs can undercut the value one brings to any cause or project, but can also leave one feeling disengaged, unnoticed or underappreciated.
I used to work in a firm where every quarter, all the secretaries had to work overnight to close the billing cycle. Although this could have been avoided with a simple system fix, the secretaries preferred to silently work the extra hours rather than speak up. This is because they felt they had no voice at the organisation, and could not effect change. None of them wanted to be the person to speak up, and the flaw was therefore left to persist for many years.
It is not hard to imagine that the unassertive are less motivated, and may constantly feel undervalued and stuck. In times of market instability, it tends to be the unassertive who most fear that they are dispensable, and most at risk of being laid-off. These unhelpful thoughts and fears can increase one’s levels of stress and anxiety, and could also lead to depression, sleep problems and other forms of disorders.
What influences assertiveness
Studies have found a strong correlation between assertiveness and the evolving status and role of women (Twenge, 2001). Women’s domestic roles and lower social status meant that by comparison to men, women were historically less assertive. However, with changes in women’s roles and status over time, so too did levels of assertiveness. The timeline below shows events that led to changes in assertiveness in women in the US, as contrasted against assertiveness in men, which largely remained unchanged.
Traditional Asian societies that emphasise the importance of preserving harmony, family values, filial piety, obedience, deference to authority, the welfare of the collective over individual interests can stunt assertiveness as a personality trait across genders and birth cohorts (Pham et al, 2020).
Unassertiveness in traditional Asian societies can lead to tension in face of rapid industrial and economic development, and the increased interaction with international businesses. As society moves forwards, the ability to articulate and advocate one’s needs and beliefs becomes more and more important, but can also run counter to traditional values.
Relevance to you
Working in Hong Kong
Hong Kong is a case in point – where most were brought up on traditional values of familial ties, harmony and the collective good, but where the booming trade, economy, and the inflow of foreign investment creates a tension between these traditional values and the needs of business.
Many local people I work with prefer to fly under the radar at work. The exceptional few who speak up tend to make a strong impression, and have better career prospects or land important management roles. This in turn boosts confidence and work commitment, and greater levels of job satisfaction can be derived when their performance is met with commensurate career advancement.
Leaving Hong Kong
In recent years, many families are considering leaving Hong Kong, particularly those who wish their children to receive an overseas education. For both adults and children who are not used to being assertive, the transition to a more assertive Western culture presents problems, and the adjustment is psychologically difficult. Parents too need to be mindful of their children’s changes in assertiveness, and to manage this as a sign of integration into the host society, rather than as a source of familial or intergenerational conflict.
When to be assertive
Being assertive does not mean you are always right, and it also does not mean you always have the last say. It means you are willing and able to speak up articulately about topics that matter to you and to do so in a way that respects other people’s right to have different views. It is an invitation to consider the matter from a different point of view.
Being assertive is a delicate balancing act that can be illustrated in the quadrant below (developed by and copyright of HRDQ). If a message is delivered too subtly (a passive behaviour), it might not get across or might not be given enough weight. On the other hand, if a point is made too forcefully and without regard for the views of others, you could come across as aggressive.
The least desirable behaviour is being passive-aggressive, where aggression is deployed indirectly, say, through sarcasm. Passive-aggressive communications rarely help achieve the aggressor’s desired outcome, and is usually a form of protest or a reluctant acceptance of an unsatisfactory position that aggressor believe cannot be changed. Signs of passive-aggressive behaviour suggests frustration and helplessness, and if unaddressed, could lead to other presenting issues.
How to be more assertive
How then do you find the right balance, and be assertive and effective in your communication? Here are some tips.
Pick the right hill – focus only on the issues that matter. If there is a work issue or behaviour at home that you feel needs to be addressed, identify this. Even if you believe your words will not affect change, expressing your view can make a positive difference to you.
Start out right – having a structure helps to keep the conversation on track, especially if you feel emotional about the subject. Start by (1) framing the current situation in factual, neutral terms, (2) acknowledge the other person’s stance, (3) state how this affects you, and (4) suggest working on a compromise together.
Give and take – Change never comes easy, and if concessions are made that improve the situation for all, consider taking it. Being assertive does not always mean standing your ground, it also does not mean that moving from your position is a sign of weakness. Remember, change might not come in one go and could be a gradual process.
Come back to it – agree with the other person to review the situation again in, say, a week or a month’s time. This will give everybody a chance to see if things have changed for the better, or if there is room for further adjustment. If you would still like to see further changes, you can follow the same steps above to keep the conversation neutral and on track.
Communicating assertively is a skill that improves with practice. You can start by tackling smaller issues with those you communicate easily, such as your family or friends. Once this becomes comfortable, and if this is effective, you will naturally be encouraged to speak more assertively.
If you would like to discuss how AMINDSET can help you develop assertiveness either at work or in your day-to-day interactions, get in touch with any of our counsellors.
Pham, S., Lui, P. P., & Rollock, D. (2020). Intergenerational Cultural Conflict, Assertiveness, and Adjustment Among Asian Americans. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 11(3), 168–178. https://doi.org/10.1037/aap0000189
Twenge, J. M. (2001). Changes in Women’s Assertiveness in Response to Status and Roles. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(1), 133–145. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.199