When it comes to getting what you want out of life, one of the most important qualities you can have is assertiveness. The ability to stand up for yourself – politely but firmly – is useful in all sorts of situations at home, at work, and at school.

But what does assertiveness look like in the real world? How do you use assertive communication styles without being rude or inconsiderate? 

Like so many other things in life, assertiveness is a skill, one you can get better at with practice. Here are some examples of assertive communication styles for young people that can help you advocate for yourself and get what you need out of life.

Assertiveness with Authority Figures

One of the most frustrating things about being a teenger is that you’re at the mercy of others – parents, teachers, and bosses. They can control many aspects of your daily life, and you feel helpless as a result.

Becoming an adult doesn’t mean you never have to deal with authority figures again – you’ll still need to deal with those in positions of power over you – but it does mean you have more room to stand your ground.

You’ll need to be assertive in situations like job interviews, for example. Too many people treat a job interview as something you need to beg and scrape for, as if you have to do everything you can to get an employer to like you. But a job interview should be a two-way street, where you find out if you want the job and the employer sees if they think you can do the job.

Let’s look at an example: Alex is 18 and is about to interview for his first job. During the initial meeting, the interviewer is late to meet him, then they sneer at where he went to school. (Maybe it wasn’t prestigious enough?) They then ask Alex questions and seem unimpressed with his answers. When he asks about benefits and pay for the position, the interviewer seems offended that he would ask about money.

Alex doesn’t have to accept that treatment just because he wants a job. It is reasonable for him to expect a potential employer to share information about the job and its benefits, and not to laugh at him or make him feel bad about his qualifications.

To use assertive communication, Alex can know that he may turn this job down. Even if he’s offered the position, he’s seen that this company does not treat its employees well. He doesn’t have to tolerate this behaviour in order to get a job.

Of course, not everyone is always in the position to turn down a job offer. But Alex should keep something important in mind: he has decision making power here, he’s not at the mercy of whoever is seated across from him. He can look for something better.

Communicating with Your Family

Another area where teenagers often experience conflict is over boundaries with their parents. Many parents feel they need to impose restrictions on their children, such as determining where they go, who they see, or how long they may stay out.

It’s reasonable for parents to make these decisions, but it’s also reasonable for them to listen to their teenage children about what they want and find a compromise. We’ve talked before about how to use nonviolent communication to solve conflict with parents, and assertiveness can help here too.

For example: Sarah is 17 and lives at home with her parents. They have a rule that she must be home by 10pm every night, no exceptions. But Sarah wants to go to a concert in the next town over at the weekend, and she won’t be home before 11.

Sarah might be tempted to go to the concert and not tell her parents, then deal with the argument when she comes home late. But a better strategy would be for her to politely but firmly state her wants and needs, and listen to her parents’ concerns, so they can find a compromise.

Perhaps her parents are worried she won’t be safe, so she could tell them exactly where she is going and with who. Or perhaps they think she will fall behind on her school work if she’s out too late, so she could suggest she keeps her 10pm curfew during the week but can stay out later at the weekends.

In this case, assertive communication means standing up for what she wants, but it also means being willing to listen and to compromise. Boundaries should be up for discussion and negotiation in a healthy relationship.

Using Assertive Communication with Friends

An area you might not have thought about is assertiveness with friends. We generally don’t and shouldn’t see our friendships in transactional terms – hopefully, you like your friends and care about them because you appreciate them as people, not because you’re thinking about what you get from them.

However, there are times when we need to be assertive with our friends too. Sometimes a friendship can be unequal, where one person is putting in a lot more effort and care than the other. And while this might be okay for a certain period of time, like supporting a friend when they’re dealing with a tough situation, it shouldn’t be the default state of a friendship. Asserting a boundary can help put such a friendship back into a more reciprocal balance.

Anna is 15 and has been friends with Julie for several years. In this time, she’s often helped Julie with her maths homework, as this is a subject Julie struggles with. But this year, Julie has decided she’s over maths and she’s not interested in putting in any effort whatsoever. So every week, she dumps her maths homework on Anna and expects her to complete it for her.

Anna might feel uncomfortable speaking up about this because she was happy to help Julie in the past. But now, Julie is expecting too much from her. Even if she’s done Julie this favour in the past, she is allowed to reset that boundary now. She can tell Julie she won’t be able to do her homework for her because she has her own work to get done. If she’s generous, she can say that she’s still willing to help Julie, but she won’t do everything herself.

Julie might be upset or unhappy about this. But in the long run, it’s better for their friendship if Anna feels she can speak up when there are unreasonable expectations on her.

Learning to Say ‘No’

It can be challenging to be more assertive, especially if you are used to being polite and accommodating with others. But assertiveness doesn’t mean rudeness, and you can hold fast to what you want while still being polite to others.

I have found it difficult to balance my belief that it’s important to treat others politely with the desire to assert my own boundaries. I don’t like to think of myself as a rude person! And yet, I did want to make sure I was standing up for myself and making my preferences heard. Two phrases I have found very helpful in this are, “I’d rather not” and “That won’t be possible.” Neither of those are rude, but they both clearly express what you are and aren’t willing or interested in doing. 

If you find being assertive is difficult for you, then start off small. Challenge yourself to speak up about what you want in a low-stakes environment. Maybe a friend wants to watch an action movie together but you’d rather watch a comedy. Or maybe your family suggests ordering Chinese take-out but you’d rather have Indian. Find a small way that you can voice your thoughts. 

Even if it doesn’t end up with your preferred outcome, you’ll have gained valuable skills from practising your assertiveness. Skills you can use in every other part of your life, as well.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.

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