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Assertiveness

Authors:
A
Assertiveness
Tessa Pfafman
Humanities and Communication Division, Lake
Land College, Mattoon, IL, USA
Synonyms
Candid;Expressive;Forthright;Straightforward
Definition
Assertiveness involves appropriately expressing
ideas, feelings, and boundaries while respecting
others 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 per-
sonal and/or instrumental goals.
Foundations of Assertiveness
Popular perceptions and actual assertiveness dif-
fer in kind and in degree (Ames 2009). Even
though psychology has consistently maintained
that assertiveness respects mutual rights and fos-
ters positive affect, everyday perceptions of asser-
tiveness tend to include even aggressive and
relationship damaging expressions. Where asser-
tiveness creates positive affect in the receiver,
aggression is hostile, shows little respect for the
other, and fails to consider potential consequences
of the action. Where assertive personalities have
high affection, inclusion, and pleasure motives,
aggressives have high control motives and tend
to use force to dominate, control, defeat, or dam-
age anothers self-concept (Anderson and Martin
1995). Because everyday perceptions and even
popular writing routinely confuse aggression
with assertion, laypeople often identify assertive-
ness differently than experts. Everyday percep-
tions rarely, if ever, recognize statements such as
I like youas an assertive expression.
Similarly, a consistent and precise denition of
assertiveness remains one of the challenges in
assertiveness research. In fact, St. Lawrence
(1987) identied at least 20 distinctly different
denitions regularly used in research and asser-
tiveness training. Even minor differences in how
researchers operationalize the concept have mean-
ingful impacts on how assertiveness is identied,
evaluated, and judged and consequently produces
inconsistent or even contradictory study results.
There is general consensus regarding two gen-
eral categories of assertiveness. Positive assertive-
ness includes admitting personal shortcomings,
giving and receiving compliments, initiating and
maintaining interactions, and expressing positive
feelings. Negative assertiveness includes
expressing unpopular or different opinions,
requesting behavior changes, and refusing unrea-
sonable requests. Negative assertions have
#Springer International Publishing AG 2017
V. Zeigler-Hill, T.K. Shackelford (eds.), Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1044-1
become known as the conict classes and are the
most frequently studied (Rakos 1991).
Historically, assertiveness was framed as vital
to personal and relational well-being. Systematic
study of assertiveness began in the late1940s and
1950s when psychologists theorized some mental
illness might be caused by uncertainty
(nonassertiveness) and resistance or inability to
express ideas and feelings openly. Consequently,
nonassertiveness was associated with anxiety and
shyness. Individuals scoring low on assertiveness
scales were generally more anxious and quiet;
individuals scoring high on assertiveness were
more talkative, precise, and remembered by others
(Norton and Warnick 1976), so early assertiveness
training simply encouraged patients to talk more
in an effort to increase condence and self-
acceptance.
However, assertiveness is also about social
competence. Wolpe (1954) warned that assertive-
ness training for nonassertive patience was only
appropriate when nonassertiveness was maladap-
tive. Later, Lazarus (1971) pointed out that open
expression of any idea or feeling in any situation
is also maladaptive and potentially aggressive.
His research and practice included training
aggressive patients to use assertiveness.
In the 1960s and 1970s, individual rights
movements in the United States began to link
assertive expression to defense of individual
rights. Assertiveness training moved out of the
psychotherapistsofce and into the mainstream.
Around the same time, Norton and Warnick
(1976) successfully dened assertiveness as a
communication construct so that assertiveness
research moved beyond psychologys disciplinary
domain as communication scholars began explor-
ing nonassertiveness in association with commu-
nication apprehension. This shift in focus also
altered the intention of assertiveness training.
Where previously the goal of training was con-
dence and self-acceptance, training and research
now pursued assertiveness as a means to achiev-
ing instrumental goals.
Nature of Assertiveness
One approach to understanding the nature of
assertiveness is as a personality trait and commu-
nication style. From this perspective, personality
and cognitive processing combine to produce a
communication style, dened as a learned predis-
position to respond to certain cues in patterned
ways. Much assertiveness research characterizes
it as a style, which enables scholars to succinctly
classify assertiveness behaviors.
After a thorough review of literature, Rakos
(1991) identied three antecedent obligations
distinguishing assertive individuals:
(a) determining rights of all participants,
(b) developing responses that persuade but do
not judge or evaluate the others self-worth, and
(c) considering potential negative consequences
of assertion. He also identied assertive attitudes
as (a) openness in close personal relationships;
(b) willingness to volunteer opinions, question,
and confront stressful situations without fear;
(c) willingness to be contentious by standing up
for self in close personal relationships; and
(d) willingness to give neutral but denitive
responses in impersonal situations. Lazarus
(1971) described assertive personality traits as
the ability to talk openly, say no, and establish
contact with others through social interaction. In
addition, he reasoned nonassertiveness and
aggressiveness were the products of faulty cogni-
tive reasoning and erroneous conclusions, so
assertiveness training incorporated various per-
ception checking techniques.
A conict style approach views assertiveness
as ones relatively stable orientation toward con-
ict. Early conict style research identied ve
conict behaviors determined by two independent
dimensions. The assertiveness dimension rate
behaviors intended to satisfy self-interests, and
the cooperation dimension rate behaviors
intended to satisfy interests of the other.
A competing conict style is a highly controlling
or domineering orientation. These behaviors are
high in assertiveness and low in cooperation. An
accommodating conict style is the least likely to
satisfy the speakers interests. It is low in asser-
tiveness and high in cooperation. The avoiding
2 Assertiveness
style often signals disengagement. It is low in both
assertiveness and cooperation. Collaborating pro-
duces the most satisfying outcomes for both
parties. It is high both in assertiveness and coop-
eration. Compromising has moderate amounts of
both collaboration and assertiveness. It tends to
produce outcomes that are only partially satisfy-
ing to both parties. However, no single style is
considered always appropriate.
Similarly, Infante and Wigley (1986) argued
aggressiveness is the learned predisposition to
use personal attacks in conict situations. They
make a clear distinction between aggression and
argument where argument is the defense of a
position toward an issue including attacks against
opposing positions toward the issue. Aggression,
on the other hand, is a personal attack against the
others self-concept. Individuals are either moti-
vated to engage in argument situations or avoid
argument situations. People who are motivated to
engage are considered high in argumentativeness,
nd argument intellectually challenging and thus
exciting, and derive excitement and satisfaction
from the argument experience. Individuals moti-
vated to avoid argument situations are low in
argumentativeness, nd argument uncomfortable
and unsettling, and tend to lack the skills neces-
sary to be successful in argument situations. Stud-
ies nd that individuals low in argumentativeness
are more likely to use personal attacks against
self-concept (aggressiveness) where individuals
high in argumentativeness more likely to use
assertiveness.
An alternative approach to assertiveness high-
lights situational factors as opposed to personality
traits. Since assertiveness must be perceived by
the receiver as appropriate, any expression violat-
ing cultural, contextual, or relational norms would
be considered aggressive. Furnham (1979)
explored the social and cultural inuences on
assertiveness arguing assertiveness is a speci-
cally Western concept since expressions encour-
aged and valued in the West would not be
encouraged or even tolerated in other cultures.
He documented cultural differences in self-reports
of assertiveness across three different cultural
groups in South Africa and explained these dif-
ferences as variance along collectivist/
individualist orientations with collectivist cultures
being lower in assertiveness than individualist
cultures.
Likewise, Florian and Zernitsky-Shurka
(1987) looked at cultural afliations and level of
discomfort with assertive acts. Comparing Arab
Israeli and Jewish Israeli students revealed Jewish
women were highest in self-reports of assertive-
ness and more assertive than Jewish or Arab men.
Arab women were lowest in self-reports of asser-
tiveness. Arab men and Jewish men were in the
middle with Arab men reporting higher assertive-
ness than Jewish men. The authors concluded
cultural afliation was more meaningful than gen-
der is inuencing reports of assertiveness.
Regional differences also impact assertiveness.
Sigler et al. (2008) compared students raised and
attending school in the upper Midwestern United
States to students raised and attending school in
New York Metropolitan areas. They found signif-
icant difference in assertiveness across the two
regions but no signicant differences within
regions and no interaction between sex and
region. Their ndings suggest assertiveness is
learned and shaped by environment.
Other research indicates situation and expecta-
tions are also relevant to determining socially
appropriate expression. Pfafman and McEwan
(2014) found women strategically modied how
they asserted at work according to their goals, the
situation, and the relationship between interac-
tants. Because assertiveness is context and culture
bound, scholars and practitioners should use cau-
tion in assuming nonassertiveness is decient.
Instead, nonassertiveness can be socially
competent.
Performing Assertiveness
Assertive behaviors include making requests;
refusing unwanted or unreasonable requests;
expressing ones personal rights, positive and
negative feelings, or positive and negative ideas;
and initiating, maintaining, or disengaging from
conversation. Each of these expressions can be
performed using standard assertion, assertion
plus elaboration, or empathic assertion. Standard
Assertiveness 3
assertion is an expression of rights without elabo-
ration or explanation. It is judged as (a) equally
potent and more desirable than aggression, (b) less
likable than nonassertiveness, (c) more socially
competent than nonassertiveness, (d) less likable
and more unpleasant than everyday non-conict
conversation, and (e) more unpleasant than
expression of positive feeling (Rakos 1991).
Expression plus elaboration is more responsive
to cultural, social, and relational norms than stan-
dard assertion. Elaborations can include a short
explanation, acknowledgment of the others situ-
ation, compromises or alternatives, praise, or
apologies. This type of assertion is generally
judged as effective and more socially competent
than standard assertion.
Empathic assertion pays particular attention to
relationship health. Empathic assertions include a
brief and honest explanation, acknowledgment
and expression of the others rights, praise or
positive comment, apology for inconvenience or
disappointment, and an attempt to achieve a mutu-
ally acceptable compromise. Empathic assertion
is always necessary in enduring relationships but
might be less important in temporary relationships
(such as interacting with a sales clerk). This
approach is always preferred and recommended
by practitioners.
From a communication perspective, assertive-
ness should be performed with politeness. Polite-
ness is a socially and contextually negotiated
subset of appropriateness determined by the inter-
play between identity, context, and relationship
(Jenkins and Dragojevic 2011). It enables people
to make requests that are less infringing on the
other or express negative ideas while maintaining
a positive relationship (Brown and Levinson
1987). Because assertiveness can intrude on
othersrights to pursue their own goals, it can
also pose a face threat, dened as a challenge to
ones chosen image (Goffman 1967). Even minor
face threats (such as asking for a le) can threaten
the others chosen image or damage the relation-
ship. Politeness speech strategies mitigate these
face threats. Negative face threats are behaviors
that impede the receivers actions or cause the
receiver to feel imposed upon. Negative polite-
ness strategies mitigate the threat by using indirect
statements, tag questions (shortened questions at
the end of declarative statements), or hedges
(qualications of utterances) (Lakoff 1975). Pos-
itive face threats are challenges to ones self-
esteem, or ability to be liked, admired, or viewed
positively. Positive politeness strategies include
paying attention to the relationship and expressing
interest and concern for the other. Skillful asser-
tion includes politeness (Smith 1985).
Assertiveness Research
Most research on assertiveness analyzes self-
reported data collected with one of many different
assertiveness measures. There are at least 30 dis-
tinctly different self-report scales widely used to
measure and assess assertiveness. The Wolpe-
Lazarus Assertiveness Schedule (WLAS) (Wolpe
and Lazarus 1966) is one of the earliest assess-
ment instruments developed for therapists to
assess clients and determine the potential useful-
ness of assertiveness training. However, Rakos
(1991) and others report the WLAS, like most
popular assertiveness instruments, lacks sufcient
validity and reliability support. The few instru-
ments that do have a degree of psychometric
support are the Rathus Assertiveness Schedule
(RAS) (Rathus 1973), the College Self-
Expression Scale (CSES; Galassi et al. 1974),
and the Conict Resolution Inventory (CRI;
McFall and Lillesand 1971). Many scholars cau-
tion that even these instruments with enough data
to support their use do not sample the same behav-
iors or situations, so there are low correlations
across instruments. The problem with assertive-
ness assessment measures makes drawing consis-
tent conclusion across studies difcult at best.
There are fewer behavioral measures for cod-
ing assertiveness. A couple of the more popular
measures include the Behavioral Assertiveness
Test Revised (BAT-R) developed by Eisler
et al. (1975) and the Assertive Interaction Coding
System developed by Weeks and Lefebvre
(1982). Differences in instruments and precisely
what they measure might explain some of the
contradictory ndings in assertiveness research.
4 Assertiveness
Interpersonal Research
Interpersonal, organizational, and identity differ-
ences research are a few areas where scholars are
especially interested in assertiveness. Assertive-
ness is an important component of personal and
professional interpersonal interactions. It is con-
sidered the most constructive communication in
interpersonal relationships and is a vital compo-
nent of interpersonal communication competence.
Interpersonal scholars link assertiveness to rela-
tionship development and maintenance, sexual
communication, expression of desire, dating
behavior, abusive relationships, relational inti-
macy, marriage, friendship, parenting, and doc-
tor/patient communication.
Conict is one of the most studied areas of
assertiveness in interpersonal interactions. If,
when, and how one asserts ideas and feelings
has a meaningful impact on trajectory and impact
of the conict. There are numerous instruments
designed to measure conict styles. Research in
this area has explored strategies and tactics in
relation to conict orientation. In conict, asser-
tiveness is not hostile and enhances relational
satisfaction. Some conict research considers
conict engagement according to power and con-
trol tactics. Aggressive tactics are those perceived
negatively by the receiver. Assertive strategies
also attempt to exert control, but the receiver
perceives the tactics as more socially appropriate.
Submissive tactics are nonassertive. Conict
research explores assertiveness in both personal
and professional relationships.
Organizational Research
In the 1980s, assertiveness was linked to self-
improvement at work, and work-related assertive-
ness training became especially popular. Unlike
psychology, which associates assertiveness train-
ing with self-condence and self-actualization,
organizational assertiveness is more instrumental
goal achievement. The nature and quality of inter-
actions at work have a meaningful impact on
satisfaction, motivation, and productivity. Man-
agers were found to be more willing to assert
than subordinates (Sullivan et al. 1990). Managers
perceived as having too little or too much asser-
tiveness can be viewed as less effective leaders
(Ames and Flynn 2007), and their assertiveness
training tends to focus on improving listening and
feedback skills. A subordinates message delivery
style affects the supervisors willingness to grant
requests and inuences perceptions of the
speakers reputation (Foste and Botero 2012).
Standard assertions at work have been linked to
perception of manipulation, coercion, and aggres-
sion and demonstrating lack of respect for the
other in upward communication. Assertiveness is
also explored in relation to perceptions of compe-
tence, leadership, decision making, employment
interviews, superior-subordinate relationships,
upward communication, information ow, nego-
tiation, feedback, and responses to criticism.
Dissent is a subset of assertiveness that is crit-
ically upward expression of feedback character-
ized by contradictory opinion or disagreement
(Kassing 1997). Research shows dissent enhances
organizational decision making and members
sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, commit-
ment, and engagement. However, individuals
only have an ability to act within organizationally
controlled constraints, which is exerted by limit-
ing and shaping the channels of dissent. Organi-
zational power and politics can make dissent risky
for members. Research on organizational dissent
explores responses to dissent, leadership ability,
how dissent impacts public image and promotion,
and the role of power and status on willingness to
dissent.
Identity Differences
Research indicates assertiveness varies according
to sociopolitical factors such as social status, age,
and gender. Social identity determines percep-
tions of social appropriateness. In fact, numerous
studies explore the relationship between gender
and assertiveness, often with contradictory nd-
ings. Some studies argue men are more assertive
or more frequently assertive than women. Other
studies argue women are differently assertive than
men (Pfafman and McEwan 2014). Some studies
conclude women are evaluated more negatively
than men when using assertive messages. Other
studies nd no signicant difference in evalua-
tions of men and women using assertive mes-
sages. However, other studies nd gender
Assertiveness 5
inuences overall valuation of assertiveness
(Crawford 1988). Self-advocating women tend
to suffer more backlash and negative evaluation
(Amanatullah and Tinsley 2013). Assertive
women at work experience greater resistance and
harsher performance evaluations and are more
likely to be sabotaged (Rudman and Fairchild
2004). Women initiating salary negotiations also
receive more negative evaluations than men initi-
ating salary negotiations regardless of whether
they used empathic or standard assertion
(Bowles et al. 2005).
Consistency in dening and operationalizing
assertiveness remains a problem in assertiveness
research and might explain some of the contradic-
tory gender ndings. Specically, the majority of
research denes assertive expressions generally as
direct, specic, and respectful with directness
operationalized as avoiding blatant lies, subtle
dishonesty, and exaggerated excuses (Rakos
1991). However, some studies have conceptual-
ized directness as blunt or without softeners asso-
ciated with politeness. In these instances, positive
politeness strategies are perceived as the speakers
lack of independence or condence and negative
politeness strategies perceived as deferential and
powerless. It is possible studies conceptualizing
politeness and assertiveness as mutually exclusive
also misidentify some aggressive behaviors as
assertive and misidentify assertive but polite
behaviors as nonassertive.
Conclusion
Assertiveness is a well-established area of
research across several disciplines. There are
comprehensive bodies of literature on assertive-
ness in education, conict, and behavior modi-
cation. There is a growing body of assertiveness
research in health care, sports, and organizational
studies. However, there are many discrepancies
across study ndings, which makes it difcult to
draw meaningful conclusion about assertiveness.
The numerous contradictory ndings, particularly
in the gender research area, are likely a product of
inconsistencies in denition and measurement
tools. Much work remains to be done toward
dening and operationalizing assertiveness con-
sistently. Also, while there is abundant literature
on perceptions of assertiveness, there remains a
shortage of studies exploring actual assertiveness.
Growth in this area would be a valuable addition
to the assertiveness literature.
Cross-References
Culture, Collectivist Cultures
Empathy
Expectancy
Identity
Individualistic Cultures
Personality Traits
Positive Affect
Prosocial Behavior
Self Concept
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Selected Publications
Pfafman, T. (2010). Activating the spirit of work: Business
advice books and the use of pastoral power to manage
employees. Iowa Journal of Communication, 42,
151174.
Pfafman, T., & Bochantin, J. (2012). Negotiating power
paradoxes: Contradictions in womens constructions of
organizational power. Communication Studies, 63,5.
Pfafman, T. M., & McEwan, B. (2014). Polite women at
work: Negotiating professional identity through strate-
gic assertiveness. Womens Studies in Communication,
37(2), 202219.
Pfafman, T. M., Carpenter, C. J., & Tang, Y. (2015). The
politics of racism: Constructions of African immigrants
in China on ChinaSMACK. Communication, Culture
& Critique. doi:10.1111/cccr.12098.
Tessa Pfafman is a communication professor who stud-
ies organizational communication and power. She has a
particular research interest in marginalized groups and
social inequalities. Pfafman is a faculty member at Lake
Land College where she teaches prisoners incarcerated
with the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Prior to working with prisoners, Dr. Pfafman was a faculty
member for 9 years at Western Illinois University in
Macomb, IL, where she taught organizational communica-
tion, conict, gender, and qualitative research methods.
She has also taught public relations and public relations
writing courses for Monmouth College in Monmouth, IL.
She earned a BA in English and Communication from
Purdue University in1994, an MA in communication
from Purdue University Fort Wayne in 1998, and a PhD
in communication from University of Missouri in 2007.
Assertiveness 7
... In previous work [9], assertive robot conflict resolution strategies were developed based on the following assumptions: (a) goal-conflict resolution with a robot might be comparable to negotiating with a fellow person [9] based on the Media Equation [16], (b) knowledge from social psychology about polite and effective human conflict resolution and request-making can be transferred to develop robot strategies [9], (c) various strategies and techniques are applied by human negotiators that can range from polite to persuasive to assertive [17][18][19]. ...
... 2.4 Request Elements and their Application in HRI). However, human communication, especially negotiation, is an intricate sequence of different expressions and tactics that can be combined into different strategies [17,18]. These strategies are then used adaptively and strategically to assert the negotiators interests while simultaneously avoiding being impolite [19,26,27]. ...
... Therefore, in human interactions, requests that follow specific politeness norms are more likely to be accepted and obeyed [48,49]. Especially, an assertive request which constitutes a substantial face threat to the other person (even more so if it comes from a robot) is recommended to be preceded by politeness strategies during negotiations [18]. Humans also expect robots to adhere to human politeness norms and are disappointed if robots violate them [22,50,51]. ...
Article
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As domestic service robots become more prevalent and act autonomously, conflicts of interest between humans and robots become more likely. Hereby, the robot shall be able to negotiate with humans effectively and appropriately to fulfill its tasks. One promising approach could be the imitation of human conflict resolution behaviour and the use of persuasive requests. The presented study complements previous work by investigating combinations of assertive and polite request elements (appeal, showing benefit, command), which have been found to be effective in HRI. The conflict resolution strategies each contained two types of requests, the order of which was varied to either mimic or contradict human conflict resolution behaviour. The strategies were also adapted to the users’ compliance behaviour. If the participant complied after the first request, no second request was issued. In a virtual reality experiment ( $$N = 57$$ N = 57 ) with two trials, six different strategies were evaluated regarding user compliance, robot acceptance, trust, and fear and compared to a control condition featuring no request elements. The experiment featured a human-robot goal conflict scenario concerning household tasks at home. The results show that in trial 1, strategies reflecting human politeness and conflict resolution norms were more accepted, polite, and trustworthier than strategies entailing a command. No differences were found for trial 2. Overall, compliance rates were comparable to human-human-requests. Compliance rates did not differ between strategies. The contribution is twofold: presenting an experimental paradigm to investigate a human-robot conflict scenario and providing a first step to developing acceptable robot conflict resolution strategies based on human behaviour.
... Popular perceptions and actual claims vary in type and degree (6,7). Although psychology has consistently emphasized that dignity maintains the mutual rights and has a positive impact on behavior, everyday notions of assertiveness tend to express aggressive expressions and even angular relationships (8). A person with a proper level of selfassertiveness cannot be stopped by the fear of blame or public embarrassment and does not easily abandon their incontrovertible rights. ...
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