When Kindness Just Doesn’t Work: How To Become More Assertive

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Are you sometimes concerned you might come across as rude by being assertive? Is it challenging for you to communicate directly in social or professional situations? If so, you’re not alone. There can be some situations in which communicating with kindness may not be effective, and this is where assertiveness can sometimes be helpful. 

For example, you may need to be assertive if someone’s safety is at risk, if there is no other way to get your point across, or if someone is unable to grasp reality. Mastering your emotions, making a plan, and choosing your words carefully while maintaining healthy boundaries may help you be more assertive. 

Below, we’ll explore some challenging situations that may call for assertiveness and some tips for increasing your assertiveness.

When you need to stop being kind

Ilona Titova/EyeEm
Learn to embrace assertiveness

Although you may prefer to do everything possible to get along with others, there can be situations in which kindness is simply not effective or helpful—for you or those around you. However, being direct doesn’t necessarily mean you have to communicate in a mean way. There may be times in life when you need to be direct, and failing to do so can have consequences beyond being perceived as mean or rude.

Although being stern, direct, or assertive may not be considered kind, it is generally not the same as being rude. In some cases, it can be the best way to do the right thing for yourself and others.

The following situations may require you to be more direct than usual:

  • When someone's safety is at risk (including your own safety)
  • When someone cannot understand what is being said
  • When someone is unable to grasp reality and may physically, emotionally, or financially harm themselves or others

If someone is at risk, it may be a good idea to speak up and put an end to a dangerous situation. This can include physical and other types of danger. For instance, if a colleague at work is forcing another employee to do something that could jeopardize the person's job, it may be appropriate to speak up. You may need to use your judgment to evaluate circumstances like this, but if you decide to say something, you may need to be direct and assertive.

When someone is at risk

When someone's life or physical well-being is in danger, then you may need to be clear and direct when speaking up. It may be best not to hesitate or worry about being direct if someone could be harmed. Regardless of how your speech is perceived, it can be important to know that you're making the right choice by preventing harm.

Being assertive

Part of being direct may involve knowing how to be assertive. This can be challenging when you're clashing with people you see regularly or people you love. Being kind, however, can have negative consequences in some circumstances, so sometimes you may need to speak up.

For example, when you're in a situation where you must confront coworkers or business partners, you may need to consider your job and the health of the business. When something important is at stake, they may prefer that you speak directly rather than worry about their feelings. You may need to learn to say things like,"I don't think that's in our best interests right now."

You may not know how the other person will respond, but you don’t necessarily have to feel responsible for other people’s reactions. If you develop a habit of communicating directly yet respectfully, you may find that you receive positive responses from people in these situations. However, if they react aggressively, you may need to enforce certain boundaries that you can establish for communication with others.

Setting boundaries

There are many types of boundaries that people may try to manipulate or violate. These include:

  • Physical
  • Mental
  • Sexual
  • Spiritual
  • Temporal
  • Financial

When you notice that a boundary is not being honored, you may need to firmly communicate what's happening. You might assert your rights by informing others when they've done something that's unacceptable. They may not realize the impact of their actions.

Assertiveness can be considered a skill, and you can learn how to affirm your boundaries and communicate in a self-assured way. Sometimes that might mean saying "no" so that you can find an alternative that works for everyone or prevent a situation that might cause harm. For some people, simply saying "no" can be difficult, especially if they're not used to saying it. However, you often have the right to say "no," even when you're unsure why something doesn't feel right for you.

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To make difficult conversations more successful, you might focus on the situation at hand. Many times, a conversation infused with emotion or history can spiral far off-topic when people start generalizing or talking about the past. Highlighting a single concern may prevent either person involved from feeling bombarded. In this case, they may be more likely to hear each other. You might try to be direct about the feelings you're experiencing because of this situation in particular. It may be helpful to make it clear you empathize with them and understand their view, but you don’t have to be dissuaded.

Alternatively, there may be times when your safety is directly threatened, or someone may be purposefully ignoring your boundaries. In these situations, it may not be best to say something that can trigger the other person further. If you're in an abusive relationship, lashing out at the abuser may result in further challenges.* Instead, it may be safer to stay calm and try to find a way out of the abusive situation as quickly as possible without further upsetting the abuser.

Three tools to help you be more assertive

The following tools might help you better handle situations where kindness isn't working. These are basic concepts that may help you be more assertive and communicate clearly.

1. Master your emotions

There can be a line between being assertive and being needlessly aggressive. As much as you want someone to listen to you, it may be necessary to listen to them as well, and it's usually helpful to stay calm. If emotions rise on either side, you might tell the other person you can revisit the topic at a later time. They may agree on a time when you can reconvene. Otherwise, you might determine a time when you will follow up with them.

When a situation gets heated, taking some time apart might work to your advantage. This might give you some time to think clearly. Plus, it can be hard for people to listen if you're upset. If you're particularly frustrated in a conversation and the situation is escalating, it may be best to stop the discussion and find another person to mediate.

2. Make a plan to be assertive

It can sometimes help to take the time to prepare for a conversation or confrontation. Knowing what you will say ahead of time may help you work up the nerve to say it. Having a plan may also allow you to be clear in your requests and make you more likely to stand your ground. This can be a useful practice if you find it difficult to articulate your thoughts or feelings in the moment.

3. Make language work for you

One of the most effective yet subtle things you might do to drive a point home is to choose different words to emphasize your intent. Understanding the power of language can assist you in sending clear messages to the other person so that they better understand what you want. If you can effectively manage your emotions, it may be easier to use controlled language. Working regularly with a therapist may help you learn to control your emotions and express your needs clearly as you navigate day-to-day life.

Therapy may help you become more assertive

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Learn to embrace assertiveness

If you want to learn to be more assertive, it may help to speak with a licensed therapist. However, if you don't have the time to travel to an office for therapy, you may find that online therapy is a better fit for you. With online therapy, you can connect with a licensed therapist from the comfort of your home or anywhere you have a stable internet connection. BetterHelp allows you to participate in therapy sessions via audio or video chat, and you can contact your therapist in between sessions via in-app messaging. 

Takeaway

When you cannot get your point across or when someone’s safety is at risk, assertiveness may be more effective than kindness. You may find that making a plan, managing your emotions, and selecting the words you use while maintaining healthy boundaries can help you communicate assertively. For some people, it can be particularly difficult to be assertive. If that’s the case for you, working with a mental health professional through traditional or online therapy may be helpful. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist who has experience helping people become more assertive. Take the first step and reach out to BetterHelp today.
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