We all strive to be confident, standing our ground and standing up for ourselves. However, the reality is that more often than not, we rather back down in an effort to avoid confrontation and to save ourselves from possible drama.

But with bullying and abuse, both in their subtle and aggressive forms being rife in the corporate corridors and at home, we need to learn how to find the middle ground when standing up to the abusive behaviour of others without being overly strong and pushy, or appearing insecure, weak, and a ‘push-over’.

READ: The art of subtle bullying and how it affects you

Feeling unheard, and unvalued, even if you love your job or partner?

When feeling that we are failing at getting our opinions heard, or that people readily dismiss or undermine our views, we will gradually lose our spark and motivation. We start to withdraw or even worse, work harder and harder to make it work, often ending in excessive time spent at work or in the relationship to the neglect of ourselves and other aspects of our life.

Perhaps you have a habit of handling situations aggressively or lack the confidence to speak up. By learning and practicing to be more assertive, you can stand up for yourself, and become a strong and confident communicator who can ask firmly and fairly for what you want and need.

WATCH: How to have difficult conversations

Passive, aggressive and assertiveness defined

When you respond in a passive way you give in to the needs and wishes of others which can lead to abuse, manipulation and attacks on your self-worth. This style is adopted by those who seek acceptance from others and have a strong need to be liked. By not defending personal boundaries, ideas or values, and allowing aggressive people to literally walk all over them, passive communicators hope that they might please others, placing greater weight on others’ rights, wishes or feelings.

For example: You say yes when a colleague asks you to take over a project, even though you’re already busy. The extra work means you’ll have to work overtime and miss your son’s swimming gala. Your intention may be to keep the peace. But always saying yes can poison your relationships. And worse, it may cause you internal conflict because your needs and those of your family always come second. You will feel overwhelmed which can lead to stress, resentment, seething anger, feelings of being victimised, and doubting or questioning your own judgment and competence.

Aggressive communicators do not respect others’ personal boundaries and are prone to hurting them through personal attacks often taking the form of embarrassment, intimidation, or even being physically threatening. They may appear self-righteous or superior, and come across as bullies who ignore others’ needs, feelings, and opinions. Aggression comes at a cost – it weakens trust and mutual respect. If you are the aggressor, others may resent you, leading them to avoid or oppose you.

Assertiveness is a healthy way of communicating. It’s the ability to speak up for ourselves in a way that is honest and respectful. It means that you are standing up for your personal rights – expressing thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in direct, honest, and appropriate ways while respecting the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of other people.

Assertiveness is about balance, while passive is about giving in and aggressive behaviour is about winning.

A person communicates assertively by clearly stating his or her thoughts and/or feelings in a nonaggressive manner, with the purpose to influence others; doing so in a way that respects the personal boundaries of the other person, or people, involved and avoids negative confrontation. Assertive people are also willing to defend themselves against aggressive people.

The traits and benefits of being assertive

In a recent research article, author Legia Suripatty highlights the following key traits of assertive people:

  • Initiate and maintain comfortable relationships with others
  • Being open in expressing wishes, thoughts, and feelings and encouraging others to do likewise.
  • Listens to the views of others and responds appropriately, whether in agreement with those views or not.
  • Know their rights
  • Accepts responsibilities and is able to delegate to others.
  • Regularly expresses appreciation of others for what they have done or are doing.
  • Being able to admit to mistakes and apologise.
  • Maintains self-control. This does not mean that they repress anger, but that they can control it and talk about it in a reasoning manner.
  • Behaving as an equal to others.
  • Are willing to compromise with others, rather than always wanting their own way
  • Tend to have a good self-esteem

The benefits of being assertive

 Assertiveness is essential in expressing your opinions respectfully and fostering meaningful personal and workplace relationships. It allows you to live your own life and reduce inner conflict, fear, and anxiety.

The benefits include:

  • Greater self-confidence
  • Realistic self-image
  • Sense of empowerment
  • Fewer conflicts
  • Less stress
  • Stronger, more supportive relationships
  • Respect from others
  • More win-win situations
  • Improved decision-making
  • Greater understanding of your own feelings and values


Set the boundaries! How to be more assertive

  • Assess your style. Are you prone to being passive, aggressive or passive-aggressive?
  • Use ‘I’ statements. Using “I” statements lets others know what you’re thinking or feeling without sounding accusatory. For example, if your friend phones with a problem during work time rather say “I am sorry you are going through this! I have a deadline for a report but can we chat later tonight?” rather than “You need to get over this! Everyone has problems.”
  • Practice saying no. If you have a hard time turning down requests, try saying, “I can’t do that right now but perhaps you can review the report so long and we’ll schedule a time tomorrow to decide on an action plan together.” Remember that no is a complete sentence and you don’t need to explain why you choose to say no.
  • Practice what you want to say. It may help to write it down, to practice it out loud, or even to role-play with a friend or partner.
  • Use correct body language. In addition to what you say, your body language and facial expressions are also important. Keep an upright posture, but lean forward a bit. Make regular eye contact. Maintain a neutral or positive facial expression. Don’t cross your arms or legs in a protective or defensive position.
  • Keep emotions in check. Conflict is hard for most people. Feeling emotional about the situation is normal. If you feel too emotional going into a situation, rather wait a few minutes to compose yourself. Remain calm, breathe slowly and keep your voice even and firm.
  • Start small and safe. At first, practice your new skills in situations that are low risk. For instance, try out your assertiveness on a partner or friend before tackling a difficult situation at work or vice versa.

Remember, learning to be assertive takes time and practice. If you’ve spent years silencing yourself, becoming more assertive probably won’t happen overnight. Soon you will be able to stand up for yourself and live a life of balanced self-worth.