Help being assertive


Help being assertive


your avatar   Bonnie Leah (32 year-old woman)

I am starting a new job in which I will be supervising 3 people. How can I be assertive and not let others take advantage of me? This has been a lifelong problem for me, and I want my new job to start off in the right direction!

I need supervisory skills. I need to learn how to cope with job related stress and not take it out on my family. I need to stand up for myself. I need to not be afraid of what others may think about me.


    Pat Ryan,

Dear Bonnie,

If you are afraid of what others think about you, you will not be assertive, but passive for fear of hurting others, for fear of what they will think. So, forget what others think about you. Be yourself and accept that some will like you, others will not. In your workplace aim for respect not being liked. Any liking that comes along will be the icing on the cake. If you are yourself whatever that is, others will respect you for your honesty and openness--which does not mean that you cannot be kind and gentle when required.

Assertiveness is about: Saying what you feel when you feel it but with respect for others.

Aggressiveness is also about saying what you feel when you feel it but with no respect for others. On the contrary, it is about putting others down so that you can feel good. Generally speaking it is not a good idea to be aggressive because you will have no friends...just people who go in fear of you. Being passive, you might think, is a safe bet since you can't offend anyone. But think of all of that aggression internalized. Not good.

Assertiveness is the honest and open way unless you are a politician. In your workplace, however, as a supervisor you will command respect if you do say what you feel but with respect for the other person. Those who do not respect you are very insecure people. Of course I do not mean that one should be assertive in front of others necessarily. In certain circumstances that might not be respectful. If you have something to say that is hurtful, say it in private. Also combine any criticism with the positive side of that person's personality, i.e.: "You have remarkable skills in this area and I would like to talk about this other area to see where you might improve these skills too so that you may have a better chance of promotion perhaps." Arrange courses and seminars so that staff may improve their skills which will reflect well on you for showing initiative.

When being assertive with a friend, however, you run the risk of losing that friend. Still, do you want friends who cannot bear the truth about themselves? Often one hears the excuse that if I am assertive I may hurt the other person. True, the truth hurts, but how will the other person learn if we don't point out something they are doing that hurts us. And you can be sure, if we say nothing, if we do not express our anger, it will show in our behavior and that is even worse because then we are asking the other to guess what is wrong. For instance: "I am angry with you but I'm not telling you why (passive aggression). You can guess. Anyway you know what you did?" But often the other person does not know what they did. Or else they having been doing the same thing for so long with apparent acceptance by the other, that it seems acceptable.

To sum, we need to externalize our anger, hurt or disapproval. We need to talk about it and seek a resolution if there is one, and there generally is. If we talk about our anger or hurt when it occurs it is easier to do this in a calm way. It is when we do not say how we feel that anger builds and that our feelings turn into unexpressed anger, and finally explode when we can hold in our anger no longer. One way to express anger is: When you do (something or other), I feel (something or other). i.e. "When you shout at me, I feel angry and quite helpless." Notice one is not saying: "You make me feel...." but just pointing out that one thing causes another. Remember that feelings are neither right nor wrong. One is more likely to get the desired effect in this way than by aggression or passive aggression or passivity.

So do not be a doormat, Bonnie, exploding into aggressiveness now and then before returning to doormat status, or turning anger inwards in self harming behaviors. Have the courage to externalize feelings and speak of matters that need to be spoken of with respect and courtesy. If you accord courtesy to others, others will find it very difficult not to accord the same courtesy to you. And if they do not, you can point to their lapse saying that you accord courtesy to them and thus expect it in return.

Another important way to gain respect is to not listen to, or promote, or allow gossip in your workplace.

Bonnie, self-esteem is important for you. Only if you like and respect yourself can you learn not to care what others think about you. As long as you know that you run a fair and just work area, that is all that matters and you can be proud of that. Having good self-esteem is about not seeking approval from others because you don't need it. You are quite happy with the way you are. In fact, high self-esteem means that it spills over from you on to others which is why it is worth cultivating. When you stop seeking approval from others, you find strangely that others do approve of you. Perhaps they recognize your autonomy. Aim to be independent of others. When you can stand alone knowing you are OK, and that other are OK, you are a good supervisor. To define who you are, make a list of weaknesses and strengths. Your strengths will be attributes such as: loyalty, a good daughter, good mother, loyal friend, clever mind, wit, loving etc. No one can take these inner attributes from you. Have aims and goals and interests. Seek out further achievements, remembering to congratulate yourself on any positive self talk. A good book on self-esteem is Six Pillars of Self Esteem by Nath Branden. Find some good affirmations such as: I am OK and you are OK and say them aloud daily to counter those negative thoughts that I know you know so well. These negative thoughts (or core beliefs) were put there years ago and when you are ready you might like to work through a past where you were not, perhaps, entirely nurtured. Something happened to rob you of your confidence, some childhood trauma perhaps.

Be willing to learn from others, and teach your employees with grace. Explain your decisions but be firm if you think you are right. That is what you are there for, to make decisions. But let those whom you supervise know you are there for them with honesty and fairness. Listen to them and be supportive. These qualities may seem a bit old fashioned but I believe they work because of their intrinsic value. People yearn for fairness and honesty.

One final point in terms of criticism, to yourself and to others. If you can explain to others that it is only one of their behaviors that you are criticizing, not the whole person, one can accept this much more readily. If you are criticized, remember that you do not need to be loved and respected all of the time to be a worthwhile supervisor, or be perfect all of the time to be a good you?

Bonnie, believe in yourself and in the fact that you were chosen to do this job for your skills. You can do it if you believe you can. Adopt a positive attitude towards self, others, your work, and the future. Finally, if you can nurture a sense of humor, that is worth gold.

Best wishes.


This question was answered by Pat Ryan. Pat is a registered psychologist and has a private practice in Wollongong, Australia, having worked in several esteemed drug & alcohol therapeutic communities. Her aim is to empower: to safely explore relationships, emotions, unresolved conflicts, patterns of behavior and symptoms of disease--a structured cognitive behavioral approach as the predominant theoretical context with psychodynamic contribution.


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