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What you do with your legs and arms during an assertive conversation is extremely important. If you are trying to assert your needs but have your arms crossed, legs crossed, and feet pointing towards the door, it will be pretty obvious to your conversation partner that you are not having a good time and desperate for an escape! Standing with your feet pointing in the general direction of the person you’re talking to lets them know you are invested in the conversation and not in a hurry to go somewhere else.
Keeping your legs and arms uncrossed shows the other person that you are open to the conversation. Context is important when noticing other people’s arm and leg positions, as someone who has their arms folded could be angry and shut down, or they could be cold. Standing with legs further apart is seen as more dominant, as it increases the amount of space you take up. As a general rule, anything that increases the amount of space you take up will be seen as more dominant.
If you are trying to move from aggression to assertiveness, be careful about taking up too much space, as this might be construed as aggression. However, if you are trying to move from passivity to assertiveness, standing with your legs further apart and taking up more space can help to increase your confidence and boost your assertiveness.
Body positioning during a conversation influences how we perceive the conversation. Typically humans only stand directly facing each other during intimate or hostile conversations; we usually stand angled slightly away from each other which is perceived as less aggressive.
This is something you will want to keep in mind as well when you are approaching someone about having an assertive conversation, as if they are talking with someone else and do not turn toward you to include you when you approach, this is a solid signal that now is not the time to bring up what you wanted to talk about. If you are having an assertive conversation with someone and they gradually begin pointing their body further and further away from you, it is a sure sign that they are having trouble receiving your message and you might want to fall back to empathetic listening or try to have the conversation at another time.
Mirroring is a technique you can use when communicating to show that you are in agreement with what the speaker is saying. It is something that we as humans do unconsciously at times; we are wired to mirror each other. You can see this in the delight a baby gets from seeing the adults in their life mirror their facial expressions. Mirroring tells the other person that we see them, we recognize the feelings they are having, and we are engaged with them. A psychologist named Edward Tronick has demonstrated how distressing it is not to have our emotions mirrored in his famous “Still Face Experiment.” Mothers are brought in with their babies and instructed to maintain a ‘still face’ without any expression and to not respond to the babies for a few minutes – regardless of the expressions the babies make. The babies quickly become very distressed and upset at the lack of mirroring. Though the adults in your life that you are working on being assertive towards are unlikely to dissolve in tears without mirroring, they will likely feel uncomfortable and tense. Mirroring helps to put people at ease and make them more agreeable to what you have to say, which can help you to get your needs met. It is especially important if you are practicing empathetic listening; mirroring the facial expression, body posture, and voice pitch of someone you are listening to is a solid strategy.
A caveat regarding non-verbal assertiveness: it is important to remember that different cultures may interpret the same non-verbal signals in different ways. For example, ‘thumbs-up’ has a positive connotation in the United States, but a different meaning in some other countries. The culture we come from also dictates things like what is appropriate personal space. In some cultures, a wide berth is respectful; in others, being closer is appropriate. Whatever culture you are working on being assertive in, it would be worthwhile to spend some time discovering if there are any non-verbal nuances that you need to be aware of. Doing so can save you some hassle or misunderstanding in the future.
It is not just your voice, your body, and your gestures that are important to non-verbal communication – the context of the communication makes a major difference in how it is received. Trying to make an assertive request of your supervisor in front of twenty other people might be viewed as aggressive or confrontational; the same request in private might be duly considered. Generally, people are more responsive to assertive communication when it is in private. An exception to this rule would be if you’re dealing with someone who tends to be aggressive but might not show this in front of others, in which case making an assertive request with others around might be helpful – but they may renege in private later. People feel more comfortable and at ease on their home turf, so they will be more likely to respond favorably to your assertiveness in their own office or their own home. In addition to location and interpersonal context, the other person’s mental and physical state needs to be considered when deciding when you might want to make an assertive request of someone. Anyone who is hungry, angry, lonely, or tired is not going to respond favorably – try again later. Someone under a great deal of stress will respond equally poorly. Use your judgment – there may be times you need to assertively stand up for yourself regardless of the other person’s state. If the other person is verbally abusing you, use assertiveness and the techniques in the next section regardless of how they are feeling.
Clothing and appearance can have an impact as well on how you are perceived when you are using your new assertiveness skills. You are probably more likely to get a positive result when making an assertive request in your work clothes than in a swimsuit. Keeping up with your hygiene regularly, wearing clothing that is appropriate for the situation and well-maintained, and keeping your hair, make-up, or facial hair neat and groomed will also contribute to others taking you seriously. Besides that these factors are important (especially in a professional setting), poor hygiene or distracting clothing could sidetrack the person from the assertive conversation you are trying to have and lead to a focus on your appearance instead.
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