There are few words that I hear misused more than the word “assertive.”

Everyone has an idea about what they think it means, but I have seen that many people actually know only half of the definition.

That missing half makes a huge difference.

Pause for a moment here and think about what “assertive” means to you. Come up with your own definition.

Did your definition describe standing up for yourself? Speaking your mind? Telling people how you feel or what you think? If so, you got it mostly right. This is the aspect of assertiveness which most people are familiar with.

Now let’s talk about the other half. In some ways, it’s the most important half. So, enough build-up, here’s the true, full definition.

Assertiveness: Speaking up for yourself  — in a way that the other person can hear.

These two aspects of assertiveness, and how they work together, are what make assertiveness a skill which must be learned, rather than a natural ability. Most people have a hard time with the first half or the second half, and many struggle with both. Also, our ability to be assertive varies with the situation, the people involved, and the amount of emotion that we are feeling at the time.

Most people err in one of two primary ways when they try to be assertive: they come across too weakly, making it too easy for the other party to discount their message; or they come across too strongly, so that the other party becomes too hurt or too defensive to listen. Once the recipient’s defenses rise, your message will be lost.

No one struggles more with assertiveness than those who grew up in households where emotions were ignored (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN). These emotionally neglectful families do not have the vital skills required for assertiveness because they do not understand emotions, or how they work. They do not know the Five Skills of Assertiveness, so they are not able to teach them to their children.

If you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family, it’s important to acknowledge that you struggle with these skills for a reason. And it is not your fault.

In a minute we will talk about how you can learn the skills, but first lets consider the skills themselves.

The 5 Skills of Assertiveness

  1. Being aware of what you are feeling in the middle of a difficult, possibly intense situation
  2. Trusting that your feelings and ideas are valid and worthy of expression
  3. Managing your feelings, possibly hurt or anger combined with an endless possible number of other feelings, and putting them into words
  4. Understanding the other person or people involved, imagining how it’s likely they feel, and why
  5. Taking into account the situation and setting

When you put these five skills together, you are able to say what you need to say in a way that is appropriate to the setting, situation, and people involved (not too strongly or weakly), so that the recipients can process your message without their defenses being ignited. Keep in mind that talking to a defensive person is like talking to an inanimate object. Your message will not get through.

You can see from these steps why assertiveness requires not just skill, but a constellation of skills. This is why if it’s hard for you, you are not alone.

The good news is that it is entirely possible to build your assertiveness skills. If you keep all five skills in mind, you can work on building them. Follow these special suggestions to learn these vital skills.

4 Ways to Build Your Assertiveness Skills

  • Pay more attention to your feelings all the time.
  • Make friends with your emotions. When you value your feelings, they will become your most valuable life tool. They will tell you when you need to speak up or take a stand. They will motivate and energize you when you need it the most.
  • Begin to build your emotion management skills. For example, increase your emotion vocabulary, and try to use those words more often in your daily life.
  • Take every opportunity to stand up for yourself, as best you can. If you miss a chance, review it afterward to determine what you wish you had done. The more often you do this, the more you will learn, and the easier assertiveness will become for you.

Growing up in an emotionally neglectful family leaves you struggling with many emotion skills that other people take for granted. To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.