How can being more assertive help you?

Do you struggle to advocate for yourself? Find out why some people are less assertive, and how being more assertive could help you.

A lack of assertiveness can hold us back in so many ways. When we are unable to advocate for ourselves and speak our truth, we have poorer relationships with others, we get less of what we want and need, and miss out on opportunities. We also feel frustrated; that we are not fully heard and that our wishes are not acknowledged or met.

When working with small business owners and freelancers as a business mentor, I see too many talented women earn less and have access to fewer opportunities because they don’t know how to confidently ask for what they want or deserve.

And I know how they feel – when I was a young woman I also struggled with assertiveness. But luckily for me, an excellent therapist helped me to recognise my communication patterns, and learn new skills.

Now I want to do the same for you. So, in this article I will explain what assertiveness is, how it can affect your life, why some people lack assertiveness (particularly women), and how you can learn new communication skills. I’ll also share how our Assertiveness Masterclass can help you.

What is assertiveness?

Before we explore how a lack of assertiveness can hinder people in life, and how you can overcome it, I first want to define what ‘assertiveness’ actually means.

Assertiveness is defined in this paper as “a learned interpersonal communication skill that enables people to satisfy society’s social demands”. The same paper explains that “assertiveness is the middle ground between passive and aggressive behaviour.”

Here’s another excellent definition of assertiveness:

“Assertiveness involves appropriately expressing ideas, feelings, and boundaries while respecting other’s rights, maintaining positive affect in the receiver, and considering potential consequences of the expression. It includes both positive and negative expressions and seeks to achieve personal and/or instrumental goals.”

So what can we take from these definitions of assertiveness? In short, it’s a learned form of communication that enables you to express negative and positive feelings and wishes, while respecting the feelings and wishes of others. The goal of assertiveness is not to ‘win’ but to achieve goals that work for everyone, as much as possible.

The good news in these definitions, is the word ‘learned’. If assertiveness is learned (as we’ll explore more later on), then it can also be unlearned. But before we find out how you can unlearn assertiveness and increase your confidence in social situations, let’s explore some of the ways a lack of assertiveness may be impacting your life.

How a lack of assertiveness can hold you back professionally

A lack of assertiveness can lead to a stunted career, in which you never reach your full potential. It can also limit your potential success and earning power in business or as a freelancer.

As an example of why this can happen, here are just some of the ways a lack of assertiveness could hold you back at work or in business:

  • You don’t put yourself forward for opportunities or promotions at work, limiting your career and earning potential, and allowing less capable people to move ahead of you.
  • You don’t ask for pay rises or negotiate for a higher salary when interviewing, which also means you earn less.
  • You don’t set clear boundaries with freelance or business clients, leading to service creep, loss of income, and less respect.
  • You don’t feel confident in setting the rates you want in business, or telling clients your prices have gone up, so earn less than you should.
  • When you communicate with clients or customers, your language is unsure and apologetic, leading to them feeling a sense of control or power, and asserting their wishes and demands over your own.
  • You aren’t able to express yourself when you have a concern, so your voice isn’t heard and your needs aren’t met.

How a lack of assertiveness can hold you back personally

It’s not just in the workplace that a lack of assertiveness can hold you back. It can also impact your personal relationships – your romantic relationships and relationships with friends and family. It holds you back when dealing with personal issues, too. Here are just a few examples of how this can happen:

  • You struggle to express your feelings, and feel frustrated that your needs and wishes aren’t anticipated by others, who in turn don’t understand why you are upset. This can lead to poorer relationships.
  • You find it difficult to speak up and request resolution when you have a problem. This can manifest in simple ways, where you don’t return a faulty item you have bought, and in more significant ways when you don’t ask for a second medical opinion when you think a doctor may be wrong.
  • You find yourself often going along with everyone else’s plans, and feeling like you don’t have a voice or aren’t considered.
  • You put the feelings of others before your own – not wanting to ‘hurt’ their feelings.
  • You’re seen by less nice people as weaker and a ‘pushover’ and become a target for them when they want to get their way.

If any of these examples feel familiar, you could be struggling with assertiveness.

Why do people struggle with assertiveness?

So why are some people less assertive than others? A lack of assertiveness is rooted in common and understandable fears, including the fear of upsetting someone else, and the fear that we don’t have the right to an opinion, feeling or wish.

Your personality type also plays a role. Studies show that people with more extrovert traits, and high conscientiousness tend to be more assertive, whereas people who are neurotic are less assertive. No link has been found between people who are more open and agreeable and assertiveness.

Your upbringing can also have an influence over how assertive you may be. One study discovered that authoritative and permissive parenting styles could affect assertiveness. It also concluded that “parents’ warmth and responsiveness dimension play a crucial role in the development of their children’s assertiveness in the socialization process.”

This study agrees that “parenting styles play an important role in building positive perceptions and assertiveness”.

Are women less assertive than men?

As a woman, are you more likely to struggle with assertiveness than a man? According to studies, yes. Men usually use more assertive speech, which they use to assert their wishes, while women tend to use ‘affiliative speech’, which affirms or positively engages with others.

But why is this? The answer lies in the restrictions placed on us by gender perceptions, which can start early with nursery rhymes like What are little boys made of. Girls, famously are made of “Sugar and spice and all things nice.”

In the workplace, these gender perceptions can be incredibly limiting for women. Research shows that “men tend to show more assertive behaviours than women, such as stating an opinion or refusing an unreasonable request”. However, women who act assertively at work “may be seen as behaving in a dominant way, a trait which is viewed as masculine”.

As a result, women can face backlash in the form of being seen as ‘bitchy’ and ‘aggressive’. Leadership traits that are considered to be appropriate for women are “having excellent social skills, being sensitive, and being emotionally available for others”. All things nice, in other words.

This gender bias also shows up in negotiations. A study of negotiating tactics found that when women showed assertive bargaining behaviours that benefited them, they were considered to be violating gender roles and, as a result, experienced negative social consequences. However, when they acted assertively on behalf of another person, their behaviours were perceived as congruent with gender norms.

In other words, we aren’t supposed to ask for what we want. But it’s okay for women to ask for things for other people. No wonder women are less likely to ask for a pay rise or promotion, and find it difficult to raise their freelance and business rates!

This gender conditioning from an early age, combined with expectations of behaviour (and social consequences of deviating from perceived roles), means that women are ‘trained’ to behave in less assertive ways. We are rewarded when we put others first, and punished if we express our own needs. Given this, it is easy to see why so many women struggle with assertiveness.

How being too ‘nice’ costs women money

In an article titled Nice girls don’t ask, the Harvard Business Review explains how a lack of assertiveness when negotiating costs women money.

One study of MBAs found that the starting salary of male MBAs was, on average, 7.6% higher that that of female MBAs. Why? Because while 57% of the men had negotiated their salary, only 7% of the women had done so. 

In another study, subjects were told that they would be observed playing a word game and that they would be paid between $3 and $10 for playing.

After they had completed the task, each participant was thanked and told be the experimenter, “Here’s $3. Is $3 OK?” For many men this was not OK, and they said so. Their requests for more money apparently exceeded the women’s by an incredible nine to one.

This scenario is played out day after day in workplaces and interview rooms as men advocate for themselves and ask for more, while women meekly accept what they are given.

Even when women work for themselves, and set their own rates, they ask for less than men, as this research discovered. OnDeck analysed the hourly rate charged by 9,078 US-based freelancers on Upwork with over 100 billed hours to reveal the gender pay gap in America’s freelancing industry:

How can you learn to become more assertive?

As already mentioned, the good news is that you can learn new ways of communicating that enable you to express yourself more assertively – and negotiate for what you want. Here’s how you can learn to become more assertive in five steps.

1) Understand your communication style

First you need to understand how the different communication styles (aggressive, passive and assertive) work, and recognise which one you are using. It is only by ‘seeing’ how you communicate with others that you can work to change your style in these situations.

2) Unpick the fears that lead to a lack of assertiveness

Next you need to unpick the fears that lead to a lack of assertiveness. Again, you need to understand what these fears are, and recognise the ones that you connect with – and how they are dictating your current communication style. It’s also important to understand your particular triggers in situations.

3) Replace these fears with new personal mantras or rules

I find it helpful here to replace these fears with new personal mantras or rules that can enable you to have more compassion and respect for yourself and others. These liberate you from the restrictions that come with a lack of assertiveness and enable you to put your feelings and wishes on the same level as others.

4) Learn new communication strategies and tools

Having made the psychological shift, you now need new communication strategies and tools you can use to help you advocate for yourself and express your wishes and feelings. Basically, you need to learn how an assertive person acts!

5) Start to use your new, assertive communication techniques

And finally, you need a strategy to help you start to use your new communication techniques. Like any new skill, it will feel strange at first and you need to take baby steps. You don’t suddenly one day feel and act more assertively! But rather you gradually change how you feel, and get used to new ways of relating to people.

What will happen when you become more assertive?

In time this new style will begin to feel more natural, and your confidence will increase. You’ll notice that people treat you differently and you have better relationships. You will find it easier to set and enforce your boundaries with tricky people (some of whom may even fade away, looking for new, less-assertive victims) and you’ll begin to attract nicer people into your life.

You’ll also command more respect at work and in business. People will listen to you more, ask your opinion and respect your boundaries. And you will feel more confident putting yourself forward for opportunities and asking for what you need and want (including money).

As you can see, the rewards of mastering new assertiveness skills are significant – they can even change your life. So how can you start to benefit from them?

How can you master new assertiveness skills?

There’s too much to cover on mastering assertiveness to squeeze into an article. So we have prepared an Assertiveness Masterclass that takes you through the process described above. We also give you an interactive worksheet to guide you through the insights and steps you need to take to master assertiveness skills.

Here’s what we cover in the class:

  • The three main communication styles and how to recognise them in yourself and others
  • The ABC framework and how use it to understand and control your communication triggers and responses
  • The underpinning beliefs of assertiveness and how to start applying them to yourself and others
  • The seven common fears that hold us back and limit our confidence
  • 10 assertiveness strategies you can start using straight away to better advocate for yourself and others
  • A powerful exercise to help you implement what you have learned and start putting it into practice

(For me, assertiveness strategy #1 has been the most transformative and is something I often use today and teach others. This alone is worth the price of the class!)

The class is available to watch right now. Here’s what you get with the Assertiveness Masterclass:

  • A recording of the live class with Q&A
  • Our assertiveness worksheet
  • A copy of the class slides
  • An ebook of the class
  • Lifetime access to all the above

The price of the Assertiveness Masterclass is £50, and just think how much value that offers – it could genuinely change your life, improving your relationships and enabling you to get more of what you want and need, including money.

So if you would like to master new, more assertive communication skills, watch the Assertiveness Masterclass now.