Seven Lessons to Be Assertive

Who invented calculus? A simple google search would lead you to two names: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a prominent German polymath; and Isaac Newton, the renowned British physicist. Incidentally, the two men were contemporaries; and quite unsurprisingly, each of them blamed the other for plagiarism. Today, the common wisdom is that the two greats introduced the concept independently. Nevertheless, here is an interesting story related to the invention of integral calculus— the mathematical study of continuous change.

In 1669, Isaac Newton wrote a paper delineating the fundamentals of calculus. However, the paper remained in his drawer for more than four decades, before being finally published in 1711. Meanwhile, in 1686, Gottfried Leibniz published his work on calculus and claimed the invention of a new branch of mathematics. Upon this, Newton declared that he had invented it much earlier and Leibniz had merely stolen his ideas.

Despite being brilliant himself, Newton feared criticism from other scientists and made every effort to avoid controversy. Thus, many of his theories were not made public until much later. Principia, arguably the most significant piece of scientific work, had to wait for two decades before publication; and that too upon strong persuasion from Sir Edmund Halley—the Halley Comet fame and another contemporary of Newton.

Above story points towards a particular trait, rather, lack of a particular trait: assertiveness. Unlike Newton, you can be assertive in your views and communication. Following seven lessons are intended to help you develop this useful attribute.

Lesson One: Difference Between Being Aggressive and Being Assertive

It is quarter to five in the afternoon. You are about to finish your day at work, thinking about the family dinner a few hours away. Suddenly your boss appears with an urgent assignment. He probably expects you to stay in the office for an hour or two and finish the task before leaving. You could respond in one of the two ways:

One: Accept the assignment and assure your boss that you will finish it before leaving the office.

Two: Refuse to your boss straightaway saying that your time is finished, and you are leaving.

If you choose the first option (most of the times), you are probably a passive person— read it submissive. If you choose the second (almost always), you are aggressive by nature. These two approaches are opposite extremes; there could be a third way — a middle way. The third response could be as follows:

You may ask your boss how urgent the task is, and if you could do it the next morning, explaining him about your family commitments. With this third approach, you are being assertive. Being assertive means to express your own needs while being considerate of others’ requirements at the same time.

Assertiveness is an interpersonal skill which can help you balance between your rights and duties. Continuous passiveness turns you into a pushover, while being aggressive all the time brings you more enemies than friends. Assertiveness is the even handed approach that can earn you the respect and trust of your colleagues, friends, and family members.

Lesson Two: Mind Your Language

When it comes to being assertive, choice of words and body language are critical. While expressing your views, be direct and clear; do not leave room for assumptions. Use more of “I” as in “I think” or “I feel”; avoid using accusing phrases such as “You never” or “You always”. Do not raise your voice as it sounds rude and aggressive. Do not leave sentences in the middle; maintain eye contact with the listener.

Lesson Three: Agree to Disagree

Be comfortable about saying and hearing “no”. Assertiveness doesn’t mean to be dismissive of alternate points of view. While others are speaking, try to understand their viewpoint and accept difference of opinion in a calm and composed manner. Do not interrupt while others are speaking; make gestures and facial expressions to let the speaker know that you are paying attention. While refusing a request, look for a polite way of doing it.

Lesson Four: Set Your Boundaries

Assertiveness is a valuable attribute; yet in some cultures, being assertive is often confused with being insolent or exploitive. To avoid giving this wrong impression, it would be useful to set some boundaries for yourself. Being assertive doesn’t mean to be stubborn. You may change your position if you realize your views are mistaken, or if you see a larger benefit in relenting to the other opinion. Set some limits to decide when to say yes and when to say no.

Lesson Five: Keep Your Emotions Under Control

Emotions are an essential part of our life. But like so many other things, when emotions get out of control, they can do some serious damage. Emotions are like a river. You can make a dam to control water and harness it for power generation or irrigation. But when it is out of control, the same water wreaks havoc like a flood.

Being able to control your emotions is an essential part of being assertive. Most of the situations where you would be required to be assertive would test your emotions. For instance, when your boss comes to you with a last-minute request, your likely emotions would be anger and frustration. If these emotions take hold of you, your response would be aggressive; however, if you can control your emotions, you can respond to the situation assertively.

Lesson Six: Do Some Practice

If you find it challenging to respond assertively, start doing some practice. Rehearse what you want to say. Say it loud in front of a mirror or you can practice with a friend. You can even write it down so that you can rehearse with a script. Consider a role-playing with a friend or colleague and ask for their feedback. Just like any other skill, experience will make you assertive.

Lesson Seven: Give Yourself Time to Improve

If you find yourself passive, don’t start by saying no to everything from next morning. Conversely, if you realize you get aggressive too often, don’t try to imitate being a “yes man” abruptly. Assertiveness is an interpersonal skill, and like any other skill, it takes time to improve. While you work through above techniques, you should feel a gradual shift from being passive/aggressive to being assertive.

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