Assertiveness is Healthy

Kim, head of sales at a large manufacturing company, was successful, highly intelligent, and driven. Yet, people had started to lose their trust in her. Co-workers were upset that she was chronically late with reviews and feedback they needed, and that she had promised to complete on time.

Why do you think this happens?” I asked her when we met for coaching.

“I just get caught up in my own work,” she said. “And I don’t like to say no when people ask me to deliver, even when I am unhappy that I’ve been asked to do more.”

“I don’t like to say no,” is a common refrain among people who are challenged to be assertive. Kim’s abilities had gotten her far, but she would have a difficult time moving forward in her job if she wasn’t able to state her needs and sometimes say no, or negotiate.

It can be hard to be just the right amount of assertive. If you stand up for yourself in a strong way, you can be pegged as overly-demanding, or unhelpful. Women, especially, can be judged as aggressive for being assertive. But simply going along with what comes your way, without asking for something different even when you know you need to do so creates many problems—for others, and for yourself.

Kim’s behavior was creating tension and confusion for others, and, equally importantly, it caused constant stress for Kim. She didn’t like missing deadlines any more than she liked to say no.

Assertiveness is a coping skill, and an important part of managing stress. It’s important for mental health as well as for good relationships. According to the Mayo Clinic, passive behavior, in which we allow ourselves to simply go along with whatever comes our way, can lead to an internal conflict. We know we want something different—in fact, in Kim’s case, we know we will probably do something different—but we aren’t expressing the truth.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the internal conflict created by passive behavior can lead to the following symptoms:

  • Stress
  • Resentment
  • Seething anger
  • Feelings of victimization
  • Desire to exact revenge

Kim was feeling nearly all of these symptoms.

Working with Kim, we talked about how to bring what she already knew about herself to her conversations with her co-workers. What was her style? Did she lack assertiveness in other areas? What were respectful ways she could request a few extra days when she was asked to fulfill a task under a too-short timeline? Would she pay attention to how that felt for her in the moment, and over the long-term?

Assertiveness, delivered thoughtfully, can reduce stress and strengthen connections with others. It can earn you respect and allow you to live with honesty. If you feel this is an area where you are challenged, I strongly recommend seeking out tips or coaching to learn effective assertiveness techniques.

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