I am not a naturally assertive person. In fact I can at times really struggle with getting my point across. Should I speak up and risk a confrontation? Or should I remain silent? Is this an issue I should let pass or should I be making an issue here? Such thoughts can often go through my mind But I am sure I am not the only person with this issue.

The dilemma of what is appropriately assertive is vividly described in Solomon’s proverbs collected by Hezekiah (715-686 BC).  In the book of Proverbs (chapter 26:4-5) we find the two following sentences next to each other:
“Do not answer a fool according to his folly or you will be like him yourself.”
“Answer a fool according to his folly or he will be wise in his own eyes.”

The surprising thing is that although they are next to each to other, these two sentences are actually saying opposite things. How can that be? Why the apparent contradiction – when some one says something foolish, its best to keep quiet or you too will be foolish like them. Alternatively, when someone says something foolish you had better be assertive and speak up or that person will think he is being sensible. Depending on our personality we are likely to go for one more than the other. But which one is correct and more likely to get the response we require?

It all depends on context. Sometimes when someone says something foolish it is best to remains silent and other times it is very important to assert yourself and challenge. What you need is wisdom to decide what is most appropriate in the context in front of you.

But what do we mean by assertiveness?
I came across the following definition:

  • Standing up for your own rights in such a way that you do not violate another person’s rights.
  • Expressing your needs, wants, opinions, feelings or beliefs in direct, honest and appropriate ways.

Compare this to anger or aggressiveness:

  • Standing up for your own rights in a way that violates the rights of others
  • Ignoring or dismissing the needs, wants, feelings or beliefs of others.
  • Expressing your own needs, wants and opinions in inappropriate ways.

And then there is non-assertive behaviour:

  • Failing to stand up for your rights or doing so in a way that others can easily disregard them.
  • Expressing your needs, wants, opinions, feelings or beliefs in apologetic or self-effacing ways.
  • Failing to express honestly your own needs, wants, beliefs and opinions.

In many ways it is better to think of assertiveness not as something you are , but rather something you do in appropriate circumstances. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. That helps to take away the self-limiting belief “I am not an assertive person” or otherwise. It also helps to ensure that you are having the right attitude and concern for the other person.

At the same time it is important to remember that you are free to be who you are, just the way you are, but your natural style may get you into trouble if it not used flexibly.

An example of appropriate assertiveness that comes to my mind was a specific situation with my wife, Sally. I have to start by telling you that by nature Sally is very easy going and accommodating in her manner and temperament, She tends to be very flexible in taking in the needs and wishes of others. She will go out of her way to be consider the needs of others and be helpful to them.

More than 20 years ago Sally was pregnant with our first child. There was a concern early in the pregnancy that she could be miscarrying. I remember going with her to the doctor to discuss her symptoms. As she explained what she was experiencing, it became clear that the doctor did not want to necessarily do anything further. As far as he was concerned this was no big deal.

For Sally, however, this was about the life of the baby she was carrying inside of her. Suddenly I saw an assertive part of her that I had never seen before. She was clear that she wanted an ultrasound scan and if necessary further investigations – she was going to do everything in her power to protect our baby. Yes she appreciated where the doctor was coming from, but she was also respectfully clear of her perspective and needs. She was appropriately assertive, firmly and decisively expressing her wants and concerns. Needless to say the doctor complied. I was impressed.

Further inspiration on an appropriate level of assertiveness without allowing undue aggression to take over comes from a 2,000 year old letter by James, most probably the brother of Jesus. In the New International Version translation of the original Greek states:

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”

Another translation, “The Message” captures the relevance of this powerfully:

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.

What helps me with this perspective is that it encourages me to reflect on my responses in a thoughtful and considered way, rather than reacting immediately. Maybe there are advantages from not being naturally assertive!

How do you decide what is an appropriate level of assertiveness?